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"I was going to phone for that doctor's appointment yesterday. Honest. Somehow, it just never got done."

"Yeah, I said I'd start exercising right after the new year. Haven't gotten around to it yet."

"I meant to get my wife a nice gift for her birthday. Really. Boy, was she mad."

Sound familiar?

It's safe to say that everyone procrastinates once in a while. Some of us do it so much that our grades, finances, jobs, and even our health are at risk. We know the risks involved, and yet we somehow just can't seem to stop ourselves.

Procrastinate: "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay." Piers Steel, Psychological Bulletin 2007 Jan Vol 133(1) p. 66.

How come? More importantly, what's a person to do?

Procrastination research

You've got to admire the person who publishes a research study on procrastination. Especially when it's as comprehensive and detailed as Dr. Piers Steel's "The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure," published just this month in Psychological Bulletin [2007 Jan Vol 133(1) 65-94].

While Dr. Steel's research doesn't claim to have all the answers, it certainly provides a few. Over a period of time, he reviewed 553 sources from among the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, and economics. He then selected 216 sources of statistical data about procrastination, summarizing them in a single article through a process known as meta-analysis.

All in all, he explored 4 key areas of procrastination research -- and provided some real answers we can all learn from. (Well, at least the 95% of procrastinators who say they'd like to turn over a new leaf. The remaining 5% probably won't be reading this article anyway.)

Task characteristics

It probably won't surprise you to learn that tasks we perceive as enjoyable are typically procrastinated less than those we expect to be distasteful. Of course, perception is not absolute. Chronic procrastinators are more likely to see a task as unpleasant than those who are more proactive.

Your takeaway: When a job simply has to get done, find ways to make it seem more interesting or enjoyable!

Individual differences

It's not only the task itself that separates the thinkers from the doers, though. Individual differences play a key role. Certain personality characteristics seem to predispose a person to either put off important tasks or to dispense with them quickly.

The good news — once you identify your own personal pattern, it's easier to come up with a customized and effective work-around.

Anxiety: People who are more anxious may describe themselves as being procrastinators. However a fly on the wall wouldn't always agree. Jury says they judge their performance more harshly than others, but may actually do just as well.

Irrational beliefs: If you believe you're inadequate to the task, or that the task is too hard, you may put it off. Your beliefs may not be accurate, however.

Perfectionism: If you're a perfectionist, chances are you don't procrastinate as much as the average Joe. You want it done right. Right now, that is!

Low self-efficacy: If you lack confidence in your ability to perform the task, you're more likely to give up when you encounter an obstacle. In fact, why bother starting in the first place if your perception is that you're doomed to fail?

Self-handicapping: Procrastinators are more likely to enter into situations likely to handicap their progress or performance.

Depression: People who are depressed may lack the energy needed to initiate new projects.

Optimisim: Extremely optimistic people may also put off the inevitable — they figure they've got plenty of time to get around to it!

Sociability: If you're a true social butterfly, you're more likely to become distracted by social activities.

Impulsiveness: Procrastinators live for the moment and are less effective at screening out distractions from tasks with long-term importance. Procrastinators structure their day with pleasant tasks first; non-procrastinators sequence pleasant tasks last.

Distractibility: Procrastinators are easily distracted.

Organization: The more organized you are, the less likely you are to be a chronic procrastinator. This includes organizing your projects with effective goals.

Achievement motivation: Procrastinators have lower achievement drives than non-procrastinators.

Intention-action gap: Procrastinators intend to work as hard as anyone else. They just put off acting on those intentions. This effect varies according to the time span between the intention and the goal. At the beginning, procrastinators do less work than they'd planned. As the goal becomes closer, they often end up doing more work than intended.

Outcomes

What's the result of all this procrastination? Researchers typically look at two factors, mood and performance.

Those in poorer moods tend to say they procrastinate more than happier people. (Doesn't mean they really do. It's that perception thing again.)

Procrastinators experience less stress at the beginning of a task cycle, more stress as the goal approaches, and more stress overall when compared with their more pro-active counterparts.

People usually feel bad about procrastinating after they've done it.

Procrastination is usually harmful to performance, sometimes harmless, and never helpful. Compared with non-procrastinators:

  • Student procrastinators get lower grades
  • Procrastinators delay health treatments and diagnostic tests
  • There is a strong negative relationship between procrastination and financial well-being
  • Career success may be compromised by chronic procrastination

Demographics

Researchers have also looked at procrastination relative to age, gender, and year.

Age: Procrastination decreases with age. This is partly attributed to learning, as it has been clearly demonstrated that people can learn to minimize procrastination. It has also been observed that senior citizens put things off much less than younger people.

Gender: Men procrastinate only slightly more than women.

Year: Procrastination is on the rise! It's thought that this is partly due to the ever increasing amount of distraction available (gadgets, email, web forums, games, movies, sports, and on and on and on). Also, increased workplace procrastination may be related to the trend of jobs becoming more self-structured.

Conclusion

"Continued research into procrastination should not be delayed," Steel concludes, "especially because its prevalance appears to be growing." Now that's a researcher with a healthy sense of humor!


Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health - or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of — you!

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