The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 9, 2005
Researchers are learning more about chronic dawdlers but see no easy cure for procrastination
Joseph R. Ferrari has a name for people who dillydally all the time. Sometimes, he spits out the term as if it were stale gum or a polysyllabic cuss word. When he dubs you a "chronic procrastinator," however, he does not mean to insult you. He is just using the psychological definition for someone who habitually puts things off until tomorrow, or next week, or whenever. The afflicted need not feel lonely: Research suggests that the planet is crawling with dawdlers.
Procrastinators vex Mr. Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, yet he owes much to the dilatorily inclined. Without them he could not have helped blaze a trail of inquiry into procrastination (the word comes from the Latin verb procrastinare — "to defer until morning"). The professor is as prompt as the sports car that shares his name, but he sees the symptoms of compulsive stalling everywhere.
Mr. Ferrari and other scholars from around the world are finding that procrastination is more complex — and pervasive — than armchair analysts might assume. And helping people climb out of their pits of postponement is not as simple as giving them a pill or a pep talk.
The task is particularly challenging in the hothouses of procrastination known as college campuses. Free time, long-term deadlines, and extracurricular diversions conspire against academic efficiency. Students are infamous for not tackling their assignments until the jaws of deadlines are closing.
Professors may call such students slackers or sloths; psychologists define them as "academic procrastinators." According to recent studies, about 70 percent of college students say they typically procrastinate on starting or finishing their assignments (an estimated 20 percent of American adults are chronic procrastinators).
Choosing to do one task while temporarily putting another on hold is simply setting priorities, which allows people to cross things off their to-do lists one at a time. Procrastination is when one keeps reorganizing that list so that little or nothing on it gets done.
For some students, that inertia has costs. Researchers say academic procrastination raises students' anxiety and sinks their self-esteem. The behavior also correlates with some of higher education's thorniest problems, including depression, cheating, and plagiarism among students.
Dozens of colleges have created counseling sessions or workshops for procrastinators. Yet Mr. Ferrari and other researchers say many institutions treat the problem superficially instead of helping students analyze their own thought processes and behavioral patterns in order to change them. Give a hard-core procrastinator nothing more than time-management tips, they warn, and you might as well hand him a page of hieroglyphics.
"Telling a chronic academic procrastinator to 'just do it' is not going to work," Mr. Ferrari says. "It's like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up."
Learning About Loafers
Laggards have always been tough cases. Even God could not inspire St. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century philosopher and theologian, to act right away. As he slowly came to accept Christianity, Augustine wrote in Confessions, the future bishop wavered. Clinging to temporal pleasures, Augustine famously asked of God: "Give me chastity and continency — but not yet."
Late in his life, Leonardo da Vinci, the genius who missed deadlines, lamented his unfinished projects. Shakespeare's Hamlet pondered — and pondered — killing his uncle Claudius before sticking him in the final act. Grady Tripp, the English professor in Michael Chabon's novel Wonder Boys, couldn't finish his second book because he refused to stop writing it.
In a world of unmade beds and unwritten essays, the postponement of chores is commonplace. Now and again, humans put aside tasks with long-term rewards to savor immediate pleasures, like ice cream and movies, through a process called "discounting." For chronic procrastinators, however, discounting is a way of life.
The scientific study of procrastination was (appropriately enough) a late-blooming development relative to the examinations of other psychological problems. Only in the 1980s did researchers start unlocking the heads of inveterate loafers, who suffer from more than mere laziness.
Mr. Ferrari, a co-editor of Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment (Plenum Publications, 1995), has helped clarify the distinction between delaying as an act and as a lifestyle. Not every student who ignores assignments until the last minute is an across-the-board offender, known to psychologists as a "trait procrastinator." Many students who drag their feet on term papers might never delay other tasks, such as meeting friends for dinner, showing up for work, or going to the dentist.
As Mr. Ferrari explains in Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings (American Psychological Association, 2004), a book he edited with three other scholars, there is no typical profile of an academic procrastinator (though family dynamics may influence the behavior). Studies have found no significant relationship between procrastination and intelligence or particular Myers-Briggs personality types.
Research does show that academic procrastinators tend to lack self-confidence, measure low on psychologists' tests of "conscientiousness," get lost in wishful thoughts, and lie low during group assignments.
In one study, Mr. Ferrari found that students at highly selective colleges reported higher rates of academic procrastination than students from less selective institutions. In another, the motives for academic procrastination among students at an elite college differed from students' motives at a nonselective one (the former put off assignments because they found them unpleasant, while the latter did so because they feared failure or social disapproval).
