Procrastination and the fallacy of time management

Just one more episode, well, maybe one more, again and again, until the sun breaks the horizon and the paper which should be finished is left with two paragraphs done and an hour until its due.

The pervasive issue of procrastination seems to affect college students everywhere, but while many consider themselves procrastinators, most lack the struggles of chronic procrastinators whose procrastination seeps into every aspect of their lives.

Senior graphic design student Lando Landgren identifies with the struggles of a procrastinating college student.

“It’s usually just homework, school related things, and cutting my hair or nails,” senior graphic design student Lando Landgren said. “I’m a pretty bad procrastinator if it’s a long-term project because I think I have so much time for it, but if it’s more short term then I get in the zone because it’s due so soon. I guess I am more motivated by stress.”

Landgren says he feels less inclined to procrastinate if the activity is something he has an interest in doing. He also says that setting a schedule has helped him in the past with achieving various daily goals. Landgren says he works better when he works alone too.

“I try to not do homework with other people, but sometimes you get guilted into doing homework with other people … it doesn’t get done when I am in those environments,” Landgren said.

Psychology and Saint Vincent DePaul professor Joseph Ferrari is an international leader in the field of procrastination studies. In 2010, he published a book, “Still Procrastinating? The no regrets guide to getting it done,” which attempts to change the perspective of what procrastination truly is and how a person might manage it.

Ferrari says that despite many people claim, procrastination is not a time management problem; it is a chronic, maladaptive personality tendency.

Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,”

— Ferrari said.

“To procrastinate is to actively avoid something, to purposefully delay. Delaying is not procrastination, waiting is not procrastination, postponing is not procrastination – it’s what the public thinks, but that’s not what procrastination is.”

Ferrari says that while 80 percent of college students self-identify as procrastinators, most typically only delay academic activities. True chronic procrastination affects 20 percent of adults across multiple nations.

“If there is a free keg of beer, or if Chance the Rapper is putting a show on for free, they will be there. So they aren’t procrastinators, they just delay this one thing,” Ferrari said. “The chronic procrastinator does this at home, school, relationships: This is their lifestyle.”

Ferrari also says a typical procrastinator would rather be viewed as someone who lacks effort than someone who lacks ability.

“If I finish a task and I do not do very well on it, you’re going to think less of me and I don’t want that, but if I never finish it and I always say that I’m still working on it, then you can’t judge me,” Ferrari said.

Junior biology student Adrian Vo agrees that procrastinators would rather be seen as lacking effort.

“I can definitely see that,” Vo said. “If you are just lacking effort then it’s still possible that you are capable of doing something great. But if you just do a bad job then you’re just someone who did a bad job.”

In his experiments with procrastinators, Ferrari found that procrastinators are often critical of each other. He says that procrastinators in business settings have even suggested that other procrastinators be fired because of their behavior.

“In school and during group activities in which the teacher has said that the whole group gets one grade, procrastinators will engage in social loafing – deliberately trying less because there is no way to determine who is putting in less effort,” Ferrari said. “But if there are multiple procrastinators, then it makes it difficult for both procrastinators to be social loafers.”

Ferrari also found that when a student gives an excuse to a teacher for an extension, 70 percent of students admitted that they give fraudulent excuses.

“I have a retake policy in my classes, so if someone misses an exam, they have an opportunity to remake the exam again,” Ferrari said. “If you build in a makeup day, then if something happens you can empathize. But if they miss the makeup date, I’ve found that they then take ownership of it because it’s been built into the system.”

Ferrari says there are three main myths people believe about procrastination. The first myth is that technology has made procrastinating easier. Ferrari says that the use of technology has been a central aspect of humans for a long time, so the question lies in how people use or do not use technology, not if they do.

The second myth, according to Ferrari’s research, is that people’s lives have become busier.

“There are 24 hours a day and 7 days a week – that’s 168 hours,” Ferrari said. “We’ve been given 168 hours for centuries. Our lives are not busier today, they’re different. To say that our lives are busier today is an insult to our ancestors, our farming ancestors, who had to get up in the morning to make sure the field was plowed, the roof was fixed, or the cows were milked. Time management doesn’t work. You can’t manage time, you manage yourself.”

The third myth is that procrastinators say they work better under pressure.

“I published a study in 2001 at DePaul where I took procrastinators and put them under experiments under pressure and found that they actually don’t perform better under pressure, but that they thought they did,” Ferrari said.

Ferrari considers the act of leaving work unfinished until the last minute a self-handicapping practice that protects the procrastinator from feeling bad about their ability.

“Procrastinators will blame a failure on the lack of time, but if they do well then they say they’re awesome because look at how well they did in a short amount of time, that must mean they’re really smart,” Ferrari said.

Procrastinators will often look at a success they have experienced after procrastinating and use that as a model for future behavior, despite the numerous times procrastinating may have lead to a failure.

As a way to combat procrastination, Ferrari thinks educators should move towards rewarding behavior than punishing behavior.

“I ask my students sometimes if their professors will dock points for late work and most of the hands will go up. Then I ask them if they’ve ever had a professor who will give extra points for turning it in early, and I rarely see any hands,” Ferrari said. “What we as professors need to do is not punish you for being late, but reward you for (turning in assignments early). Even if I got 10 or 15 (papers) early, then as a faculty member I have 15 less (papers) to read at the end. We don’t give the early bird the worm anymore. We want to give that worm to everybody today. I am strong advocate of incentivizing turning in work early. It works best for everybody.”

Landgren is skeptical of the success of changing the behaviors of procrastinators by rewarding points for early work.

“I don’t think that will help,” Landgren said. “I think that would only help people who were already motivated to do the work. I feel like someone who is a procrastinator would say they would just get a normal grade and finish it on time.”

Landgren says he believes procrastination to be an issue an individual needs to solve themselves, rather than looking towards educators to solve it for them.

“I honestly think it comes down to motivation and interest. If you aren’t interested in something, it will be hard to stay motivated to get it done.”