Why We Procrastinate

Surfing the Web  all night when you should be finishing an assignment that’s due ... yesterday? You’re not alone. About 15 to 20 percent of the general population are procrastinators, with up to 90 percent of college students filling that bill.

Now, a recent study reveals some causes of the foot-dragging phenomenon and what dooms New Year’s resolutions to failure.

"Essentially, procrastinators have less confidence in themselves, less expectancy that they can actually complete a task," said lead researcher Piers Steel of the University of Calgary.

Procrastination can do more than set your work or school record back a notch. The daily delay can also drain your wallet. A survey by H&R Block found that waiting until the last minute to file taxes costs people an average of $400 because of rushing-caused errors, which totaled $473 million in overpayments in 2002.

Why dawdle?

Steel analyzed more than 200 past studies on procrastination, dating back to the 1920s through 2006. He found a strong link between impulsiveness and the “I’ll-do-it-tomorrow” phenomenon. The research is detailed in the January issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Impulsive people value today far more than tomorrow. “So they can’t feel motivated, deadlines don’t feel real, they have no energy until just before they happen,” Steel said. These people have the best of intentions, aiming to get started right away, but they don’t end up following through on their self-promises.

The personality trait rears its face in more than just the workplace.

“Impulsive people tend to have self-control problems in general. So they’re more likely to be smokers, more likely to overeat, more likely to gamble. They are the type of people who choose short-term gain and incur long-term pain,” Steel told LiveScience.

However, Steel found in another study that when procrastinators do cram to finish the work, they work at a dizzying pace. “They work almost 11 times the average rate. Real procrastinators, just before the deadline, are mercurial,” he said.

More put-offs

His analysis also turned on its head a widespread notion—one reported in many self-help books—that people put off work because they are perfectionists and fear they will never reach this perfection. 

“In fact, perfectionists tend to procrastinate slightly less. They just worry about it more,” Steel said. And perhaps they report it more. Perfectionists tend to feel guiltier about the delay so they complain and even seek clinical advice for it.

People who dislike their jobs or find themselves twiddling their thumbs due to boredom are more likely to put off tasks than those who are passionate about their jobs or schoolwork.

Other predictors of procrastination: high distractibility, lack of self-confidence and a low level of intrinsic motivation, or the drive to check things off the to-do list.

Don’t delay

Does this mean all dawdlers are doomed to a life buried beneath perpetually late assignments and sloppy tax returns? Don’t freak out just yet. Steel has some tips to help put procrastination behind you.

A project due in a month doesn’t get the adrenaline going for a procrastinator, but something due tomorrow might give you that jolt.  “Distant goals have very little motivational force. You have to bring them down into the daily goals and make them real in the moment,” Steel said.

Office managers can also take action to help employees. Steel said managers need to figure out which workers are self-motivated “do-ers” and which ones are procrastinators. Then, the manager could set up daily meetings to ask the person their goals for that day and the next, making sure to check up on the person to see whether they’ve accomplished those goals.

Make it harder

Since people are more likely to put off work if it’s boring, managers could make tasks more difficult to reduce the boredom and increase the satisfaction the employee gets from completing it.

And if this doesn’t work, time will, along with willpower. Steel said as people age they grow out of their procrastinating behaviors, because they learn self discipline. He should know. Asked if he is a procrastinator, Steel replied, “I used to be famously so.”

He hopes to refine procrastination diagnoses so that doctors can figure out the specific causes of an individual’s procrastination. Then, they could work out a plan to nip it in the bud.