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Might as well read this now

We all procrastinate. Blame the dawdler's focus on the moment, not perfectionism, a long-in-the-making report finds.

January 22, 2007|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

Never put off until tomorrow what you can easily put off a lot longer than that.

Not, perhaps, the wisest words to live by. But they worked out well for Piers Steel. The University of Calgary psychology professor spent 10 years studying procrastination before he finally got around to publishing his findings in this month's Psychological Bulletin.

("I had to read a lot of papers," he says.)

Steel was on a mission. He wanted to figure out what the reams of past procrastination research really added up to.

Now, after pooling the data from 216 earlier studies -- and incorporating results from hundreds more -- he has compiled a comprehensive report that includes, among other things, findings about the damage procrastination can do to health, happiness and bank accounts; who is likely to procrastinate (young people more than older people, men slightly more than women); and on what tasks people are likely to procrastinate (tasks they don't like to do).

His most surprising findings may involve the characteristics that drive people to procrastinate. By his analysis, perfectionism and anxiety are not guilty as they've so often been charged. In fact, he says, perfectionists are a little less likely than others to stall around -- although they'll worry about it more if they do. Instead, his findings point to impulsiveness as the prime suspect.

When people act impulsively, they make snap decisions and focus on what they want to do in the here and now. They'll postpone starting the diet that will have them looking good at class-reunion time because right this minute they want to eat a piece of pie. "Thoughts of the future do not weigh heavily in their decisions," Steel says.

Other researchers in the field are greeting Steel's paper with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

"I'm glad to see the article, I'm glad it's getting coverage. A lot of people don't understand how complicated procrastination is," says author and psychologist Bill Knaus of Massachusetts, who conducted one of the earliest procrastination workshops 35 years ago and has written books on the subject.

But others take issue with some of Steel's conclusions -- such as his dismissal of the perfectionism-procrastination link.

"Steel really tried to look at everything for this paper -- I applaud him for that," says Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. But, he adds, "He makes the sweeping generalization that perfectionism doesn't have a role in procrastination. He can't do that."

You're not always procrastinating when you put something off. The behavior only counts as procrastination if you know you should do something right away and you know you'll be worse off in the end if you don't -- and yet you still don't do it.

Almost all of us procrastinate sometimes. Many of us -- 15% to 20% -- make a habit of it.

And in many ways, that's only human. For one thing, "We have an innate tendency to value the immediate much more than the future," Steel says. Also, it makes a lot of sense for people to avoid tasks they don't like or don't believe they can succeed at.

Students might know they ought to do their algebra -- which could help them get an A, which could help them get into college -- yet they might still decide to do some instant messaging instead. That scenario is even more likely if the students think algebra is boring, or fear they're not good at it.

What intrigues Knaus most in Steel's study is the high cost of procrastination -- for instance, how much money people lose by overpaying their taxes ($400 on average) when they wait too long then make mistakes when they have to figure too fast.

The costs of putting off medical treatment can be much higher than that, Knaus says. For example, "Seventy percent of the people at risk for blindness from glaucoma don't use the eyedrops that could prevent it.... They don't make the necessary lifestyle changes."

Bruce W. Tuckman, professor of education and director of the Dennis Learning Center at Ohio State University, says he's not sure how useful Steel's findings will be to him.

He isn't surprised by the impulsivity link: "It's typical, on scales, for procrastinators to be low in conscientiousness and high on impulsiveness," he says. But knowing about the connection won't help him in his own work helping people stop procrastinating. "I can't stop people from being impulsive," he says.

Tuckman developed a popular course at Ohio State (an elective that attracts 1,100 students a year) about strategies for success in college, including overcoming procrastination. On average, students completing the course raise their GPA a whopping half-point, he says.

Veteran procrastination researcher Joseph Ferrari, first author of nearly 30 studies reviewed by Steel, doesn't agree with all of Steel's conclusions.

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