The Problem of Procrastination

to-do-list-nothingThis is a true story. My roommate in grad school at Michigan State decided to do her Industrial/Organizational Psychology master’s thesis on the topic of procrastination. She never graduated. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Everyone deals with procrastination — some better than others. Our 24/7 , multi-tasking world may aggravate our natural tendencies by providing more distractions, more ‘urgent priorities’, and more alternatives for our limited time and attention. Indeed, sometimes I get more done by procrastinating a larger task by completing lesser ones — like cleaning, straightening, paying bills and making phone calls. Those are all important, too, right?

The point this rationalization misses is that procrastination ultimately exacts its price – in lost sleep, in stress and most distressingly in quality of output.

As a college professor, I work hard to provide incentives to students to keep up with the work. They all have great intentions, but my experience is thatfor many, the bulk of the reading and work is done in a few sleepless nights before each due date. Believe me it usually shows. There is a world of difference between a thought through, polished and well-researched paper and one assembled on the fly. Pleas for extensions are never entertained, as it is unfair to the more planful students.

Dan Ariely, an MIT professor and author of Predictability Irrational, reports similar experiences. He asks: “Why do family tragedies generally occur during the last two weeks of the semester?” One year, he and colleague worked up a few studies using Consumer Behavior classes as guinea pigs.  Each of three classes was given a different set of expectations and deadlines for the same work, three main papers that would constitute much of the final grade.

Class 1: Students commit to their own deadline for each paper. Once it, they can’t be changed. Late papers would be penalized at the rate of one percent off the grade for each day late.

Class 2: No deadlines. All three papers due by the last class. Papers can be turned in early,but there is no grade benefit for doing so.

Class 3: Dictated deadlines, set at the fourth, eighth and twelfth weeks.

Which class do you think got the best grades? The class with the externally imposed firm deadlines, of course. The worst performing class? The one with no deadlines at all. The self-imposed deadlines class finished in the middle, although those who spaced their deadlines substantially got nearly as good grades as the students in the dictated deadlines class. Ariely concluded that “without properly spaced deadlines the final work was generally rushed and poorly written (even without the extra penalty of one percent off the grade for each day of delay)”.

While I won’t single out Millennials, there is evidence (from Industrial Psychologists) that procrastination is getting worse both at work and at home, and technology may be to blame.

“After 10 years of research on a project that was only supposed to take five years, a Canadian industrial psychologist found in a giant study that not only is procrastination on the rise, it makes people poorer, fatter and unhappier. In 1978, only about 5 percent of the American public thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators. Now it’s 26 percent. And why not? There are so many fun ways to kill time — TVs in every room, online video, Web-surfing, cell phones, video games, iPods and Blackberries. At work, e-mail, the Internet and games are just a click away, making procrastination effortless.”

Millennials are often referred to as the “connected generation”.  They think of themselves as the ‘busy generation’. They honestly believe tha their lives are busier than students in the past, although this has not been factually proven, and there is even some evidence to the contrary. Last year on this day I reported that today’s high school students actually spend 20% less time on homework than they did in 1975. Studies of generational differences in time use show 18-24 year olds spend significantly more time playing sports, reading, and pursuing ‘other interests’ than older cohorts.

Instead it has more to do with a desire to ‘do more’ and ‘experience everything’. As I observe my own teenage children and students struggle to manage their time and deadlines, I worry they are not learning to prioritize and pace themselves. If they can’t figure out how to manage their time, Millennials may become known as the generation that does everything ‘pretty well’. 

Meanwhile, I’ll be using a lot of well-spaced, dictated deadlines in my syllabus next semester.