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

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Procrastinating 101: What Is Procrastination, Anyway?

Even though I've been writing and reading about, and dancing around the subject for the last thirteen months, it seems I still have a thing or two to learn about what procrastination is, exactly.  In the first full chapter of his book Still Procrastinating?  The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, Dr. Joseph Ferrari grapples with the issue of definition.  

He begins by recycling his research team's definition:  procrastination is "the purposive delay of the starting or completing a task to the point of subjective discomfort."  Stripped of "technical jargon," he offers this translation:  "People procrastinate--do not work on tasks--and, as a result, feel bad (anxiety, regret) from their delaying tactics."

Ferrari is very clear that, in his view, procrastination is "maladaptive."  He rejects the notion of "active procrastination," advanced most notably by Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi.  
I think this term is a misnomer and the expression of the concept is misdirected.  Being active is procrastination?  No, I don't think so.  If you are working on another task rather than on what you are supposed to do, then you are avoiding what you need to do.  So, you are procrastinating on the target task.
Ferrari doesn't mince words when it comes to his negative judgement of the behavior--for example,
When there are no more clean dishes and you are eating with your bare hands and roaches are crawling out of the woodwork in your dirty kitchen, I don't view your procrastination as very adaptive.
But he holds out hope for those of us he would deem chronic procrastinators.  His position is that this behavior pattern needs to be changed, and that we can change it. 

To begin with, we will need to confront our irrationality, and to see the reasons we give for procrastinating as the excuses they are.  In particular, he promises to present research supporting what he and others have learned about procrastination in over twenty years of investigation, concerning its irrationality:
  • This maladaptive delaying is a way for people to self-sabotage their future performance by making them likely to fail
  • Procrastination is someone's failure to regulate aspects of herself or himself
  • Procrastination is irrational because it damages other people's perception of you
  • Procrastination does not lead to academic or workplace success
  • Procrastination is irrational because it results in regrets and is an unhealthy form of rebellion against others
  • Procrastination does not promote a sense of perfectionism
  • In some cases, procrastination has implications for psychopathologies.
Ferrari goes on to admonish the reader to "mind the gap" between our behavioral intention  (BI) and our behavior (B).  The BI to B gap is the hallmark of procrastination.  We intend to do something, but then we don't.  He advises us to guard against this widening gulf, preventatively, by starting at the beginning of the intention ("Just do it!"); by conducting "intention updates," as we proceed with a task; and by having concrete and specific intentions in the first place.  

As the chapter unfolds, Ferrari discusses, briefly, the "myth of 'working best under pressure'";  avoidant procrastination, and the fear of failure.  I confess that the author's organization of this information-rich chapter was lost on me.  I had difficulty discerning a framework beneath the topics and concepts he touched on.  It appears that some of these aspects of procrastination will be developed further in subsequent chapters.  Fear of failure is apparently not one of them.

Ferrari goes into some detail about the work of Dr. Timothy Pychyl and his associates, which demonstrates the "multidimensionality" of fear of failure, as it pertains to procrastination.  
. . . some people may procrastinate because they're afraid of feeling shame about being inadequate.  Other people procrastinate out of a fear that a poor performance or a failure may result in the devaluing of their self-esteem.  Still other people procrastinate because they fear that failure would upset others who are important to them. . . .If they feel incompetent and as if they have little control over the outcome of a situation, this may cause them to procrastinate.

And the notion of learned helplessness, first explored by Dr. Martin Seligman (more recently known for his research on happiness) bears on procrastination, too, according to Ferrari.  In his words,
[t]he fear of failure you experience contributes to your procrastination because you believe you have low competence--you don't have the skills to deal with change.  And you feel that you have no control over your life; your life and your time are controlled by the demands of others.  So, you procrastinate.
Ferrari concludes the chapter with a consideration of the prevalence of procrastination, and its distribution within the population.  Acknowledging that delay has become part of our culture, and that some 70 to 75% of college students admit to putting off  academic work,* he asserts, nonetheless, that "Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator."  He documents widespread agreement that about 20% of us "delay as a way of life:" are, in short, chronic procrastinators.  This figure is roughly the same in international studies.  And there are no significant differences in procrastination by gender, age, marital status, or educational level.  

Having laid out the problem in Chapter 1, Ferrari pledges to help the reader "learn to change. . . . from experiences that enable and empower."  I can't wait.

*Ferrari also reports the dismal statistic that 70% of Ph.D. candidates do not complete their dissertations, ending up, like me, A.B.D.—which Ferrari says is "B.A.D."

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