Procrastination is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time. According to Freud, the pleasure principle may be responsible for procrastination; one may prefer to avoid negative emotions, and to delay stressful tasks. The belief that one works best under pressure provides an additional incentive to postponement of tasks. Some psychologists cite such behavior as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision. Other psychologists indicate that anxiety is just as likely to get people to start working early as late and the focus should be impulsiveness. That is, anxiety will cause people to delay only if they are impulsive.
Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson have proposed three criteria for a behavior to be classified as procrastination: it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying. Similarly, Steel (2007) reviews all previous attempts to define procrastination, indicating it is "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.". Sabini & Silver argue that postponement and irrationality are the two key features of procrastination; putting a task off is not procrastination, they argue, if there are rational reasons for doing so.
Procrastination may result in stress, a sense of guilt and crisis, severe loss of personal productivity, as well as social disapproval for not meeting responsibilities or commitments. These feelings combined may promote further procrastination. While it is regarded as normal for people to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning. Chronic procrastination may be a sign of an underlying psychological disorder. Such procrastinators may have difficulty seeking support due to social stigma and the belief that task-aversion is caused by laziness, low willpower or low ambition. On the other hand many regard procrastination as a useful way of identifying what is important to us personally as it is rare to procrastinate when one truly values the task at hand.
In one of the earlier studies of academic procrastination, 46% of subjects reported that they “always” or “nearly always” procrastinate on writing a paper, whilst approximately 30% procrastinate on studying for exams or on reading for weekly assignments. For a range of tasks, a quarter of subjects reliably reported that procrastination was a problem for them. Approximately 60%, however, indicated that they would like to reduce their procrastination.
Psychologists continue to debate the causes of procrastination. Drawing on clinical work, there appears to be a connection with issues of anxiety, low sense of self-worth, and a self-defeating mentality. On the other hand, drawing on meta-analytical correlational work, anxiety and perfectionism have no – or at best an extremely weak – connection with procrastination. Instead, procrastination is strongly connected with lack of self-confidence (e.g., low self-efficacy, or learned helplessness) or disliking the task (e.g., boredom and apathy). The strongest connection to procrastination, however, is impulsiveness. These characteristics are often used as measures of the personality trait conscientiousness whereas anxiety and irrational beliefs (such as perfectionism) are aspects of the personality trait neuroticism. Accordingly, Lee, Kelly and Edwards (2006) indicated that neuroticism has no direct links to procrastination and that any relationship is fully mediated by conscientiousness.
Sabini and Silver argue that irrationality is an inherent feature of procrastination. That is to say that "putting things off even until the last moment isn't procrastination if there is reason to believe that they will take only that moment". As Steele et al. (2001) later explain, "actions must be postponed and this postponement must represent poor, inadequate, or inefficient planning".
Based on integrating several core theories of motivation as well as meta-analytic research on procrastination is the temporal motivation theory. It summarizes key predictors of procrastination (i.e., expectancy, value and impulsiveness) into a mathematical equation.
Research on the physiological roots of procrastination mostly surrounds the role of the prefrontal cortex. Consistent with the notion that procrastination is strongly related to impulsiveness, this area of the brain is responsible for executive brain functions such as planning, impulse control, and attention, and acts as a filter by decreasing distracting stimuli from other brain regions. Damage or low activation in this area can reduce an individual's ability to filter out distracting stimuli, ultimately resulting in poorer organization, a loss of attention and increased procrastination. This is similar to the prefrontal lobe's role in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, where underactivation is common.
For some people, procrastination can be persistent and tremendously disruptive to everyday life. For these individuals, procrastination may be symptomatic of a psychological disorder. Procrastination has been linked to a number of negative associations, such as depression, irrational behaviour, low self-esteem, anxiety, poor study habits, and neurological disorders such as ADHD. Others have found relationships with guilt and stress. Therefore, it is important for people whose procrastination has become chronic and is perceived to be debilitating, to seek out a trained therapist or psychiatrist to see if an underlying mental health issue may be present.
