Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found that 65% of college students want to learn to stop putting off writing term papers, 62% feel the need to study for exams more promptly, and 55% hope to read their assignments earlier. Most of us procrastinate some. What are other signs of procrastination besides waiting until the last minute to do something? Try these on for size: being reluctant to take risks or try something new, staying at home or in the same old job, getting sick when faced with an unpleasant job, avoiding confrontations or decisions, blaming others or the situation ("it's boring") for your unhappiness or to avoid doing something, making big plans but never carrying them out, and/or having such a busy social-recreational calendar that it is hard to get important work done.
This list of symptoms suggests that procrastination, which at first sounds like a simple behavior, is, in fact, quite complex. It involves emotions, skills, thoughts or attitudes, and factors we are unaware of. Furthermore, the causes and dynamics of putting off an important but unpleasant task vary from person to person and from task to task for the same person. For instance, you may delay doing your math assignment but fill out an application for school immediately. Hopefully, understanding how and why we procrastinate will help us change it. We may even learn more about what is commonly called "will power."
Procrastination is a strange phenomenon. Its purpose seems to be to make our life more pleasant but instead it almost always adds stress, disorganization, and frequently failure. Ellis and Knaus (1977) and Burka and Yuen (1983) describe the process: (1) You want to achieve some outcome, usually something you and others value and respect--"I've got to start." (2) You delay, briefly thinking of real and imagined advantages of starting to change later--"I'll do it tomorrow when I don't have much to do." (3) You delay more, becoming self-critical--"I should have started sooner"--and/or self-excusing--"I really couldn't have left the party early last night, my best friends were there." You may hide or pretend to be busy; you may even lie about having other obligations. (4) You delay still more, until finally the task has to be done, usually hastily--"Just get it done any old way"--or you just don't have time--"I can't do this!" (5) You berate yourself--"There is something wrong with me"--and swear never to procrastinate again and/or you discount the importance of the task--"It doesn't matter." (6) You repeat the process almost immediately on other important tasks, as if it were an addiction or compulsion.
The wisest course of action, most of the time, would be to simply do the unpleasant task as soon as practical, while we have enough time to do the job right and get it over with, not prolonging our agony. But we put it off. Why? There are many possible reasons: (1) we feel good about setting goals and declaring that we are going to change or succeed "sometime," (2) by procrastinating we shorten the time we actually have to work on the task, and (3) much of the time we avoid the unpleasant task altogether. Research has shown that 70% of New Year's resolutions are abandoned by February 1.
In recent years, most psychologists have come to believe that the act of procrastinating can best be understood by identifying the emotions associated with or underlying the behavior. Actually, procrastination is an attempt to cope with our emotional reactions. What are these emotions? Fear of failure or success is the most likely emotion (this includes panic when we set impossible goals). Anger is another possible emotion (this includes rebellion against control). Dislike of the work that needs to be done is another. Obviously, depression can slow us down (and failing due to procrastination can depress us). Seeking pleasure is another disruptive motive. So the task for the procrastinator becomes (1) correctly identifying your form(s) of procrastination and (2) finding a solution for your specific emotional reaction. Not an easy job.
Types of procrastinators
It may help to think in terms of two fundamental kinds of procrastinators: one tense and the other relaxed. The tense type often feels both an intense pressure to succeed and a fear of failure; the relaxed type often feels negatively toward his/her work and blows it off--forgets it--by playing (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984). John, described early in this chapter, is the relaxed type; he neglected his school work but not his socializing. This denial-based type of procrastinator avoids as much stress as possible by dismissing his/her work or disregarding more challenging tasks and concentrating on "having fun" or some other distracting activity; if their defense mechanisms work effectively, they actually have what seems like "a happy life" for the moment. More about this type later.
The tense-afraid type of procrastinator is described by Fiore (1989) as feeling overwhelmed by pressures, unrealistic about time, uncertain about goals, dissatisfied with accomplishments, indecisive, blaming of others or circumstances for his/her failures, lacking in confidence and, sometimes, perfectionistic. Thus, the underlying fears are of failing, lacking ability, being imperfect, and falling short of overly demanding goals. This type thinks his/her worth is determined by what he/she does, which reflects his/her level of ability. He/she is afraid of being judged and found wanting. Thus, this kind of procrastinator will get over-stressed and over-worked until he/she escapes the pressure temporarily by trying to relax but any enjoyment gives rise to guilt and more apprehension.
