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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2011
Still Procrastinating: One Researcher's Journey Seeking the Causes & Consequences of Chronic Procrastination
Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

In Lewis Carroll’sAlice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit runs and runs, looking at his watch, saying "oh my, I’m late.” He runs, but never seems to reach his goal. Was it a problem of poor time management? Perhaps, time management classes or a life coach would teach the White Rabbit to schedule things effectively. However, was the White Rabbit late in his private life as well as in his professional duties for the Royal Court of the Queen of Hearts. Was he also late showing up for croquet events, or miss them altogether because he never purchased his ticket? Was he known by his family and friends as someone who missed deadlines, or worked on tasks at the last minute just before things were due?

If the White Rabbit met all his life situations frequently and persistently intending to delay the start or finish of tasks, then social-personality psychologists label him a chronic procrastinator.Chronic procrastination is as a needless, irrational delay of a relevant and timely task.

Clearly, everyone procrastinates on occasion. We may delay doing something we don’t find pleasant or that we feel forced by others to do (a form of mini-rebellion against authority). But, such delays do not make you a chronic procrastinator. The chronic procrastinator, in contrast, accepts delay as a maladaptive way of life across a variety of settings. Chronic procrastinators delay at home, school, work, in relationships with family and friends, in how they decide to do (or not do) tasks (see Ferrari, 2010). It is their way of life. If a person does not RSVP to invites, misses concerts or sporting events because he or she never bought the ticket, always shows up late for appointments, doesn’t put gas into the car until the gauge reads ‘empty,’ has food spoil because of not getting around to eating it—to name a few examples—then that person is a chronic procrastinator.

It should be noted that 20% of women and men of North (US and Canada) and South America (Peru and Venezuela), European (England, Spain, Italy, and Austria), and Middle Eastern (Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) citizens are chronic procrastinators. Keep in mind, this rate is higher than depression or phobias yet do not receive the professional attention these other psychological problems receive. This rate is consistent regardless of race or age among 20 to 60 year olds (Ferrari, O’Callahan, & Newbegin, 2005; Ferrari, Díaz-Morales, O’Callaghan, Díaz, & Argumedo, 2007; Ferrari, Özer, & Demir, 2009). That’s high— that’s cause for concern.

Chronic procrastination is related to a host of personality traits including low states of self-confidence and self-esteem and high states of depression, neurosis, self-awareness, social anxiety, forgetfulness, disorganization, noncompetitiveness, dysfunctional impulsivity, behavioral rigidity, and lack of energy (e.g., Beswick, Rothblum, & Mann, 1988; Ferrari, 2004; Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995; Ferrari & Pychyl, 2000; Senecal, Koestner, & Vallerand, 1995). Reviews of the literature suggest that within the framework of the Big-Five personality model, procrastination is related to low conscientiousness, as well as low self-esteem and self-efficacy (McCrea, Liberman, Trope, & Sherman, 2008; van Eerde, 2003; 2004).

People who report frequent, chronic procrastination engage in self-sabotaging behaviors (Ferrari, 1991; Ferrari & Tice, 2000), fraudulent excuse making (Ferrari, Keane, Wolfe, & Beck, 1998), poor self-regulation of their performance skills within limited time frames (Ferrari, 2001a), and attribute task delays to factors other than their own performance (Ferrari et al., 1995). Although different motives have been identified for procrastination (Ferrari & Díaz-Morales, 2007), fear of failure may be a primary motive for procrastination (Solomon & Rothblum, 1984), and people report they delay more on tasks they perceive as unpleasant, boring, or difficult (Milgram, Sroff , & Rosenbaum, 1988). In short, procrastination is complex, relating to a variety of different personality variables and involving more than ineffective time management (cf., Ferrari et al., 1995; 2010; Steele, 2007).

Academic Procrastination: The Same as Chronic Procrastination?
Academic procrastination
is the tendency to delay a specific set of behaviors or tasks related to school settings—like studying, writing a paper, registering, meeting an advisor (Ferrari et al. 1995; Schowenburg, Lay, Pychyl, & Ferrari, 2004). Data shows that 75% of college students engage in academic procrastination. But then, why does procrastination drop from 75 to 20% in studies focused on college students and everyday adults, respectively? Does this mean as we grow older we procrastinate less often? No, not at all! Chronic and academic procrastination are two different, related but separate tendencies. While everyone procrastinates, but as noted above, not everyone is a CHRONIC procrastinator.

For instance, college students might delay studying, reading, and writing, but if there is a free concert in the dorm for the hottest hip-hop artist, they will be there; if there is free pizza for the first 50 folks who show up on campus, they will be there. See, we all put off a task or two that we don’t care for, that might be difficult or boring. But if you put off only specific tasks (reading textbooks, responding to email, or cutting the lawn) then you are not a procrastinator—you just procrastinate on some tasks.

But students who delay academic tasks may also carry delaying over to their personal life (those 20% of folks)—they may be chronic procrastinators. This frequent, habitual pattern creates a maladaptive, dysfunctional lifestyle in which a person is unable to self-regulate effectively (Senecal et al., 1995). Within those 75% of college students who delay academic tasks, 20% are chronic procrastinators.

The Thrill of Beating the Clock
A common misattribution by chronic procrastinators is a belief that they "work best under [time] pressure.” Several years ago in our DePaul lab we found that they don’t do well (Ferrari, 2001a). Compared to nonprocrastinators, chronic procrastinators in two lab experiments were unable to regulate their speed and accuracy. They took longer to engage in experimental tasks and they created more errors, compared to nonprocrastinators. However, chronic procrastinators believed they did well. Therefore, it is a myth to say that working at the last minute "gets my juices flowing.” Claiming they need to stay up late at night right before a deadline to complete a task effectively, instead of being diligent along the way, is a misperception of many chronic procrastinators (Ferrari, Harriott, Evans, Lecik-Michna, & Wenger, 1997). If anything, the increased arousal they experience may lead them to mislabel anxiety as excitement.

