Written By: Jennifer Smith
In a wired world where we can check our email on one tab, stream music on another and theoretically write that eleventh-hour research paper on yet another, procrastination sets in almost inconspicuously.
“We’ve got this stone-aged brain running around our modern world,” says Timothy A. Pychyl Ph.D., author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle (2010) and host of iProcrastinate, a top-ten ranked podcast on iTunes in the category of self-help.
“We want what we want now,” he continues. “We want instant gratification, and that may be a remnant of what was adaptive to our ancestors, but it’s not so adaptive in the modern world.”
Technology isn’t going anywhere, but the understanding of procrastination has significantly grown in the past couple decades. Since the 1980s, when we first started to see traditional empirical research into the problem of procrastination, studies have debunked several procrastination myths. Excuses such as “I procrastinate because I’m poor at time management “ or “I work better under pressure” don’t hold up against scientific scrutiny. While technology remains problematic, the real culprit behind procrastination appears to be what Dr. Pychyl describes as “self-regulation failure,” something that speaks more towards personality than time management skills.
The mnemonic CANOE breaks down “the personality color wheel,” or five dimensions that can be combined in various ways to describe personality: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion. Of those, conscientiousness is a particularly important factor when thinking about procrastination because it has to do with a person’s tendency to be organized.
“Conscientiousness is crucial to understanding procrastination,” Pychyl says. “Those people who are low on conscientiousness are more likely to procrastinate because they’re not very dutiful. By their very nature, they’re not prone to be attentive to tasks.”
Perfectionism also plays a role in procrastination; however, it becomes especially problematic in the form of “socially-prescribed perfectionism” i.e. cases where individuals don’t pursue perfectionism for their own benefit, but rather for the approval of others.
“We don’t see any evidence that they procrastinate more,” Pychyl says of self-oriented perfectionists. “In fact, sometimes they procrastinate less, but the socially- prescribed perfectionists… people who are always trying to live up to someone else’s standards, these people are more likely to procrastinate.”
It’s partially related to fear of failure and anxiety, Pychyl says. In trying up to live up to other people’s expectations, socially-prescribed perfectionists can be quick to abandon their tasks.
Furthermore, someone who is highly impulsive would be at risk for procrastination because of his or her inability to “shield one intention from another,” Pychyl says.
“Intention” is a crucial word in the definition of procrastination, which has only become fully formed in the wake of the fairly recent research literature focused on studying the problem.
According to Dr. Pychyl, procrastination is “the voluntary delay of an intended act despite knowing that it’s to our own detriment.”
In an effort to convince themselves a delay or task avoidance is warranted, procrastinators tend to make up excuses, including the proverbial “I work better under pressure.”
“People don’t work better under pressure,” Pychyl says. “In experimental studies where people are put under pressure, they make more errors.”
As our understanding of procrastination grows through these studies, so too do strategies for dealing with procrastination, which according to Dr. Pychyl, can come in a variety of forms so long as people recognize procrastination for what it is: Self-regulation failure.
“That’s self deception,” he says on the topic of making excuses. “I agree with Jean-Paul Sartre, who called that a form of living in bad faith.”
For more with Dr. Pychyl, check out bonus material from our interview on BTR’s new current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly, debuting this Thursday.