The tense-afraid type of procrastinator comes in five forms, as described by Burka and Yuen (1984) and Ellis and Knaus (1977):
The fear of successful achievement in school leading to underachievement has already been described in great detail in the last section on motivation. (1) Such a student may avoid trying in school for fear of doing well...and then being expected to continue to achieve, be responsible, leave home or friends, and be mature. That is so scary that they hide their ambition, act like they don't care, and may really want to do poorly. (2) Likewise, other students may avoid being successful for fear they will lose friends or become a threat to others. It is commonly thought that "men don't like women who are too smart...or can beat them in tennis." Some conservative people may also be uncomfortable if a woman were successful in a masculine role--executive, pilot, priest--or if a man were successful in a feminine role--nurse, hair stylist, homemaker. (3) Others refuse to give up procrastinating and refuse to strive for success for fear of becoming a workaholic...or of becoming arrogant, competitive, demanding, or boring and isolated socially. They may feel that work is endless, that it will never be done. (4) A few procrastinators may fear success because they'd feel guilty, as though they didn't deserve it...or "I'd be an entirely different person, I'd have to admit I'm capable, I'd lose my identity."
A second version of the anxiety-based procrastinator is afraid of failing. (1) Of course, if we are self-critical and feel inferior, we will avoid doing many things, especially competitive activities. Not trying is a form of failure but not as painful as actually trying and failing. (2) If you have set very high or impossible goals--like a perfectionist, you are likely to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps that is why, strange as it seems, perfectionistic procrastinators often have low confidence in their ability. By procrastinating, such a person avoids, for the moment, the dreaded expected failure (and guarantees doing poorly in the long run). (3) If you dread finding out just how able you are (and having others find out too!), it might seem wiser to put off putting yourself to the test than to run the risk of trying one's best and only being average. This is especially crucial if you believe a person is more worthwhile and lovable if he/she is real smart or talented. Procrastination, in this special case, may enable us to believe we are superior in ability (while another part of us fears being inferior), regardless of our performance. So, as you can see, procrastination may strengthen a person's feelings of inferiority or superiority.
The Rational-Emotive therapists (see method #3 in chapter 14; Ellis & Knaus, 1977) claim that the self-critical and perfectionistic type of procrastinator has these kinds of irrational beliefs: "I must always be on time and do well." "Others must like and approve of me." "I'm a no-good! How could a no-good do anything well?" Of course, one can't always be perfect, so such a person will fail, leading to thinking things are awful, feeling pessimistic, and expecting that work will be hard, no fun, boring--something to avoid. Such a person needs to build his/her self-esteem (see chapter 14).
A third form of anxiety-based procrastinator needs to feel in control and/or to resist control by someone else ("You can't make me do it."). Ellis and Knaus refer to this type as the "angry defiant procrastinator." Such a person holds the irrational beliefs that "everyone must treat me kindly and do what I want them to do, and, if not, I have a right to get mad and hate them (including refusing to do what parents, teachers, and bosses want me to do)." Naturally, everyone is asked to do things they don't want to do; some accept that reality, others don't.
To determine if control and anger are factors in your procrastination, ask yourself: "Is anyone bothered or inconvenienced by my taking my time or my being late?" "Do I often question and/or rebel against rules?" "Do I frequently feel like telling someone to get off my back"? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be in a battle for control! Passive-aggressiveness is a very powerful expression of resentment (see chapter 8). Being your own person, doing your own thing, etc., may seem to prove you are powerful and independent, but what if you spend a life-time slavishly proving you are "free" (rather than doing what would be best for you)? Such people often say, "Gosh, if I changed, I'd have to start being on time, following rules, getting into a routine...that would mean they won. Besides, it would be boring and too easy." If anger is part of your problem, look over chapter 7.
The fourth and fifth forms of anxiety-based procrastination are designed to keep someone you need close to you or to keep a frightening relationship at a distance. Overcoming procrastination and becoming more independent, successful, decisive, and confident might remove one from a dependent relationship (see chapter 8) as well as propel one into an intimate relationship. Ask yourself, "Am I lonely and uncomfortable if I'm not with someone?" "Do I seek lots of advice and still hesitate to make a decision on my own?" Or: "Am I hesitating to get more deeply involved with someone by being indecisive or by not doing well?" If interpersonal concerns underlie your procrastinating, see chapters 8, 9 and 10.
More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the "crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on way too many tasks. These authors focus more on family characteristics and personality traits. If you see a description here that fits you, read about it. Another book that helps you assess your personal style of procrastination is Roberts (1995).
