Putting it off

Procrastination by Lady Day DreamWhy have I left it so long  between the last posting and this one?

Partly, of course, there was the Christmas break. Too many things to do (and besides, who is going to read this blog in preference to spending precious festive time with their loved ones?).

Oh, and then there was that workshop on Time Management that I had to prepare (I really didn’t have time to do it before now, honestly). And I had to have a few breaks in order to catch up on my LoveFilm DVDs (I’ve got to get my money’s worth). And setting up the new Kindle on our WiFi took much longer than I anticipated.

And then I have to own up to the excessive amount of time I spent trying to beat the backgammon game on my phone (I’m sure it cheats!).

OK. I admit it. I’ve been putting it off.

Let’s say the word together: PROCRASTINATION.

It’s not just me, and it’s not just about writing blog posts. Whether it’s a student putting off their visit to the careers office until the last week of their final year or the dissatisfied worker who never gets round to changing their career, the ‘I’ll do it later’ attitude prevents many people from engaging with career development tasks.

Positive procrastination

First though, it’s important to say that procrastination can be a good thing.

Apparently, one of the original usages of the word was in encouraging people to put off starting a war until tomorrow in order to give diplomacy and reason a chance to find a non-violent solution.

When a client has shown evidence of impulsive or compulsive decision making it can be useful to explore the benefits of putting of the final decision until the last possible moment to allow time for more thorough investigation of the options.

If someone is an ‘active procrastinator’ (Choi & Moran, 2009), they have a ‘preference for time pressure’. Even though they intentionally put things off, they usually meet deadlines and have a greater satisfaction with their output because of the maximised exploration time. For a client with these characteristics, it is a good idea to discuss the kinds of environment that would allow them to work in this way.

Negative procrastination

Putting things off isn’t always a creative strategy to avoid impulsiveness. When you are clear what you should be doing, but don’t do it this can obviously lead to a number of negative consequences — not least the failure to to achieve your goals and the guilt of knowing that you didn’t even try.

Negative procrastination has been linked to a number of different factors and a range of causes has been postulated (see Steel, 2007).

Economists tend to talk about ‘hyperbolic discounting‘ which results in immediate small rewards (such as the relief of not having to think about a big problem just yet) taking preference over longer-term larger rewards (sorting out the problem).

Other things which have been touted as possible triggers for negative procrastination include: perfectionism, lack of self-efficacy, fear of failure, etc. Of these, lack of self-efficacy would seem to be the obvious candidate for explaining people’s tendency to put off engaging with their career. I have seen many clients who felt ill-equipped to explore their career options and then felt like kicking themselves when they realised that they had the requisite skills all along and could have been making progress much earlier.

Procrastination and self-forgiveness

A recent study on procrastination (Wohl et al., 2010) found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating over exam revision were much less likely to procrastinate the next time than people who beat themselves up about it.

The authors discuss the results in terms of ‘approach and avoidance behaviours’. Simply put, we tend to approach things that make us feel good in some way and avoid things that make us feel bad. Some people have a more acute sensitivity to the bad things and so engage in more avoidance behaviours, thus missing out on potential good feelings. Others are more sensitive to the positive rewards and engage in more approach behaviours, ignoring any associated bad consequences.

Negative procrastination could be thought of as an avoidance behaviour — avoiding the bad feelings generated by getting to grips with a daunting task. If this is the case, then adding more negative feeling by piling on the guilt is likely to make things worse. You want to avoid thinking about your procrastination problem because it makes you feel bad about yourself.

Acceptance and commitment

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an offshoot of cognitive behavioural therapy which concentrates on our tendency to avoid negative feelings. It encourages people to recognise their negative thoughts and emotions as a normal part of themselves. Rather than avoiding or struggling to suppress these thoughts, clients are prompted to acknowledge and accept them. Because you are not fighting against these negative emotions you can place them in the context of your whole self rather than letting them dominate your attention and your actions. This allows you to take a step back and remind yourself of the core values that you are committed to, and then to choose actions that are consistent with those values.

ACT seems to have at its heart this idea of forgiving yourself in order to move on. And this idea could be helpful when we are looking at encouraging students to engage more with careers activities during their time at university.

Student engagement and procrastination

Ed McLean has conducted a survey of HE careers services on the subject of student engagement. He argues that ‘there is a disconnect between the reported importance of engagement and the planning and resources heads of service are able to give to it’. He looks at various methods for encouraging greater student engagement. However, what he doesn’t seem to look at is the student side of the equation.

If you want to get greater engagement, it helps to understand why students put off getting involved in careers activities and it also helps to think about what message might provide the most encouragement to act now. Procrastination isn’t the only reason for lack of engagement, but it is one reason and perhaps we need to ensure that we are addressing that issue alongside others (such as lack of awareness or misunderstanding of our services).

Based on the ideas of self-forgiveness and self-efficacy, here is my suggestion for the basic content of that anti-procrastination message:

  • You may be tempted to feel bad about not having done anything yet to sort out your career — that’s normal
  • Give yourself a break — beating yourself up about it will only make you feel less like doing something
  • Think about what’s important to you and what you would like to get from your university education in the long run
  • We can help you to feel excited about your future
  • We can also help you to break down the seemingly overwhelming task of managing your career into simple activities that you already know how to do

Any thoughts? Please avoid delay and comment right now.

Further reading

  • Choi, J. & Moran, S. (2009). Why not procrastinate? Development and validation of a new Active Procrastination Scale. The Journal of Social Psychology, 149(2), 195-212. DOI: 10.3200/SOCP.149.2.195-212
  • Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65-94. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
  • Wohl, M., Pychyl, T. & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(7), 803-808. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

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  1. #1 by Vinny on 18 January 2011 - 16:28

    In getting students to stop procrastinating, we could learn some lessons from debt management adverts. They have a good track record to stoping people from procrastinating about money issues and start dealing with them.