In agreement with existing literature, Fritzsche et al. (2008) found that procrastination was related to general anxiety, specific anxiety about writing a paper, and with lower grades. They found that feedback from supervisors can play a crucial role in averting procrastination; “low procrastinators wrote their papers early, regardless of whether they received feedback on their writing. However, high procrastinators wrote their papers early only when they received feedback.” Receiving feedback almost entirely negated procrastinatory tendencies for the specific task under investigation, leading authors to suggest that feedback could complement counselling interventions.
When the deadline being avoided is still distant, procrastinators report significantly less stress than do non-procrastinators. Additionally they report fewer symptoms of physical illness. However, as the deadline approaches, this relationship is reversed; procrastinators report more stress, more symptoms of physical illness, and more medical visits. Weighting equally measures at the beginning and end of the semester, it appears as though the short-term health benefits of procrastination are more than made up for by later health problems. Procrastinators experience significantly more symptoms of illness and stress than do non-procrastinators as the deadline is upon them, to the extent that, overall, procrastinators had suffered more stress and health problems.
Traditionally, procrastination has been associated with perfectionism, a tendency to negatively evaluate outcomes and one's own performance, intense fear and avoidance of evaluation of one's abilities by others, heightened social self-consciousness and anxiety, recurrent low mood, and "workaholism". According to Robert B. Slaney adaptive perfectionists (when perfectionism is egosyntonic) were less likely to procrastinate than non-perfectionists, while maladaptive perfectionists (people who saw their perfectionism as a problem; i.e., when perfectionism is egodystonic) had high levels of procrastination (and also of anxiety). Accordingly, meta-analytic review of 71 studies by Steel (2007) indicate that typically perfectionists actually procrastinate slightly less than others, with "the exception being perfectionists who were also seeking clinical counseling."
As noted above, procrastination is consistently found to be strongly correlated with conscientiousness, and moderately so with neuroticism. Though the reasons for the relationship are not clear, there also exists a relationship between procrastination and eveningness; that is to say that those who procrastinate more are more likely to go to sleep later and wake later. It is known that Conscientiousness increases across the lifespan, as does Morningness. Procrastination too decreases with age. However, even controlling for age, there still exists a relationship between procrastination and eveningness, which is yet to be explained.
Testing the hypothesis that procrastinators have less of a focus on the future due to a greater focus on more immediate concerns, college undergraduates completed several self-report questionnaires, which did indeed find that procrastinators focus less on the future. Researchers had also expected to find that procrastination would be associated with a hedonistic and "devil-may-care" perspective on the present; against their expectations, they found that procrastination was better predicted by a fatalistic and hopeless attitude towards life. This finding fits well with previous research relating procrastination and depression
More specifically, a 1992 study showed that "52% of surveyed students indicated having a moderate to high need for help concerning procrastination". It is estimated that 80%–95% of college students engage in procrastination, approximately 75% considering themselves procrastinators.
One source of procrastination is the planning fallacy, where we underestimate the time required to analyze research. Many students devote weeks to gathering research for a term paper, but are unable to finish writing it because they have left insufficient time for subsequent stages of the assignment. Similarly, students know better than anyone whether or not an assignment or task is feasible. Many students believe in the common method of cramming when studying for an exam or writing up a research paper in one sitting rather than spacing everything out. Despite the stress, lack of sleep, and inefficiency involved, students become trapped into a perpetual mode of procrastination. Cal Newport argues that students' brains acknowledging such daunting tasks will not yield positive results. This results in procrastination.
"Student syndrome" refers to the phenomenon where a student will only begin to fully apply themselves to a task immediately before a deadline. This negates the usefulness of any buffers built into individual task duration estimates. Study results indicate that many students are aware of procrastination and accordingly set costly binding deadlines long before the date for which the task is due. Furthermore, these self-imposed binding deadlines are correlated with a better performance than without binding deadlines, though performance is best for evenly-spaced external binding deadlines. Finally, students have difficulties optimally setting self-imposed deadlines, with results suggesting a lack of spacing before the date at which tasks are due. In one experiment, participation in online exercises was found to be five times higher in the final week before a deadline than in the summed total of the first three weeks for which the exercises were available. Procrastinators end up being the ones doing most of the work in the final week before a deadline
Other reasons cited on why students procrastinate include fear of failure and success, perfectionist expectations, and legitimate activities that may take precedence over school work (like a job).
