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.
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.
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.
- 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