Time Management is Real Life Management
Some chronic procrastinators say "I just don’t have the time to start or finish all the tasks that I have to do.” Perhaps, the chronic procrastinator thinks he/she is an ‘expert multi-tasker’ and over extends commitments. Research finds chronic procrastinators are poor estimators of the time it takes to do tasks (Ferrari et al., 1995). However, chronic procrastinators have the same amount of time as nonprocrastinators, raising the question—can we really"manage our time?” Time is constant. We all have the same amount of time each week (see Vanderkam, 2010). There are 168 hours in a week—60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week, 4 weeks to a month, 12 months to a year. For centuries we used these measurements as our criteria for time (except The Beatles, who famously sang about "8 Days a Week”). If you sleep for 8 hours a night and work 40 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours a week to engage in tasks. We can’t stop time, we can’t control time—it is like a stream, constantly fl owing. Chronic procrastinators, however, blame their inability or unwillingness to complete tasks on a lack of time (Sirois, 2009).

If we can’t manage time, can we manage ourselves to learn to be more efficient with the time we have? I propose it is not time we need to manage, it is our self than needs to be managed more effectively (Ferrari, 2010). The White Rabbit needed to manage his lifestyle more effectively rather than focusing on the lack of time he was experiencing.

The author Bertram Russell once said "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” For the chronic procrastinator, this statement implies a positive aspect to procrastinating. That is it ok to "waste” one’s time. Chu and Cho1 (2005) even claimed that one can actively procrastinate. Such a concept is a misnomer, since to procrastinate is to be inactive. Don’t confuse procrastination withwaiting. With chronic procrastination, a person works not to do something. With waiting, the person prepares for the next step—working toward a goal, not avoiding one. Waiting to finish a task may include actively preparing for things that will happen. Chronic procrastinators need to reframe their thoughts. The chronic procrastinator does not need to consider waiting as wasting time; instead, frame it as a time waiting for something to happen while making the wait time productive. Time is finite. Like the White Rabbit, we don’t really manage time—we manage our activities within the time we have.

A Focus on the Causes of Procrastination: A 20 Year Journey
Why? Why do procrastinators do it (or, don’t do it)? Answering this question has been the focus of my 25-year program of study discussed in my recent popular book (see Ferrari, 2010, for a review of all the research we’ve conducted on procrastination). I felt too many books focused on ineffective time management—and chronic procrastination is more than teaching a person time management skills (Ferrari, 2001b). To tell the chronic procrastinator"just do it” is like saying to a clinically depressed person"cheer up.” Such a statement misses the point; it will not work—chronic procrastinators are great excuse-makers.

Becoming a procrastinator. Where does chronic procrastination come from? Procrastinators are not genetically wired to delay; they cannot claim they can’t do anything about it because it is just the way they are. We learn early to use procrastination as a self-handicapping strategy. The development of procrastinators begins within the home. Mom, and especially dad [depending on parental styles], may influence the growth of a procrastinator. Ferrari and Olivette (1993; 1994) found that authoritarian parenting (the cold, demanding style of child-rearing), especially from one’s father, promotes the development of a procrastinating child. Ferrari, Harriott, and Zimmerman (1999) found that procrastinators compared to nonprocrastinators have more conflicts and less of a deep relationship with dad over mom; and they turn to their friends over family for social support in times of trouble.

Living with a chronic procrastinator. Procrastinators are interpersonally dependent, letting others do things for them (Ferrari, 1994). To terminate such dependence the nonprocrastinating partner needs to stop bailing the procrastinator out by completing tasks for them. Instead, failure is an option— as long as it is gentle and constructive, and consider bailing them out only in situations with serious consequences. Often, we learn best and have the longest-maintained change when reality knocks us down and then we lift ourselves up (like the phoenix, we are reborn from the ashes).

Indecision, or decisional procrastination. Learning to make decisions is a fact of life, and while some choices we make result in failure or errors, other choices result in success. We make a decision and then take action (Cohen & Ferrari, 2010; Diaz-Morales, Cohen, & Ferrari, 2008). Ferrari, Barnes, and Steel (2009) found that procrastinators report regret for missed opportunities and failed attempts at making decisions. Make a decision, take the first step toward completing your plan, and reach for your goal. Even if there are missteps and failures along the way, no one can fault you for not trying.

Where Do We Go From Here?
The bottom line is that procrastination affects our work life, our academic life (heck, that is why you probably are reading this article!), and our daily life (see Ferrari, 2010, for a current overview on the causes, consequences, and cures of procrastination). As a nation, citizens need to learn not to procrastinate and we need incentives to get things done early. Why punish for being late? Why not reward for being early? In short, we need to give the early bird the worm, and create a society that respects the time of others— that prevents chronic procrastination. And now, get back to your work. Are you still procrastinating?

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Chu, A. H. C., & Choi, J. N. (2005). Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of "active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance. Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 245–264.

Cohen, J. & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Take some time to think this over: The relation between rumination, indecision, and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 22, 68–73.

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Joseph (Joe) R. Ferrari, PhD, is Vincent DePaul Distinguished Professor of Psychology and director, MS in General Psychology program, at DePaul University, Chicago, IL. Joe is a fellow in the Association for Psychological Science, American Psychological Association, Society for Community Research and Action, and both Eastern and Midwestern Psychological Associations. DePaul awarded him the Excellence in Research award in 2001 and the Excellence in Public Service award in 2009.

Copyright 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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