Mr. Ferrari identifies two kinds of habitual lollygaggers. "Arousal procrastinators" believe they work best under pressure and tend to delay tasks for the thrill. "Avoidant procrastinators" are self-doubters who tend to postpone tasks because they worry about performing inadequately, or because they fear their success may raise others' expectations of them.
Other findings complicate fear-of-failure theories. Some researchers say an inability to control impulses explains procrastinators best. And a recent study by Mr. Ferrari and Steven J. Scher, an associate professor of psychology at Eastern Illinois University, suggests that people who are typically negative avoid assignments that do not challenge them creatively or intellectually, whereas people who are typically positive more easily tackle less-stimulating tasks.
Science is not likely to resolve the mysteries of procrastination anytime soon. After all, among researchers a debate still rages over the very definition of procrastination. Mr. Scher suspects there are different types of the behavior, especially if one defines it as not doing what one thinks one should do.
"A common thing that many people put off is doing the dishes," Mr. Scher says. "But there are also times when those same people will all of a sudden find that doing the dishes is the most important thing they have to do — thereby putting off some other type of task."
Psychologists do agree on one thing: Procrastination is responsible for most of the world's homework-eating dogs. Where procrastinators go, excuses follow.
Students who engaged in academic procrastination said more than 70 percent of the excuses they gave instructors for not completing an assignment were fraudulent (the lies were most prevalent in large lecture classes taught by women who were "lenient"), Mr. Ferrari found in one study. In another, procrastinating students generally said they experienced a positive feeling when they fibbed; although they did feel bad when they recalled the lie, such remorse did not seem to prevent them from using phony excuses in the future.
Mr. Ferrari has also experimented with giving bonus points for early work. In a study published in the journal Teaching of Psychology, he found that such incentives prompted 80 percent of students to fulfill a course requirement to participate in six psychological experiments by a midpoint date. On average, only 50 percent had done so before he offered the inducement.
Mr. Ferrari believes that academe sends mixed messages about procrastination. Most professors talk about the importance of deadlines, but some are quick to bend them, particularly those who put a premium on being liked by their students. In one of Mr. Ferrari's studies, 90 percent of instructors said they did not require the substantiation of excuses for late work.
"We're not teaching responsibility anymore," Mr. Ferrari says. "I'm not saying we need to be stringent, strict, and inflexible, but we shouldn't be spineless. When we are overly flexible, it just teaches them that they can ignore the deadlines of life."
Ambivalence about deadlines pervades American culture. People demand high-speed results, whether they are at work or in restaurants. Yet this is also a land in which department stores encourage holiday shoppers to postpone their shopping until Christmas Eve, when they receive huge discounts. And each year on April 15, television news reporters from coast to coast descend upon post offices to interview (and celebrate) people who wait until the final hours to mail their tax returns.
"As a society," Mr. Ferrari says, "we tend to excuse the person who says 'I'm a procrastinator,' even though we don't like procrastinators."
But do all people who ignore assignments until the 11th hour necessarily suffer or do themselves harm?
One of Mr. Ferrari's former students, Mariya Zaturenskaya, a psychology major who graduated from DePaul last spring, says some last-minute workers are motivated, well organized, and happy to write a paper in one sitting. Although students who cram for tests tend to retain less knowledge than other students, research has yet to reveal a significant correlation between students' procrastination and grades.
"Some students just need that deadline, that push," Ms. Zaturenskaya says. "Some people really are more efficient when they have less time."
Treating the Problem
Before Jill Gamble went to college, she had little time to waste. As a high-school student, she had earned a 3.75 grade-point average while playing three sports. Each night she went to practice, ate dinner, did her homework, and went to bed.
After matriculating at Ohio State University, however, her life lost its structure. At first, all she had to do was go to classes. Most days she napped, spent hours using Instant Messenger, and stayed up late talking to her suite mates.
As unread books piled up on her desk, she told herself her professors were too demanding. The night before her Sociology 101 final, she stayed up drinking Mountain Dew, frantically reading the seven chapters she had ignored for weeks. "My procrastination had created a lot of anxiety," Ms. Gamble recalls. "I was angry with myself that I let it get to that point."
She got a C-minus in the class and a 2.7 in her first quarter. When her grades improved only slightly in the second quarter, Ms. Gamble knew she needed help. So she enrolled in a course called "Strategies for College Success."
The five-year-old course uses psychological strategies, such as the taking of reasonable risks, to jolt students out of their bad study habits. Twice a week students spend class time in a computer lab, where they get short lectures on study skills. Students must then practice each skill on the computer by using a special software program.