Now back to the relaxed, pleasure seeking procrastinator. This personality seems, at first, to be less complicated, but careful observation of their thoughts and emotions suggests differently. Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found this type to be much more common among college students than the tense-afraid type. Ellis and Knaus (1977) call this the easily-frustrated, self-indulgent procrastinator. As suggested by Maslow, these procrastinators may be addicted to people or preoccupied with meeting their more basic emotional needs, e.g. for attention and approval by peers, love, or self-esteem. For some students these other needs make studying almost impossible.
In addition to emotional needs, the relaxed procrastinator's thoughts may push him/her away from his work or studies. For instance, their basic belief system may center around thinking that "my long-range goals require too much hard unpleasant work." To such a person the gain is not worth the pain, especially since the necessary work is seen by them as so distasteful or boring or stupid that they just can't do it. A quick-starter, on the other hand, knows he/she can handle the drudgery. This relaxed procrastinator gets to the point of saying very irrational things to him/herself, such as: "I have to have something going on--I can't stand being bored" or "I must feel like studying before I can get started" or "I hate taking tests so much, I can't enjoy anything about studying" or "I hate math and I can't stand the teacher" or "If I don't like to do something, I shouldn't have to do it" or "Since teachers make me do things I hate to do, I hate them" or "Since I hate teachers and school, I won't do any more than I have to do--and I'll look for shortcuts, including cheating, whenever I can" or "Studying is so terrible and useless, it makes sense not to do it." So, they procrastinate by finding something fun to do and, then, rationalize their behavior.
So, what causes procrastination? Basically, it is fears, but each procrastinator develops and responds to his/her own specific fears. In varying degrees we are all afraid of facing reality--life's challenges, the hard work and frustrations ahead of us. You can either deny reality or face it, i.e. say there is "no problem" or admit (maybe even exaggerate) the problems. Thus, there are relaxed, fun-loving procrastinators and tense-worried procrastinators. From a behavioral viewpoint, negative reinforcement plays a major role in the development of procrastination, i.e. behaviors (watching TV) and thoughts (rationalizations or excuses) enable students to avoid unpleasant work. Escape from something unpleasant is reinforcing. Procrastination is an escape.
How to stop procrastinating
If we begin with the notion that procrastination is not the basic "problem" but rather an attempted "cure" for fears, self-doubts, and dislike of work, then it is obvious that most procrastinators will have to focus on the real problems--underlying fears, attitudes and irrational ideas--in order to overcome the procrastinating behavior. After accepting this idea, the next step is to figure out what the "real" underlying problem is for you. Start by asking, "Am I a relaxed or a tense procrastinator?" Tense procrastinators suffer from strong, sometimes mean, internal critics (see chapter 14); relaxed procrastinators have bamboozled their self-critic by denying reality. From this point, each procrastinator must deal with his/her own unique emotions, skills, thoughts, and unconscious motives. Below are some self-help procedures that should be of help to relaxed and tense procrastinators.
But it is possible that you have never learned to organize your time or simply have been rewarded for putting things off, e.g. someone else "let you quit assignments" or did your work for you. In this case, if you want to change, simply stopping the rewards should solve the procrastination problem. You might want to try this easy approach first, so I will mention some simple behavioral methods for reducing this problem. If these methods don't work or don't appeal to you, then make use of methods given below for the tense or relaxed procrastinators.
Methods for a quick, simple behavioral approach
For perhaps a third of all student procrastinators, a To-Be-Done List, a daily schedule (chapter 13), and a simple record-keeping and reward procedure (chapter 11) will do wonders. Changes may occur immediately; often they start going to the library or some special place to study with a new friend. I've seen hundreds of students become more serious and responsible about studying. They experience relief just going to class more often and being prepared for exams; some even start to find the material interesting and challenging; they start working for "A's;" a few actually decide to become dedicated students. I love to see a good brain be used. Like dieters, though, many find it hard to maintain their new study habits and backslide within two or three weeks.
Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying, like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying (a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. I'd suggest breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on "getting started," perhaps by tricking yourself by saying "I'll just do five minutes" and then finding out you don't mind working longer than five minutes. This is called the "five minute plan." The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.
Some students also find it helpful to keep a journal in which they record in detail their thoughts and feelings associated with studying. This helps them see how their fears, excuses, competing needs, and habits divert attention from studying. Based on this insight they can devise their own self-talk (will power) to take on scary tasks and do them promptly. Others ask friends to nag and push them, maybe even fine them a dollar if they aren't on their way to the library by 7:00 P.M. More techniques are given at the end of this chapter and in chapter 11. Also see McWilliams & McWilliams (1991).
Many procrastinators, however, resist these methods. As one student told me, "I can easily ignore schedules and reminders. Rewards and penalties are the worst of all--I just take the reward without doing the work and I forget to punish myself." A truly dedicated "relaxed" procrastinator will need more internal motivation, maybe a new philosophy of life (chapter 3) or simply more worry and tension, i.e. a much stronger self-critic.
