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When mañana is too soon
A psychologist in Calgary thinks he knows why we procrastinate

Kurt Kleiner
Toronto Star
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

No other anguish is quite like that of the procrastinator. He knows that the job has to get done, that putting it off just makes it harder, that the worry is worse than the work. And yet he can't ... quite ... get ... started.

Procrastination seems built into human nature – the ancient Roman orator Cicero fretted about it, as did the Greek historian Thucydides.

Today, 95 per cent of people say that they sometimes procrastinate.

The real problem, though, is the 20 per cent of us who qualify as chronic procrastinators. These are people who procrastinate so routinely that their work, finances or personal relationships suffer because of it.

At its worst, procrastination is a form of self-destructive behaviour, like drug addiction or chronic gambling. Like them, its origins are mysterious, and its treatment difficult.

Now a new analysis of the psychological literature by a University of Calgary psychologist could help untangle what makes so many of us put off until tomorrow what we really should do today.

Piers Steel has just published a mammoth review of the scientific literature on procrastination in the journal Psychological Bulletin, and his conclusions are at odds with some conventional ideas.

"Some of them are dead wrong," Steel says.

His research contradicts one major theory, which is that procrastinators suffer from anxiety and so have a harder time facing a difficult task.

Steel looked at the literature and found that statistically there's very little correlation between anxiety and a tendency to procrastinate.

The same with the flattering idea that procrastinators are also perfectionists, people who care so much about doing it right that they can't bear to get started. Again, Steel found no correlation.

What he did find is that procrastinators are less confident that they can handle a given task. They're also more impulsive and less conscientious overall.

"Whether you believe you can or you believe you can't, you're right," Steel says."Some of these old wives' tales bear out. People who believe they can are less likely to procrastinate."

Steel's paper is unlikely to be the final word on procrastination. But it's important because it's the best attempt so far to analyze hundreds of psychological studies that have been conducted over a period of decades.

Part of the problem of procrastination is defining it in the first place. We all have dozens of things we could be doing at any particular moment, and some of them have to be put off.

Prioritizing turns into procrastination when we know the job needs to be done, we know we'll be worse off if we don't do it, we intend to do it – and we still don't do it. It is profoundly irrational behaviour, and its very irrationality makes it tough for procrastinators and psychologists alike to understand.

Samuel Johnson, the prolific 18th-century writer and lexicographer, admitted to procrastinating himself, and described the remorse familiar to any procrastinator: "I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment's idleness increased the difficulty."

But he also puzzled over what made people procrastinate when it was so clearly against their best interests. "The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses," he concluded.

Steel thinks procrastination is probably an even bigger problem today.

We have more readily available distractions, like the Internet and computer games. (Steel says he's had problems with computer games himself.) And many jobs are becoming more self-structured, which means it's increasingly up to us to impose our own work goals and deadlines.

The harm caused by procrastination can be immense. Steel points to a study by the tax-preparation firm H&R Block that says putting off doing their taxes costs U.S. citizens an average of $400 each because of errors due to the last-minute rush.

Even more irrationally, 70 per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma don't get around to using their eye drops regularly, which could potentially result in blindness.

Fifty per cent of heart attack patients don't manage to make the lifestyle changes that could save their lives.

"On the one hand, it's easy to trivialize procrastination. We joke about it," says Timothy A. Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination.

"But procrastination is self-defeating. It's a breakdown in volitional action. I have an intention and I'm not following through on it. You're not able to follow through on what you want to do."

Over the years, psychologists have come up with a lot of ideas about what makes people procrastinate. In addition to anxiety and perfectionism, some suggested that procrastinators were self-sabotaging, hostile and rebellious, or depressed.

But for Steel, procrastination can be explained by an insight borrowed from behavioural economics called hyperbolic discounting. This is the tendency to value near-term rewards more than long-term ones. For instance, some people will choose a payoff of $50 today over $100 tomorrow.

Steel combined hyperbolic discounting with a theory of motivation called expectancy theory, and came up with something he calls temporal motivational theory (TMT). It boils down to this:

Utility = E x V / Gamma D

Utility is the desirability of getting something done. E is expectancy, or confidence. V is the value of the job, and includes not only its importance but also its unpleasantness. Gamma stands for how prone a person is to delay doing things. And D means delay, or how far away the consequences of doing, or not doing, the task are.

The bigger the top number compared to the bottom, the less likely a task will be put off. So if you expect to do well at a job (E), and it's a pleasant thing to do (V), and you're not prone to being delayed by distractions (Gamma), and it has to be done right away (D), you're not likely to procrastinate.

If you expect to fail at a difficult task and you're easily distracted and it doesn't have to be done for quite awhile, you're going to procrastinate.

"It's a little bit unsettling that human nature can be reduced to an equation," Steel says. "But you can show that pretty much every major view of behaviour can be reduced to that."

Perhaps not surprisingly, other procrastination experts don't think it's quite that simple.

"It makes an important contribution by summing it up," says Pychyl. "It doesn't mean that he's captured the whole phenomenon. There are elements we still don't understand about these self-defeating behaviours."

Pychyl thinks it's still too early to rule out anxiety, perfectionism, depression or other causes that have been suggested for procrastination.

William J. Knaus, a psychologist and author of Do It Now!, a procrastination self-help book, says it's a complex behaviour that's far from being understood. But he insists procrastinators can change.

"It's a challenge," he says, "but it's doable. We have enough of the tools now so that anyone who is serious about making strides and improvements can do so."

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