The Ups and Downs of Dawdling

By Mark Wheeler|Sunday, June 01, 1997
I am on deadline. I am thinking. Totally, totally focused. I am hungry.

My fingers are poised on the keyboard, waiting for the command from my mind, itself awash with thoughts. Strategizing. Who to quote? Who to paraphrase? What to eat?

Let’s see, what university is this psychologist from; I know I wrote it down somewhere--what’s that buzzing? Here it is, Case Western Reserve. Okay, write this down: Her research reveals--it’s a fly; I hate flies. No, don’t write that. Her work suggests--ahh, hit the window, huh? Whatsa matter, fella, little problem identifying transparent solids? Her research suggests--look at this, there’s so much dust on this monitor I can write my name on it--ah-choo, oh great, now I’m catching a cold. I gotta eat something.

So (cough), are you the dawdling kind? The type who tends to tarry? Or are you more the merry procrastinator, one who truly enjoys that extra free time of utter irresponsibility before compressing the angst of hard work into the fewest possible remaining hours?

If you’re the kind of person who gets the irrepressible urge to change the litter box (cough) right when you’re up against a deadline, then you may wish to heed the results of Dianne Tice’s recent study, scheduled for publication in the journal Psychological Science. It’s entitled Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Agonies and Ecstasies of Dawdling.

Tice, who teaches psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, found that procrastination indeed has its short-term rewards, but long-term bad things can take their toll, especially on one’s health. In addition, despite the rallying cry of all committed procrastinators--I do my best work under pressure!--their best just ain’t good enough when measured against the work of those namby-pamby, kiss-kiss Goody Two-shoes who start their projects right away and finish them on time or even--gasp-- early.

Procrastination, Tice’s work shows, is like attaching a generic kick me sign to your derriere in terms of the negative impact it can have on your entire life. Tice conducted two studies, the first with 44 students, the second with 58. Both groups were enrolled in her health psychology course, for which two exams, an optional final, and a term paper were required. At the start of the semester, the due date for the term paper was announced, and students were told that if they could not meet the deadline they could have an automatic extension to a specific later date. Now, to me, an automatic extension is akin to waving a campaign contribution in front of a sitting president, but who am I to judge? (Sneeze.) The students were guaranteed anonymity, and none of the results were looked at until final grades were posted.

Four weeks into the semester during the first study, the students were asked to take a test called Lay’s General Procrastination Scale. The Lay scale was invented by Canadian psychologist Clarry Lay of York University in Ontario, and it asks people to fess up to how frequently they put things off. The test consists of a series of statements such as I usually make decisions as soon as possible and offers a range of five comments that run from Not true for me to True for me. (I looked at the test. Now, right off the bat I have a problem with at least three statements: A letter may sit for days after I write it before I mail it; In preparing for deadlines, I often waste time by doing other things; and I often have a task finished sooner than necessary. To these I’d like to insist on adding at least three optional answers: Who has time to write letters? I prefer to think of it as necessary prep work; and Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!).

After the courses were completed, Tice compiled the results and, sure enough, found a correlation between shirkers and bad things: self- professed procrastinators, it seemed, did indeed turn their papers in later and received significantly lower grades--an average of three-quarters of a grade lower than their nonprocrastinating counterparts (cough, sniff). Anyone who didn’t turn in a paper received an automatic Incomplete for a grade, good until the middle of the following semester before the grade reverted to an F. Tice swears that, sure enough, one student waited until 3 P.M. of the last day before calling to find out what she needed to do to avoid failing.

Her student footdraggers did get some good news, at least early on (ah-choo!). The results seemed to suggest that, healthwise, lollygaggers had the right idea: they were having a swell time, enjoying life, catching a few Cleveland rays, visiting Milwaukee, and in short doing anything except what they were supposed to be doing. Meanwhile, the fuddy-duddies who were getting down to business were already--poor babies--showing mild signs of stress and ill health.

Then, with the second study group, says Tice. I measured health effects at the end of the semester. Sure enough, it became clear that virtue did indeed have its rewards. With deadline looming and a lack of progress staring them in the face, the procrastinators’ stress levels started to soar. Their insouciant attitude typically collapsed into higher rates of headaches, stomachaches, colds, and more trips to the student health clinic as well as, I’d guess, the bathroom, compared with those proboscis-to-the-grindstone types who had worked steadily from the start (cough).

Now, I know what you’re thinking--everybody puts things off now and then. James Thurber (It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all) was obviously a member of the back-burner set. Harold Brodkey took 27 years to publish his first novel. Scarlett O’Hara maintained a What, me worry? attitude toward thinking about Tara. And who hasn’t put off making a dental appointment, figuring an income tax, or, say, having a prostate exam (cough, cough, cough, cough, cough).

Yet despite the obvious effects on health, procrastinators do not often change their ways. The reason is simple--sometimes procrastination works. What makes procrastination habitual is that for many people it does work most of the time, and it makes them feel good, Tice says. For example, if a student pulls an all-nighter and gets a good grade, it reinforces the behavior. That’s a huge relief and sense of accomplishment.

What makes nonprocrastinators so--let’s just bring it out into the open, shall we?--annoying, is that they have little tolerance for their counterparts. Such futzes, they sniff, need to learn time-management techniques. Or they simply need to get off their lazy whatevers and take care of business. But Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at De Paul University in Chicago who has collaborated with Tice on procrastination studies, says that the tomorrow types aren’t by nature lazy.

