Degree In Sight

Student daydreaming in field

Jenny Cartinella cleans her apartment. Cathy Webber does math puzzles. Matt Kressin checks sports scores, and Carmen Ramirez Walker updates her Facebook page. All of them are psychology students putting off other tasks they're supposed to be doing. Classic procrastination in action.  
It's a tough habit to break, particularly these days when the Internet allows students to escape dissertation-writing frustrations with the click of a mouse. A 2007 meta-analysis by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel, PhD, reports that 80 percent to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, particularly when it comes to doing their coursework (Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 133, No. 1). 
Graduate students may be better than undergrads at fighting off procrastination, but they're still pretty good at putting things off. In a 1997 survey, University of Denver School of Education professor Kathy Green, PhD, found that procrastination was one of the top reasons doctoral students failed to complete their dissertations (New Directions for Higher Education Vol. 1,997, No. 99). 
"Procrastination is a natural part of graduate school," says self-proclaimed postponer Kressin, a clinical psychology student at the School of Professional Psychology at Forest Institute in Springfield, Mo. "It's so important to learn how to deal with it."   
Causes and consequences  
What triggers students to clean out closets or wax the car when it's time to work on their statistics paper? Usually it's self-doubt, says procrastination researcher and Carleton University psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD.  
"As students, you're always being pushed out of your depths—that's what learning is," Pychyl says.  
Graduate students worry about performing inadequately or fear their success may raise others' expectations of them, he says. Other students may actually think they get a thrill out of delaying their work and believe they work best under pressure, though that's not borne out in the experimental data, says DePaul University psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, PhD. Several studies in Steel's 2007 meta-analysis suggest procrastination is negatively related to overall GPA, final exam scores and assignment grades. 
"Students seem to remember the one time that maybe waiting until the last minute did pay off with a good grade, but they forget the other nine times when it didn't," Ferrari says.  
Procrastination can also take a toll on a student's mental health and well-being. In one 2007 study, Florida State University psychologists Dianne M. Tice, PhD, and Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, examined procrastination among students in a health psychology class. They found that early in the semester, procrastinators reported lower stress and less illness than non-procrastinators, but that late in the term, procrastinators reported higher stress and more illness (Psychological Science, Vol. 8, No. 6). 
Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman, PhD, has devoted much of his career to helping procrastinators learn how to get to work. As director and professor of the Ohio State University W.E. Dennis Learning Center, Tuckman teaches a course on learning and motivation strategies that 1,000 students attend each year. The course teaches students psychological principles and theories about achievement, motivation, self-regulation and information processing. Students also complete a questionnaire asking about which of 15 common rationalizations (see sidebar) for procrastination they use most often. They then learn about the most common reasons for procrastination, including a fear of failure, and several actions to take to ensure they meet their deadlines (see sidebar). In a paper he presented at this year's American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Tuckman provided evidence that the course may really work: Over seven years, students who took the class ended up with higher grade point averages—typically about 0.5 points higher in the semester after the course. They also reported higher college retention and graduation rates than a control group of matched students who did not take the course. 
"It really makes a significant difference," he says.  
Active procrastinators?  
Yet a small subset of researchers propose that not all procrastination behaviors are harmful or lead to negative outcomes. In a 2005 study in The Journal of Social Psychology (Vol. 145, No. 3), Jin Nam Choi, PhD, a business professor at Seoul National University in South Korea, differentiated between two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators, who postpone tasks until the last minute because of an inability to act in a timely manner, and active procrastinators, who prefer the time pressure and purposely decide to delay a task but are still able to complete tasks before deadlines and achieve satisfactory outcomes. Choi and co-author Angela Hsin Chun Chu, a doctoral student at Columbia University, tested the 12-item scale they developed to distinguish the two procrastination types among a group of 230 undergraduates from three Canadian universities. They found that although active procrastinators reported the same level of procrastination as their traditional or passive counterparts, they demonstrated a productive use of time, adaptive coping styles and academic performance outcomes that were nearly identical to—and in some cases even better than—those of non-procrastinators. 
In a study published in April in the same journal, Choi and McGill University organizational behavior doctoral student Sarah V. Moran developed and validated an expanded measure of active procrastination and confirmed the 2005 findings.  
"From my own life and findings from these studies, I believe that procrastination characterized by these four effects—outcome satisfaction, preference for pressure, intentional decision and ability to meet deadlines—is beneficial for individual well-being and performance," Choi says. 
But graduate students shouldn't view this research as a free pass to spend hours on Facebook when they should be developing a bibliography for their thesis, merely because they think they're doing it purposefully, Pychyl says. He argues that Choi's research points out the positives of intentional delay, which can be a necessary part of managing daily tasks while pursuing our goals, he says. 
"Delay and procrastination are not the same things," Pychyl says. "Let's not confuse deliberate, thoughtful delay of action with the lack of self-regulatory ability known as procrastination."   

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago. 

Further reading, resources

  • Explore procrastination-related comics, blog postings, podcasts and other resources prepared by Timothy Pychyl's Procrastination Research Group
  • Take a short quiz to see whether you're a procrastinator at. 
  • Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment. New York: Springer. 
  • Schouwenburg, H.C., Lay, C., Pychyl, T.A., Ferrari, J.R. (Eds.) (2004). Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings. Washington, DC: APA.  
  • Burka, J.B., & Yuen, L.M. (2nd Edition). (2008). Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. New York City: Da Capo Lifelong Books.