Instructors use weekly quizzes to cut procrastination time from weeks to days and to limit last-minute cramming. The frequent tests mean one or two low scores will not doom a student's final grade, ideally reducing study-related stress.
Students complete assignments at their own pace, allowing faster ones to stay engaged and slower ones to keep up, yet there are immovable dates by which students must finish each set of exercises. Enrollees learn how to write and follow to-do lists that reduce large tasks, such as writing an essay, into bite-size goals (like sitting down to outline a single chapter of a text instead of reading the whole book).
Each student must also examine his or her use of rationalizations for procrastinating. The course's creator, Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at Ohio State, says he also teaches students to recognize the underlying cause of procrastination, which he describes as self-handicapping.
"It's like running a full race with a knapsack full of bricks on your back," Mr. Tuckman says. "When you don't win, you can say it's not that you're not a good runner, it's just that you had this sack of bricks on your back. When students realize that, it can be easier for them to change."
Many of the worst procrastinators end up earning the highest grades in the class, Mr. Tuckman says. And among similar types of students with the same prior cumulative grade-point averages, those who took the class have consistently outperformed those who did not take it.
After completing the course, Ms. Gamble says, she stopped procrastinating and went on to earn a 3.8 the next semester. Since then, she has made the dean's list regularly, and now helps counsel her procrastinating peers at Ohio State's learning center.
"In workshops, we'll say, 'How many of you identify yourselves as procrastinators?' and they will throw their hands in the air and giggle, even though procrastination is a very negative thing," Ms. Gamble says. "Why do we do this so willingly? The answer is that let we let ourselves procrastinate. If someone was doing it to us, we wouldn't be so willing to raise our hands."
A Universal Problem
Psychologists generally agree that the behavior is learned and that students choose to procrastinate, even though they may feel helpless to stop. Mr. Ferrari, the DePaul professor, describes the behavior as a self-constructed mental trap that people can escape the same way smokers can kick the habit.
Mr. Tuckman qualifies his optimism by saying one cannot hope to cure procrastination so much as reduce it.
"It's very hard to go from being a hard-core procrastinator to a nonprocrastinator," says Mr. Tuckman, one of many researchers who has developed a scale that measures levels of procrastination. "You're just so used to doing it, there's something about it that reinforces it for you."
Scholars are learning that procrastination knows no borders. At a conference of international procrastination researchers this summer at Roehampton University, in England, Mr. Ferrari and several other scholars presented a paper that compared the prevalence rates of chronic procrastination among adults in Australia, England, Peru, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela. They found that arousal and avoidant procrastinators were equally prevalent in all of the nations, with men and women reporting similar rates of each behavior.
That is not to say all cultures share the same view of procrastination. Karem Diaz, a professor of psychology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, has studied the behavior among Peruvians, whose expectations of timeliness tend to differ from those of Americans.
"In Peru we talk about the 'Peruvian time,'" Ms. Diaz writes in an e-mail message. "If we are invited to a party at 7 p.m., it is rude to show on time. ... It is even socially punished. Therefore, not presenting a paper on time is expected and forgiven."
Few Peruvians are familiar with the Spanish word "procrastinación," which complicates discussions of the subject. "Some people think it is some sexual behavior when they hear the word," Ms. Diaz says. Yet the professor has been intrigued to find that some Peruvians identify themselves as procrastinators, and experience the negative consequences of the behavior even though social norms encourage it.
Strategies for helping people bridge the gap between their actions and intentions vary. A handful of colleges in Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands have just begun to develop counseling programs that draw on cognitive and behavioral research. The early findings: Helping students understand why they dawdle and teaching them self-efficacy tends to lessen their procrastination — or at least make it more manageable.
Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Ontario, says group meetings are a promising approach, particularly those in which students make highly specific goals and help each other resist temptations to slack off. "For many people, it's an issue of priming the pump ... as simple as making a deal with oneself to spend 10 minutes on a task," Mr. Pychyl says. "At least the next day they can see themselves as having made an effort as opposed to doing nothing at all."
Clarry H. Lay, a retired psychology professor at York University, in Toronto, who continues to counsel student procrastinators, uses personality feedback to promote better "self-regulation" among students. In group sessions, he discusses the importance of studying even when one is not in the "right mood" and of setting aside a regular place to work. Some participants become more confident and efficient. Others see improvements, only to experience relapses.
Each semester one in five students miss the first session. Some sign up early but never show, while others arrive late or attend sporadically. But Mr. Lay understands. The counselor is a chronic procrastinator himself.