Procrastination: A Plague
Dawdling, dilatoriness, dillydallying, lollygagging, and shilly-shally are some synonyms for procrastination . In recent years, procrastination has been increasingly gaining ground-- 95% of people now say that they sometimes procrastinate . The increase in the incidences of procrastination in people may be due to the increase in distractions of technology such as text messaging, face booking, and wireless internet. Whatever may be the case a problem exists, and it seems unabated with time. What is more problematic than the general increased percentage of procrastination is the increased percentage of chronic procrastinators, which is now at 20% . Chronic procrastinators procrastinate routinely to a point in which their work, finances and relationships suffer . In an attempt to understand what is little understood of the common phenomenon by many, I embarked on this research with hopes of penetrating the complex psychological behavior. However, I soon learned that the common phenomenon is not so commonly understood, even among experts. Despite many years of studies and efforts of many scientists, procrastination remains a mystery with no clear-cut understanding of its origins.
What is most enigmatic about procrastination is the fact that despite the detrimental effects such as stress and anxiety it imposes, it continues to thrive in this world. Understanding procrastination may be difficult, especially since despite the recognition of its damaging effects, procrastinators continue to put off work and leave it for later. Piers Steel, a university Calgary psychologist, compares chronic procrastination to forms of self-destructive behavior such as drug addiction and chronic gambling . Procrastination can be described as a self-destructive behavior and is evidenced as such by various aspects of life. For instance, the tax-preparation firm H&R Block states that putting off doing taxes to the last-minute often creates errors, and thus costs U.S. citizens an average of $400 each. Another example that illustrates the self-destructiveness of procrastination is the fact that 70% of glaucoma patients increase their potential of becoming blind by avoiding the use of eye drops regularly . Procrastination at its worst can take something as invaluable as our sight.
Given that procrastination is very complex, it has allowed for various theories surrounding issues of anxiety, lack of self-confidence/worth, and self-defeating mentality. For the last 25 years, scientists have been testing various theories to determine which theory best explains procrastination, and they have found it to be Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) . TMT, deduced from motivational research, explains that any decision that is made can be represented by the following equation, . In the equation, utility=course of action, E=probability of an outcome, V= value of an outcome, D=how long one must wait to be rewarded, and T=one’s sensitivity to delay. In other words, the theory states that the likelihood of an action (utility) increases as the probability (E) and value (V) of an outcome increases, while the reverse is true when the delay increases (D). TMT tells us that we are more likely to do things that are more pleasurable with shorter delays; and therefore, we put things off that are unpleasant now and that require long wait for us to be rewarded . Thus, we tend to resort to more immediate rewards. TMT suggests that although procrastinators have intentions to do the work, their intentions are not acted upon. TMT has found to be the best system to appropriately describe procrastination generally, since other theories have specifically focused on task aversiveness, which affects only a small percentage of people who suffer from the condition .
In addition to the development of various theories, researchers have looked at biological aspect of procrastination to understand and possibly answer the complexities procrastination present. Researchers have mainly looked at the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is responsible for important functions such as planning, attention, impulse control, and acts as a filter for distracting stimuli from the rest of the nervous system . It makes sense that researchers have focused on this particular region, since damage in this area can result in the inability to filter distracting stimuli, poor organizational skills, loss of attention and chronic procrastination. Chronic procrastination is also related to underlying problems such as depression or ADHD; and therefore, treatment of the underlying problem can diminish procrastinations .
In another biological aspect, Joseph Cramer, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah, have reasoned that procrastination is a biological response to increased tension . From years of study and practice in pediatrics, Dr.Cramer has found that procrastination is a problem-solving style learned from infancy . He describes procrastination as a mechanism of managing perceived threats. Infants, who are shown to be “approachers” instead of “withdrawers”, tend to deal new tasks with ease, while “withdrawers” are known to avoid them . Dr. Cramer’s observations and conclusions are interesting in that they assign a predisposed/genetic component to the behavioral condition of procrastination. In addition, Dr.Cramer asserts that procrastination is a result of parenting as well. A child learns avoidance when he finds running away as the best solution to a crisis; he learns by repeatedly experiencing stress without a parental response . If Dr. Cramer’s observations are true, then we should be able to find procrastinators with abusive parents.
My original question of why procrastination continues to exist despite its negative effects cannot be answered simply, given the fact that many things can contribute to procrastination. Procrastination can be a result of learned mechanism in addition to a genetic component, damage in the prefrontal cortex in the brain, or underlying mental illness such as ADHD or depression. While medical help is needed to prevent tendencies to procrastinate due to damage in the prefrontal cortex, ADHD or depression, behavioral changes can help in other instances. However, behavioral changes take tremendous amount of effort, since they require the procrastinator to think differently than he has before. He has to change his previous mechanism of avoidance when faced with stress. Helpful behaviors to prevent procrastination include making short-term goals, recognizing ways one avoids work and addressing those ways, and making a list of consequences of procrastination . Applying what I have learned in Neurobiology and Behavior, I can argue that the I-function (the storyteller/ the conscious mind) can work to prevent procrastination in general cases by becoming aware of what is causing the self-destructiveness and learning ways to prevent it. Future studies may indicate a shorter list of causes of procrastination, and in the meantime, it is important that we use the information we currently have and apply it. Perhaps, this group effort to prevent procrastination will dampen the growth of the twenty-first century plague.
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