According to the song, “My old man said, ‘Foller the van, and don’t dilly-dally on the way’”, but we do dilly-dally, don’t we? I hate that I do it, knowing that something has to be done, but delaying the inevitable until it’s just so much more stressful than it would have been if I just, well, did it.
And I’m not alone. The behaviour is very common among students (more than 85%) and is a significant cause of concern for the majority. Maybe as many as a fifth of the non-student population consider themselves chronic procrastinators, and nobody thinks it’s a good thing. Accountancy company H&R Block has calculated that procrastinating over paying taxes cost individual Americans more than $500 a year (in 2013 dollars) – a $600 million windfall for the tax department.
So, am I lazy? Am I deluding myself that I’m smart enough to get the bizzo done? For an answer to the $600 million question of when and why people procrastinate, let me turn to the work of Professor Piers Steel of the University of Calgary.
In 2007, Steel reviewed every piece of research ever published about procrastination. His meta-analysis, a method of sticking a bunch of studies together so the whole is more than the sum of the parts, showed that a lot of the culprits we probably assume are involved (laziness, for example) may have been unfairly blamed. Intelligence is completely off the hook (phew). Things like sensation-seeking, rebelliousness and emotional instability are only weakly associated with procrastination, whereas being impulsive or “task-averse” (read: having something unpleasant to do) are strongly associated. Not really a surprise that last one.
Unsurprisingly, the more diligent and conscientious you are, the less procrastination you engage in. Conscientiousness is a personality-level trait that we all possess to a
greater or lesser extent. It covers such important stuff as distractibility, organisation and achievement motivation, among other things.
If you’re highly motivated, you’re more likely to set goals and look forward to seeing the fruits of your labours, and if you’re organised, you’re more likely to stick to your goals. But if you’re easily distracted, you’re more likely to experience “self-regulatory failure” – you’re less likely to keep it together to get the job done.
Steel’s review is fascinating for a couple of other reasons. For a start, he has shown that over the past 30-odd years, procrastination has increased. We’re saying we do it more now than we used to, and that might be because we have so much more to procrastinate with. Google and Facebook, I accuse you. And although I wince at saying this, men appear to be slightly more likely to take a while to get around to it.
Why do we do it? Once again, evolution gets the credit. If you think of the ability to stay on task, to regulate ourselves, as a kind of reservoir that can be used up, Steel argues we have evolved to have just enough in the tank to focus on the tasks immediately at hand (clubbing and cooking sabretooths, etc). “Where do you see your career in five years?” is just too far away for those of us particularly high on the impulsivity scale.
What does the expert recommend, then? As procrastination isn’t about putting everything off, but rather choosing to do some things over others, temptation is a contributing factor. If part of the problem is having options of what to do, start by cutting them down. “Put them at a distance” either by removing them from your immediate environment (heard of the company that removed solitaire from all its computers?) or by psychologically distancing yourself. For example, Steel suggests setting up different accounts for your computer – one persona for work and one for playing solitaire, and not trying to multitask.
Maybe I should write about multitasking? Nah, next week.