To put things off is human. Indeed, we've been procrastinating since we've been able to write about it. (Yep, even the Greeks and Romans bemoaned its pernicious charms.) Clearly finding ways to avoid doing the work we don't want to do is part of the human condition and has little to do with the Internet, social media or modern life.
But what is recent is how we have studied procrastination — and what scientists say it reveals about us. For up to 20 percent of us, procrastination is a chronic problem that interfere with our lives, making us sicker mentally and physically in the long- and short-term, and less able to reach work/life goals.
“What I’ve found is that while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator,” Association for Psychological Science Fellow Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University told the Observer. “It really has nothing to do with time-management,” he says. “As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
Those who have researched the subject theorize that it's most common — and most severe — in those people who are high in impulsivity and low in self-control. Those people are also more likely to have ADHD and other attention issues, meaning that there's probably a neuropsychological basis for the worst procrastinators. But the brain is likely working in tandem with an individual's psychology. A revealing 2000 study found that procrastinators only tend to put off what needs doing when a task is framed in a way that indicates the results matter. In the study, procrastinators did the practice they needed to do when a goal wasn't defined as a test, but didn't do that same work when it was set forth as a test with consequences. This suggests that procrastination can also be a self-defeating behavior — the people were only procrastinating when they knew it mattered, suggesting that it's not the work they were avoiding, but succeeding at it.
It's obvious that procrastination is bad for your work life — whether that's for school, self or a job, whether the reason is because you have attention issues or are unknowingly self-sabotaging: "... despite its apologists and its short-term benefits, procrastination cannot be regarded as either adaptive or innocuous,” writes Dr. Diane Tice or Florida State University in a longitudinal study of the effects of avoiding work, a subject she has studied for over a decade. “Procrastinators end up suffering more and performing worse than other people.”
What's not so obvious is that procrastination is also bad for your physical health. Putting things off has been linked to headaches, digestive problems and higher rates of cold and flu. Procrastinators don't tend to take as good care of themselves (maybe they mean to, but they avoid doing what needs to be done when it comes to health maintenance). As the scientists who studied this in 2003 put it, the reasons are what you'd expect: "... procrastination related to poorer health, treatment delay, perceived stress, and fewer wellness behaviors." Simply, those who put off important things in other parts of their life tended to do so when it came to health tasks too, which meant that they didn't get treatment when they needed it, which would cause additional stress and longer healing times when they got sick. (Not surprisingly, a later study found the same impact on those who needed mental health services as well.)
Of course, not all of procrastination's effects are negative. As John Perry, a Stanford professor who wrote "The Art of Procrastination," told MNN, "It's a flaw, but it's not like you are a child molester or a serial killer or Bernie Madoff. On the other hand, if you went through history and took away all the novels and plays and poems and inventions that people came up with while they were supposed to be doing something else, you would take away a good bit of our culture."
What do you think? Does procrastinating benefit or hurt your life?
Related on MNN:
- How to waste time well
- 6 ways to motivate yourself (backed by science)
- How to stay motivated while working from home