Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Absolving Ourselves

Timothy Pychyl is something of a procrastination guru.  The Canadian psychology professor writes the procrastination blog Don't Delay for Psychology Today, provides weekly updates to his iProcrastinate Podcasts, co-creates an instructional, but nonetheless entertaining comic strip entitled Carpe Diem, and heads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.  (He is also, apparently, a sled dog musher and "Mr. Mum," which, while interesting, is probably off-topic.)  

Pychyl and his team of researchers have much to teach us, including their recently published finding that "self-forgiveness" for procrastination significantly reduces subsequent procrastinating.[1]  In a study of 119 university freshman, using self-report measures of procrastination and self-forgiveness prior to each of two midterms exams, they learned that:

  1. Forgiving oneself for procrastinating on a given task is related to less procrastination on a similar task in the future.
  2. This relationship is mediated by negative affect, such that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination by reducing negative emotions.
  3. The presence of this relationship depends on the extent to which the individual procrastinated on the first task. In our study, only at high levels of procrastination on the first exam was self-forgiveness negatively related to procrastination on the second exam.
Okay.  So what does it mean to forgive ourselves?  According to Pychyl,
There are three essential parts to self-forgiveness. First of all, one must acknowledge the commission of an objective wrong and accept responsibility for that wrong.
Been there, done that. 
Secondly, one must then experience feelings of guilt and regret.
Check, and check. 
Finally, one must overcome these feelings (i.e., self-forgiveness), and, in doing so, experience a motivational change away from self-punishment toward self-acceptance. 
Not so much, yet.

But why does it matter if we forgive ourselves for putting things off?  Pychyl articulates the reasoning behind his team's investigation in this way:

[W]e argue that self-forgiveness for procrastinating may play a role in helping people overcome the negative effects of procrastination and encourage a change in behavior. If procrastination is viewed as a transgression against the self and results in negative feelings such as guilt, forgiving oneself for procrastinating should reduce this feeling. By reducing emotional distress associated with procrastination, the individual becomes less likely to avoid the stimulus associated with the feelings in the first place (i.e., studying for an exam). Moreover, because self-forgiveness is typically accompanied by a vow to change one's behavior in the future, this encourages the individual to engage in approach behaviors rather than behaviors motivated by avoidance. Thus self-forgiving for procrastinating may make it less likely that the individual will be motivated to avoid unpleasant tasks like studying and more likely that he or she will approach success by procrastinating less in the future.

In a conversation on NPR's Talk of the Nation in June of 2008, Dr. Pychyl further indicated a gender component to the self-forgiveness/procrastination connection, discussed in more detail in an earlier Don't Delay blog.  Basically, females tended to feel worse about having procrastinated in the first instance; and the effect of self-forgiveness was strongest for those who reported moderate or high levels of procrastination.  Pychyl speculates about why this would be so:
Based on previous research we've done, we think it may be explained by self-worth. Procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males. So, to the extent that procrastination threatens sense of self, there is more of a transgression against self, more need for self-forgiveness and more of what I'm loosely calling "redemption."

So, basically, I'm in good shape here.  I'm a woman.  I feel lousy about procrastinating.  I have procrastinated at least moderately, have admitted my sins and experienced guilt and regret.  Now all I have to do is  "get over it."  I'm working on it.  Without delay. 

[1] Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

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