The pantheon of procrastinators boasts many famous names: Bill Clinton, Duke Ellington, Wong Kar-wai, the Messiah. But these luminaries might meet their match at any given college during the run-up to finals week, as undergrads compete for the prize in Outstanding Delayed Volition. According to William J. Sommer, senior psychiatrist at Counseling and Psychological Services at Columbia University, procrastination is common in 80 to 90 percent of undergraduates. Why do students line up to stress out?
“It can be exceedingly useful,” says Sommer, who has conducted workshops on procrastination with students for 20 years. “It’s in some ways a very efficient way to work, because it’s the most amount of work done over the least period of time with the least overall effort. Even when a person is avoiding the assigned task, he’s subtly researching how long it will take him to cram at the last
minute, and most of the students I see at Columbia are masters at this.”
The problem isn’t necessarily procrastination per se, but the baggage that comes with it. “Students fret and worry and self-castigate. They reach a magic moment when all the lethargy and anhedonia and despair disappear and they become work machines, but when they meet the challenge, they don’t celebrate,” says Sommer, who draws a parallel between procrastination and subliminal rebellion. “It’s a dynamic that may date back to our struggles with parents and grade-school teachers, where we’re sufficiently intimidated to conform to expectations. The procrastinating student is defying authority —she’s on strike. So when she clicks ‘on’ and saves the situation, it’s a victory, but it’s also a kind of defeat, because she’s giving in to the powers that be.”
Given all this, can’t we adapt to avert eleventh-hour panic? “An essay written at the last minute is probably the best essay you’re ever going to write, provided you have time to do revisions,” Sommer says. “Those papers gain an energy and intensity and focus in the rush.” Thus teachers may do their students a favor by imposing ironclad deadlines for rough drafts as well as final essays.
The consequences of procrastination become compounded, however, on the graduate level, and for the last decade, Sommer has worked mainly with students toiling on their master’s and Ph.D. dissertations. “The adviser says, ‘Come back in a year with your thesis paper.’ They’re free at last, and in their freedom comes a torpor—there’s nothing to fight against, nothing to cram for,” Sommer says. He pairs off students to act as each other’s “taskmasters” to enforce progress. “A good taskmaster has to fill you with awe, fear, and loathing,” he says.
There is no significant correlation between grades and procrastination, according to Timothy J. Pychyl, an associate professor and director of the Procrastination Research Group at the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Pychyl takes issue, however, with the concept of “arousal procrastinators,” or the idea that some people push deadlines to create an adrenaline rush that spurs maximum performance. “It’s not that we really want that extreme anxiety and pressure,” Pychyl says. “But once we’re in the middle of the all-nighter, we try to make sense of it, and we’re certainly not going to admit that it’s a mistake.”
How we blunder into that situation in the first place may have to do with instant gratification. “If you’re walking in the rain and you put up your umbrella, that’s called negative reinforcement: taking away a negative stimulus,” Pychyl says. “If sitting down to study or write is causing you stress and anxiety, procrastination takes that away. The negative reinforcement means you stop feeling lousy about yourself. And you lie to yourself—you say, ‘I work better under pressure.’
“Human beings just aren’t very good at weighing future rewards against present rewards,” Pychyl continues. “We see a smaller reward three weeks in the future than the reward now. We also always think we have more time in the future; we have a bias toward being overly optimistic in our planning.” Other variables include impulsivity, low conscientiousness, and low self-worth. Joseph Ferrari, a professor and procrastination expert at DePaul University, has noted that anxiety and fear of failure can lead to “self-handicapping,” whereby we protect our sense of self by contriving an excuse in advance for our expected failure.
“Part of the reason for the anxiety is that school is an unnatural act,” Pychyl says. “It’s an assembly line of knowledge consumption and production, and I think we get tired and wonder if we can maintain that performance. We fear the unknown—the need to choose the future. Procrastination is an existential dilemma: What’s next? Can I face it?”