Gail Borelli // Fall 2014
Procrastinators historically have been regarded as laggards and slackers, lazybones and slugs —unfortunates who can’t muster the wherewithal to finish what they start, if they start at all. But researchers are finding there is more to procrastination than merely a lack of ambition.
By some estimates, 95 percent of the population suffers occasional stress from putting off until tomorrow what should be done today. For the 20 percent who identify themselves as chronic procrastinators, however, the condition can result in a lifetime of hurt. They flounder at work, ruin relationships, neglect their health and ignore their bills. They choose to delay an important task in the present, even though they know it will lead to suffering in the future. It is self-sabotaging behavior that at first glance appears completely illogical.
But people are not machines, and the pain of procrastination is all part of being human, says Will Self, assistant professor of organizational behavior at UMKC’s Bloch School of Management. “The behavior makes perfect sense from an evolutionary and psychological perspective,” he says. “We have evolved lots of coping mechanisms to keep us out of difficult and painful circumstances. We are avoiding positions of possible failure, or pushing to new and uncertain levels. None of this feels good.”
Theories abound on why people procrastinate. Can the behavior be attributed to perfectionism? Poor impulse control? Adrenaline addiction? Fear of failure? Fear of success? Is it a lack of willpower that correlates to overeating and overspending? An issue with the way the brain is hardwired? Or just a bad habit?
Self lands squarely in the behavioral camp. “Procrastination is a habit. We aren’t born procrastinators; we become procrastinators,” he says.
Others take a different view. After meta-analyzing hundreds of studies from multiple disciplines, researcher Piers Steel of the University of Calgary concluded that genetics and the fundamental structure of the brain are partly to blame for procrastination. But in this nature vs. nurture equation, the environment also plays a role.
“Modern life has elevated procrastination into a pandemic,” Steel writes in his book The Procrastination Equation. As a result of technology, we surf and skim and find it increasingly difficult to focus on any one thing. Texts, tweets, news flashes and Snapchats have fractured time. And in an era of instant gratification, we want to feel good now. (Actually, we want to feel good now and later, but now is more of a sure thing.)
“The future self becomes the beast of burden for procrastination,” researcher Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University, Quebec, says in the Observer, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. “We’re trying to regulate our current mood and thinking our future self will be in a better state … that somehow we’ll develop miraculous coping skills to deal with these emotions that we just can’t deal with right now.”
Not everyone agrees that procrastination is a problem. Some dawdlers say procrastination allows time to ponder a project and for ideas to percolate in the brain — even if it happens subconsciously while playing video games. Others contend that the stress of a looming deadline sparks their creativity.
“For some people, feeling that pressure from postponing may result in intense periods of productivity that give them increased focus,” says Heather Noble, staff psychologist at the UMKC Counseling Center. “They actually are pushed to perform better than if they had an open-ended amount of time for a task.”
Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, argues that instead of trying to stamp out procrastination, people should embrace it. He advocates always waiting until the last possible moment to make a decision. During the delay, important details may surface that change the parameters of the project, or the project may be canceled altogether, eliminating the need for action. “The question is not whether we are procrastinating; it is whether we are procrastinating well,” he says in Smithsonian magazine.
So is it really possible to harness the “positives” of procrastination and become, in effect, a better procrastinator?
“Maybe a better procrastinator is someone who’s prioritizing appropriately,” suggests Denise McNerney (B.S. ’76, pharmacy; M.A. ’82, education), founder of iBossWell, a leadership and organization development company based in Prairie Village, Kan.
“Everyone has overflowing plates,” McNerney says. “The trick is to figure out what’s OK to let overflow. Can you catch it later? That’s what prioritization is all about.”
In pondering which tasks to postpone, it’s important to consider whether all of them should be on the to-do list in the first place. Maybe the problem is not procrastination, but unrealistic expectations about how much a human can accomplish in 24 hours. It’s common to overload the list and then feel stressed when everything doesn’t get checked off.
It’s misguided to think of idleness as an evil that is best avoided.
“We all need downtime to dream, reflect and process,” Self says.
Many great ideas have originated with people who were daydreaming or doodling. Odds are, some were procrastinating at the time. So maybe a “better procrastinator” is someone who can somehow harness their dilatory behavior for the greater good.
Maybe better procrastinators are people who have learned how to ration their willpower. Research suggests that when a disproportionate amount of self-control is expended in one area of life, such as staying on task, less is available for other areas, such as avoiding the temptations of gambling and overeating.
“Self-control is a scarce resource, like money and time,” Self says. “There’s a cost in putting all your self-control into avoiding procrastination.”
Some successful leaders conserve their willpower by eliminating as many choices in daily life as possible, he notes. They dress the same way every day (think Steve Jobs and black mock turtlenecks) or delegate all their scheduling to an assistant, leaving themselves self-control and energy for things that matter.
The good news is that self-control, like a muscle, can be strengthened through exercise. The key, as in training for a 5k, is repetition and perseverance. And just as people feel like jogging farther if they are healthy and rested, they have more mental energy to exercise willpower if they are not fatigued or ill.
The bad news is that, like other workout programs, exercising willpower is something that people tend to put off until tomorrow.