Behaviorally, the role of negative reinforcement in procrastination is easy to see, i.e. some behavior or thought enables a person to escape some unpleasant but necessary work. That escape--procrastination--is reinforced. (Besides, the pleasure from playing, partying, and watching TV could easily overwhelm the pleasure from studying.) Each procrastinator develops his/her own unique combination of escape mechanisms, such as emotions (fears, resentment, social needs), thoughts (irrational ideas, cognitive strategies, self-cons), skills and lack of skills, and unconscious motives, perhaps. Remember, we anticipated this complexity in chapter 2.
Helping the relaxed procrastinator
The work-avoiding, pleasure-seeking, reasonably comfortable type of procrastinator will not feel much pressure to change, unless he/she is confronted with reality by some event (such as, flunking out of school) or by serious thoughts about where his/her life is headed (as with an alcoholic, denial usually keeps this from happening). In short, this type of procrastinator needs a crisis. The question is: Can the relaxed procrastinator provide the pressure he/she needs to straighten out his/her life? (See "closing the crap-gap" in the motivated underachiever section above.)
Both types of procrastinators dislike the chores they are avoiding. How does "work" become so disliked? Ellis and Knaus (1977) and Knaus (1979) suggest that, as procrastinators, we create much of our own misery in the first place by telling ourselves the task is really awful ("I hate all this reading") or by putting ourselves down ("I'll do a terrible job") or by telling ourselves something is very unfair ("The exams are ridiculous, I can't stand that instructor") or by setting impossible goals ("I've got to get all A's"). Then we procrastinate to avoid our own self-created emotional dislike of the job at hand.
One solution, of course, is to reduce our dislike for and anxiety about the work we need to do, for instance by building self-esteem (method #1, chapter 14) or by using Rational-Emotional imagery (chapter 12). We might simply ask ourselves when did we get a guarantee that life would always be easy and fun? Or, who said hard work is terrible or that you must get an A? Or, do you know for certain that you can't stand to be bored? Or, what is your scientific proof that a 10-page paper with 10 references is outrageous? We can change our thinking--our views of things (method #3, chapter 14) so that we like our work better.
As a relaxed, fun-loving procrastinator, we need to see clearly how pleasure seeking may, in the long run, lead to unhappiness, rather than to our ideal life. Procrastination occurs because we are able to fool ourselves into believing it is okay to have fun now and put off our work. Exactly how do we do this? Very much like the underachiever uses excuses. Procrastination is a well-learned habit; it happens without much awareness. When we procrastinate, we quickly shift our attention away from the work that needs to be done in such an automatic and slick way that we feel good about avoiding the work--until later. That's a self-con! It's denial. Facing reality is the only solution. We have to see what is happening moment by moment, and stop fooling ourselves. Eventually, the procrastinator can face the facts, namely, that in most situations a take-it-easy, live-for-today, let's-have-fun philosophy will usually not get him/her what he/she wants out of life (if you often start projects but fail to follow through, see Levinson & Greider, 1998). Don't buy the old I'm-not-in-control saying, "The future will take care of itself." That's crap. You have to take a lot of responsibility for your future. Think realistically about your future...all the time. What are the procrastinators' favorite self-illusions (and, thus, self-harms in the long run)?
Knaus (1979) describes three kinds of common diversions, i.e. ways of avoiding the tasks that need to be done:
Ask yourself if you do any of these things. If so, don't let yourself get away with it.
In summary, what can the pleasure-seeking procrastinator do? (1) Stop turning little inconvenient mole hills (like having to do something unpleasant) into giant "ain't-it-awful" mountains, (2) be on the look out for any self-con or cop out by which we deny the need to work right now, (3) start to think more rationally--you don't have to go to every party, you can get interested in a textbook, (4) make detailed, realistic plans for achieving your long-range goals, and (5) don't avoid work, DO IT NOW! Use the behavioral techniques mentioned above. See McWilliams & McWilliams, 1991.
