The perils of procrastination

COLUMN

25 March 2022

Hands holding mobile phone over a book.

How many of us do not allow ourselves to be distracted by the mobile phone from time to time?

COLUMN. Putting off what needs to be done, against our own better judgement, is surely a habit we can all identify with. For some individuals, however, the associated problems may be so severe as to affect their health, well-being and self-image adversely. University students are a group who, above all, struggle to get round to things, says Alexander Rozental, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology.

Alexander Rozental
Alexander Rozental, University Lecturer at the
Department of Psychology.
Photo: MIkael Wallerstedt

“Procrastination” is an oft-used word these days, although it is a little tricky to pronounce. In psychology, it may be defined as a voluntary choice to delay an intended course of action despite awareness of the potentially negative effects of doing so. In other words, it involves deliberately choosing to engage in one activity rather than another, despite the repercussions that may or will result. This behaviour is explained both by factors associated with the psychology of learning and by how we process information.

According to the dominant model, we procrastinate because of the low or undefined value we assign to the activity postponed, our low expectation of attaining this value, a long time between action and result, and our high impulsivity – inability to wait for a reward. One example is saving for a pension in our youth. Here, we have difficulty in seeing what the saving entails, coupled with low confidence in our ability to influence the outcome; there is a long delay before the pension materialises; and we tend to want to spend the money immediately.

University students are a group of people who often have difficulty in completing tasks. Surveys conducted in primarily English-speaking countries indicate that up to half of the survey respondents regard procrastination as troublesome and something they want to learn how to manage better. Unfortunately, statistics of this kind are hard to interpret, since the studies have seldom sought to distinguish between more mundane postponement and the kind that causes problems.

My research conducted at Uppsala University has, however, involved addressing the matter more closely and systematically through a survey among Sweden’s university students. The findings indicate that roughly a third experience such severe difficulties that they consider seeking help. This group are also troubled to a higher extent by anxiety and depression, as well as having a relatively low quality of life.

Another unique feature of this research was its scope for qualitative analysis of the responses to open-ended questions about the negative consequences associated with procrastination. Physical ailments proved to be common, with a preponderance of the effects of stress and anxiety, such as tension. More interesting, however, were the mental repercussions. Once again, the answers came to be dominated by anxiety and stress – such as feeling anxious about not finishing work in time. Simultaneously, many reported that their self-image was adversely affected, with strong elements of self-criticism, remorse, frustration and the sense of not being good enough. This may be interpreted as showing not only that procrastination gives rise to stress during the period of postponement, but that lack of progress also contributes to self-doubt, despondency and impaired confidence in one’s own abilities.

Of course, procrastination also spells problems in terms of the actual studies. Students’ difficulties in getting to the point of cramming for tests and exams or completing and submitting assignments affect their prospects of completing the studies, and may also have a financial impact due to non-receipt of study funds. Giving students timely support can benefit their health and well-being, as well as helping them to complete their education.

Along with colleagues, I have previously developed and tested psychotherapy with good results in various forms, such as university student group meetings. The method is based on a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), in which the individual learns to linger in the state of unease associated with the studies, create more and increasingly concrete goals, and remove distractions. Many parts of this approach are hardly revolutionary; rather, they involve the kinds of change that most people know are helpful. However, some people – especially students new to higher education, lack these skills. A therapist’s supervision and discussions with others in the same situation can get a procrastinator on the right track.

At the same time, there is much that we, as course directors and teachers, may need to change. Course structure that involves a great deal of reading and a major final exam, for instance, is questionable. A well-known field study by Dan Ariely, the behavioural economist, showed that the best way of counteracting procrastination among university students turned out to be recurrent assignments with fixed submission dates, such as one assignment weekly for a month.

Accordingly, outcomes were worse when individuals were allowed to set their own deadlines and focus solely on the Big Challenge on the last day of the course. Besides carrying out clear, more frequent checks on their knowledge, it may also be better to supplement freedom under responsibility with responsibility to others, by such means as group work, or to have some form of regular review and feedback. Nevertheless, just as Ariely found, this does not mean that university students appreciate this kind of course structure: on the contrary, they prefer to choose for themselves how to work. But it does at least ensure that their studies are completed – and on time.

Alexander Rozental, University Lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Uppsala university

Last modified: 2021-02-14