    So how about:

    Are you burdened by mountains of work you need to do in managing your career?
    Are you behind your peers in getting work experience or internships?

    No Problem!

    At The Careers Service, our team of advisers can help break down your career tasks into easy monthly installments. We could even reduce your level of work by assisting with the practical tasks such as helping with CV’s, Job Applications and interviews.

    Over the last few months, we’ve already helped hundreds of students like yourself out of their career worries. Acting now could make all the difference So come down to the careers service to arrange an appointment or visit our website.

    Maybe I should stop procrastinating and go and see some students.

  2. #2 by John king on 18 January 2011 - 21:12

    Isnt procrastination related to how pleasant we expect an experience to be? It might tell us that students don’t look forward to the experience of discussing their career, either because the discussion itself may be distressing (facing up to the reality of a life of drudgery) or because the overall experience may be distressing (unfriendly receptionist syndrome).

    I always procrastinate about having my hair cut, as will be obvious to people I meet. I don’t really feel that I am an expert about hair, so I find it somewhat distressing to try to explain that all I want is to look vaguely cool and I am embarrassed that I need someone to tell me what I’m supposed to do with it in the morning.

    Recently I started going to a new hairdressers who made me feel more relaxed by having a friendly chatty receptionist, any drink I wanted including fresh orange juice mixed with fizzy water, which is my favourite non-alcoholic drink, and staff who noticed I was clueless and basically just told me what I wanted. Which was what I wanted. What I definitely didn’t want was a choice. Of hair, that is. A choice of drink is really important.

    Now I go much more often and actually enjoy paying much more money for a much better service.

    Now perhaps a career isn’t like hair (though mine is: it keeps going in random directions) but perhaps if we improve the perceived pleasantness of the experience we can reduce procrastination?

    • #3 by David Winter on 18 January 2011 - 21:42

      I’m all for trying to make the experience as pleasant and non-threatening as possible. Task aversion is another of the factors that is traditionally linked to procrastination, but I assumed that was pretty obvious.

      The anxiety you feel about getting your hair cut is quite a nice analogy for the anxiety many people feel about facing up to sorting out their career. There is a lot of blameless ignorance – why should they know about this stuff? And this lack of knowledge leaves you feeling intimidated and frustrated.

      Your new hairdresser sounds great, but the one my friend went to sounds even better. As well as all the welcoming treats, the stylist explained to my friend exactly what her hair needed and gave her specific instructions about what to ask for if she went anywhere else (as my friend had made it clear that she wouldn’t be able to afford to go there every time). My friend has now been enabled to make choices – if the new hairdresser doesn’t understand the instructions, she goes elsewhere.

      You’re right; a completely bewildered client probably doesn’t want too many choices straight off. However, I believe it is our job to bring them to a position where they can make good choices as quickly as possible.

  3. #4 by John king on 18 January 2011 - 21:20

    Oh, and telling me that lots of other people have bad hair, that it’s ok to feel bad about my hair, that I shouldnt beat myself up about not getting my hair cut sooner and that you can help me feel excited about my hair isn’t going to help!

    • #5 by David Winter on 18 January 2011 - 21:48

      OK, now I feel you may be pushing the analogy too far.

      I have seen quite a number of clients who have visibly relaxed when I was able to reassure them that they weren’t alone in feeling confused or inadequate about their career.

      You probably don’t feel particularly guilty about your bad hair, but many people do feel incredibly guilty about not dealing with their career issues. And knowing that they are not alone can be the first step in giving them the confidence to move on.

  4. #6 by Vinny on 19 January 2011 - 11:36


    Your analogy of a hair cut is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s the most relevant. From my experience, most students who actually come in to our careers service find it useful and welcoming (based on all the feeback we get). However, the difficult bit is getting the non users (the people who procrastinate about their career) to visit careers earlier (or at all).

    Most people are in the habit of getting their hair cut around once a month or so. They might procrastinate for a week or few but they will still go. People rarely put it off for three years. However, many students do put off thinking about their career for their whole time at Uni.

    This is why I think the comparison with debt is more salient. There’s a constant feeling that they should do something about it and that other people are far more sorted and in control. Also there’s guilt and some worry that they’ll be judged for not having sorted it out earlier – this gets worse over time. Although my suggestion for engagement was a flippant parody of an ocean finance advert, I think that certain parts of the approach might nudge people into taking action instead of procrastinating further.

    So there’s a couple of things I’d add to David’s message:
    – Our staff are friendly and helpful and won’t judge you
    – Coming to careers has helped other people just like you.

  5. #7 by Ghislaine Dell on 20 January 2011 - 11:24

    While doing some procrastination of my own (!) I came across a blog post on procrastination in PhDs (http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/real-life/2011/01/19/phd-doctor-of-procrastination/) talking about how people put off doing something (even a nice something) because the deadline seems too far away. Wonder if this might also be a factor with careers and certainly in engaging first years. So the idea of ‘breaking it up into little chunks’ that you can do each month could work really well for those folk who aren’t scared, just don’t see it as something they have to worry about *yet*. Although all the talk about ‘no internship, no job’ that’s going on at the moment might go some way to being a hook to engage them?

  6. #8 by Marc Weiner on 26 March 2011 - 21:57

    As far as I know, there is only one way to stop procrastinating and that is to “stop procrastinating”. One has to make the decision to move forward otherwise the decision that has been made is to simply “put it off”. That is still a decision, but usually not a productive one. If the anticipated reward isn’t enough – then it is much easier to simply put it off.

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