Procrastination has been associated with the later submission of academic papers, as would have been expected almost by definition. Additionally, procrastinators have been found to receive worse grades that do non-procrastinators. Tice et al. (1997) report that more than one third of variation in final exam score could be attributed to procrastination. The negative association between procrastination and academic performance is recurring and consistent. Howell et al. (2006) found that, though scores on two widely used procrastination scales were not significantly associated with the grade received for an assignment, self-report measures of procrastination on the assessment itself were negatively associated with grade.
Different findings emerge when observed and self-report procrastination are contrasted. Steel et al. constructed their own scales based on Silver and Sabini’s “irrational” and “postponement” criteria; they also sought to measure this behaviour objectively. During a course, students could complete exam practice computer exercises at their own pace, and, during supervised class time, could also complete chapter quizzes. A weighted average of the times at which each quiz was finished formed the measure of observed procrastination, whilst observed irrationality was quantified with the number of practice exercises that were left uncompleted. Researchers found that there was only a moderate correlation between observed and self-report procrastination (r = 0.35). There was a very strong inverse relationship between the number of exercises completed, and the measure of postponement (r = -0.78). Observed procrastination was very strongly negatively correlated with course grade (r= -0.87), as was self-report procrastination (though less so, r = -0.36). As such, self-report measures of procrastination, on which the majority of the literature is based, may not be the most appropriate measure to use in all cases.
It was also found that procrastination itself may not have contributed significantly to poorer grades. Steel et al. noted that, those students who completed all of the practice exercises “tended to perform well on the final exam no matter how much they delayed”.
Reactions to procrastination
Individual coping responses to procrastination are often emotional or avoidant oriented rather than task or problem-solving oriented. Emotion oriented coping is designed to reduce stress (and cognitive dissonance) associated with putting off intended and important personal goals, an option that provides immediate pleasure and is consequently very attractive to impulsive procrastinators. There are hundreds of identified emotion oriented strategies, similar to Freudian defense mechanisms, coping styles and self-handicapping. These procrastinators include using the following:
- Avoidance: Where we avoid the locale or situation where the task takes place (e.g., a graduate student avoiding going to University).
- Distraction: Where we engage or immerse ourselves in other behaviors or actions to prevent awareness of the task (e.g., intensive videogame playing or Internet surfing)
- Trivialization: We reframe the intended but procrastinated task as being not that important (e.g., "I'm putting off going to the dentist, but you know what? Teeth aren't that important.").
- Downward counterfactuals: We compare our situation with those even worse (e.g., "Yes, I procrastinated and got a B- in the course, but I didn't fail like one other student did."). Upward counterfactual is considering what would have happened if we didn't procrastinate.
- Humour: Making a joke of one's procrastination, that the slapstick or slipshod quality of one's aspirational goal striving is funny.
- External attributions: That the cause of procrastination is due to external forces beyond our control (e.g., "I'm procrastinating because the assignment isn't fair").
- Reframing: Pretending that getting an early start on a project is harmful to one's performance and leaving the work to the last moment will produce better results (e.g., "I'm most creative at 4:00 AM in the morning without sleep.").
- Denial: Pretending that procrastinatory behaviour is not actually procrastinating, but a task which is more important than the avoided one.
- Laziness: Procrastinating simply because one is too lazy to do their desired task.
- Valorisation: Pointing out in satisfaction what we achieved in the meantime while we should have been doing something else.
Task or problem-solving oriented coping is rarer for the procrastinator because it is more effective in reducing procrastination. If pursued, it is less likely the procrastinator would remain a procrastinator. It requires actively changing one's behavior or situation to prevent a reoccurrence of procrastination.
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- African time
- Attention economy
- Avoidant personality disorder
- Self control
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Postponement of affect
- Time perception
- Work aversion
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- Fritzsche, B. A., Young, B. R., & Hickson, K. C. (2003) Individual differences in academic procrastination tendency and writing success 
- Robert B. Slaney is a professor of counseling psychology in Penn State's College of Education
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- We're Sorry This Is Late ... We Really Meant To Post It Sooner: Research Into Procrastination Shows Surprising Findings; Gregory Harris; ScienceDaily.com; Jan. 10, 2007 (their source)
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- Impulse control
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- CalPoly — Procrastination — Analysis of dilatory behavior and possible cures