A New Way to Understand Procrastination

A New Way to Understand Procrastination
If procrastination is a problem for you, this new approach may just solve it

You've set yourself a goal for the week, and all you have to do is get started. However, just when you think you're ready to dig into the task, something else catches your attention. Perhaps it's an overflowing email inbox with tantalizing promotions, or some extra but unnecessary cleaning up you start to do around the house. After all, your closet really could use some reorganizing. As the hours go by, and then a couple of days, that goal for the week recedes further into the distance. Unfortunately, this means you'll have to rush to get it done, or end up being a few days late when you do finally finish it. If you find yourself stalling like this on a regular basis, you may think that becoming a punctual person is beyond your ability. New research on the motivation behind procrastination can help you get out of this rut and see your delay tactics in a different light.

Many psychologists have attempted to understand the causes of procrastination beginning, perhaps, with the great psychodynamic theorists. Freud related this behavior to problems stemming from poor toilet training, but the self-oriented psychodynamic theorists who followed him proposed more generally that people who procrastinate are showing signs of neurotic self-defeating behavior. If you procrastinate, according to this view, you're guaranteeing that you'll fail which you perversely wish to do if you believe that you're fundamentally flawed. Over the decades since the writing of the self-theorists, psychologists addressing procrastination have shifted their focus from this inner-oriented dynamic approach to a motivational one. Procrastinators are now seen as lacking such qualities as self-regulation, time management, and learning strategies that would allow them to bridge the gap between intention and action.

University of Bieleland (Germany) psychologists Axel Grund and Stefan Fries (2018) set the ambitious goal of tying together competing approaches to understanding procrastination. They revamp the view of this behavior as reflecting not just failure to follow through our intentions, but on not holding the intentions to be on time in the first place. People who don't get things done on time don't actually value the same goals as people who do. As they note, “In line with other researchers, we understand procrastination as reflecting difficulties in goal pursuit. However, in contrast to other approaches, we do not think the problem is solved by focusing on the volitional, implementation phase of action only” (p. 121). In other words, to understand the procrastinators in life, you have to understand their values. Maybe they don't see dilatory behavior as reflecting “a misconduct and a serious human weakness” (p. 122). Instead, they may value what the German authors refer to aspost-modern (liberal) values such as well-being and tolerance” (p. 122).

To Grund and Fries, there is a tension between conservative views that ascribe procrastination to a moral failure, and liberal values that regard procrastination as situational and therefore not due to personal weakness. Toward this end, the German research team conducted a series of studies in which they first investigated the value orientations of self-described procrastinators.

Would people who score high on a procrastination scale also value their own personal well-being (enjoying their free time) more than achievement (getting things done)? Using a sample of 223 undergraduates, a perfectly appropriate set of participants for studying procrastination, Grund and Fries found that, as they predicted, a positive relationship between procrastination and an orientation to personal enjoyment and well-being.