To tell a procrastinator to, as the commercial goes, ‘Just do it,’ is like telling a person who’s clinically depressed to ‘Hey! Cheer up!,’ he says. And time management? Please. Like most people, true procrastinators will make a list of things to do, but they never get beyond the list--they just keep reshuffling the items.

Ferrari rattles off various fun facts about procrastinators: Low self-esteem, low self-confidence, tendency toward perfectionism . . . In other words, procrastination is a bad way to be, and a lot of people--some 20 percent of the adult population--apparently revel in it.

There are two main forms of procrastination, says Tice. One involves things that aren’t important to you and are also nonthreatening, like mowing the lawn. The other, though, is something you really want to do well but that brings a lot of anxiety along with it. And procrastinators don’t postpone that anxiety by doing something fun, says Tice. Because they feel guilty, they use their nervous energy to do something else that’s useful but nonessential and not fun. (Nonessential? Rotating the tires on my car? On schedule?!)

What procrastination comes down to, both Tice and Ferrari say, is fear. Many procrastinators have a fear of failure and a fear of success, says Tice. The first is understandable, but the second? Even the most hard- core procrastinators would find success satisfying, right? Wrong, says Ferrari.

If you succeed, he says, that raises the expectation that you should succeed again. That can be very stressful and unnerving. The research now suggests that procrastinators use procrastination as a self- handicapping strategy to protect their self-esteem. Because if they do poorly, they can attribute it to the handicap that ‘I didn’t have enough time.’ But if they overcome the handicap and succeed, so much the better.

Poppycock, a representative of the punctually challenged community would cry, if I ever got around to it. Perhaps stalling is a result of natural selection. While our forebears were evolving, a little lingering along with wariness might have been a good thing. After all, over the next rise in yonder dale might be something hairy and toothy that wanted to eat you. Better to hang back and let Mr. Protohuman go-getter get up and go first.

Indeed, not everyone agrees that procrastination is such a bad thing. I’m sure that Les Waas, president of the Pennsylvania-based Procrastinators Club of America (motto: We’re behind you all the way), is a strong believer in the benefits of putting everything off.

The 40-year-old club is 14,000 members strong, but Waas’s old joke is that the other 750,000 members just haven’t gotten around to joining yet. The members generally don’t stay very busy by not doing much. Now and again they’ll have their annual Christmas party in June. They may or may not give out awards to racehorses that finish last, and it’s a cold day you-know-where when they send out their newsletter, titled Last Month’s Newsletter. We keep issuing the same one, says Waas. The news isn’t new but nobody cares. Sometimes they publicly protest promptness prejudice-- two years ago, it was against a restaurant chain because it offered early- bird specials. New members are welcome to join, but beware--If you fill the application out properly and get it back on time,’’ says Waas, you can forget about becoming a member.’’

I know Waas said these things, but I confess I didn’t get this information firsthand, because I never quite got around to calling him. (Hey, I’ve been sick.) Several newspapers did, though, and in one piece in the Chicago Tribune last year, Waas was quoted as saying, There’s hardly anything that can’t be postponed. Even your death can be put off if you don’t drink or smoke and you eat right and exercise. Every time you do anything, you are putting something else off.

Can’t argue with that. Truly words to live by, and proof positive that procrastinators don’t just stall willy-nilly; the big P is a philosophical way of life.

When I finally did get around to calling Waas, he was late for a meeting but happy to take a few minutes to talk to me anyway. We see procrastination as a positive attitude toward life, he says. It saves a lot of time--if you have two weeks to do something, it will take you two weeks. If you have one day, it will take you a day, thereby freeing up the other 13 to do something else.

The opposite of a procrastinator is an anti-crastinator, says Waas. They rush through life, never taking time to smell the flowers, and they have a tendency to die young. A good procrastinator is always the last one to arrive at an event, so he never has to wait in lines or get stuck in traffic. It’s much less stressful.

At the time of our conversation, Waas was not busy preparing for Procrastination Week, which is scheduled annually for the first week in March. Waas figures they’ll celebrate it sometime in the second or third week. Because he had time to chat, I ran the results of Tice’s study by him for his reaction.

Well, I’m a fairly healthy guy, and most of the members I know seem to be better off healthwise, he says. Most of our members, it should be noted, aren’t losers. They’re mostly professional people, better educated, and when we do have a meeting, which is rare, everybody seems to enjoy themselves. It’s obvious that we are people who enjoy life.

Making light and placing a positive spin on procrastination does not amuse the killjoy Ferrari, though, who says he’s spent most of his career dispelling the myth that procrastination is fun. My problem with the mainstream press is that they have always seen the subject as funny when it’s not. This is a psychological problem with serious consequences.

Society, he says, reinforces the problem. Take the holiday season: At Christmas, the closer to December 25 it gets, the more department stores have sales. It just reinforces procrastination. Ideally, says Ferrari, it would be better to increase prices as the holiday draws near to punish the last-minute shopper.

Since neither Tice nor Ferrari is a clinical psychologist, they were hesitant to give advice on how to break the hold-the-phone habit. Independently, though, both did mention one common and often successful antistalling strategy. Every big task can be broken down into a series of smaller tasks, says Tice, and once you’ve achieved the completion of a small task, reward yourself. The reward can provide a little motivation to move on to the next small step.

A sound strategy, perhaps, but what’s going to cause the procrastinator to actually carry out that first small task? I suppose I should think about that some more, but I really don’t feel well. I think I need to go lie down.
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