I'm afraid this kind of advice to a
procrastinator will do little good if he/she continues
to effectively use the self-cons mentioned above and remains relaxed
It is like a doctor telling an obese person to lose weight or a
smoker to stop. Ordinarily, such advice doesn't help, unless the
person has just had a terrifying
heart attack! Likewise, with the procrastinator, perhaps in a sober
will think, "Oh, my God! I've tricked myself into this stupid
self-defeating behavior--just like a drunkard or a fat person or a
smoker. That scares the hell out of
me and makes me mad! I'm going to get in better control of my life,
this moment!" I suspect these kinds of remarkable changes in our
life style will
only occur when there are powerful and sustained emotional forces
inside our gut (like a life
threatening heart attack) to provide the motivation to persevere in
becoming a different
person. This fear of the future must surely be created by the
procrastinator him/herself--others have probably tried many times and
failed ("Clean up your room, you'll
grow up to be a total slob" or "You have to study, you'll never get
Good luck in changing, but even if you continue to procrastinate, I
hope you have
the happy life you are trying for.
Helping the anxiety-based procrastinator
According to Fiore (1989), if the work pressure is already too great, exhorting the tense procrastinator to "try harder," "get yourself organized," "this is a tough job, so don't put it off," or "no friends and no fun until this work is done" is counterproductive. Such typical advice only increases the pressure and unpleasant feelings about the task to be done. This kind of procrastinator has to reduce the unpleasantness of the task and then he/she will get it done.
Specifically, Fiore recommends that
|I must...(or) have to...(OR something awful will happen)||I'd like to...(or) choose to...|
|I've gotta finish...||When can I get started on...|
|Oh, God, this assignment is enormous.||Where is the best place to start?|
|I must do well (fantastic, perfect).||I'll do okay; I'll give it time.|
|I have no time to play.||It is important to play one hour.|
|I see life and work as a grind.||Life and work can be fun.|
|I can't succeed.||I have a better chance of succeeding if I...|
By changing these thoughts and habits, you are reducing the dread of work and taking responsibility for directing your life. You are saying "I can enjoy hard, responsible work. It is part of a good life."
A couple of other self-help books focus on overcoming serious self-doubt and fears that lead to procrastinating or blocking (Sykes, 1997; Boice, 1996). Blocking often involves delay and panic and is especially likely to happen when the finished product involves an evaluation or public scrutiny, such as a term paper or a book.
A different approach to escaping the unpleasant internal critic is taken by White (1988), who says that a behavioral approach, such as teaching time management or study skills to this kind of procrastinator, often increases his/her resistance to work rather than helps. White helps her students understand the unconscious mental struggles that often underlie perfectionistic procrastination. She asks them to imagine certain internal parts (common in children from perfectionistic families), such as "the NAG," "the CRITIC," and "the CHILD." The nag constantly reminds you of what must be done. The critic tells you that you'll mess it up or look foolish or be rejected. The child tries to get you to avoid the threatening, unpleasant work ("I don't want to. You can't make me!") by seeking fun ("Let's party! Turn on the music and where's the beer?"). As the child runs away, the nag shouts orders, and the critic attacks even more. A miserable existence! Sometimes, the perfectionistic procrastinator is pretty successful even though miserable. Occasionally, he/she is traumatized ("If I can't be perfect, I won't do anything but be upset").
Getting in touch with the interactions among these inner characters is designed to shed light on the purposes and intentions of each character. Each is trying to help us: to get us motivated (Nag), to get things done right (Critic), to get some peace (Child). After getting to know these parts well (listen carefully to the internal voices for a week or so), the idea is to learn (several more weeks) to use each part so we can be rational in our planning, highly motivated to achieve our values, and still able to enjoy our life. Examples: Orders ("You must...") are turned into "I want to accomplish (some goal) in this way..." Attacks ("You are so stupid") are converted into helpful suggestions and an urge to be original or creative. Your frightened child is cuddled and protected and reassured by your "adult" who can see the world more realistically (see chapter 15). Make friends with each part, name them, visualize them, value them, help them help you, and interact with them. White is a therapist but the students do the fantasies on their own. You could too, if this approach appeals to you.
Sometimes, you need to go deeper than time management, self talk, and rewards. White's use of fantasy is a good illustration of a different kind of self-help method. It is designed to give us insight into our internal dynamics, emotions, cognitions, and unconscious factors. Even with insight, you will probably need a To-Be-Done List, a daily schedule, and a system of rewards until the intrinsic satisfaction in the work is a sufficient motivator. Recent publications are Bruno (1997), who has several small books about self-help, and Woodring (1994).
Finally, brief mention should be made of books that address the educational process and the increasing of students' incentive to learn and confidence in their learning ability. A textbook by Bandura (1997) presents his theories and research about self-efficacy ("I can do it") followed by many suggestions for changes in education, business, and health care. Other psychologists have specialized in helping students overcome failure (Covington & Teel, 1996) and in developing confident, self-regulated learners (Zimmerman, Bonner & Kovach, 1996). These are mostly classroom strategies for teachers. (Tomado de http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap4/chap4r.htm.)