For me, it’s Sunday afternoons when I feel it the most. The coming week’s work is due in a few hours, but I’m having a hard time sitting down and dealing with it. And the feeling is excruciating.
Procrastination feels, in some ways, like an ethereal non-thing. After all, it’s, by definition, not an action; it’s not doing something. But psychological professionals around the world have studied it carefully for over 25 years, and they’ve found what’s going on behind that non-action.
One thing that they’ve found is that if you, like me, have suffered with procrastination, you’re hardly alone. About 20 percent of the population in every country so far surveyed—which includes countries around the globe with wildly different dominant cultures—has been found to have chronic procrastination. And even the rest of us occasionally struggle with it.
It’s not just personally unpleasant. Researchers have found that procrastination is a major drain on the economy. One estimate found that companies lose about $10,000 a year per employee on procrastination. But for anyone trapped in the net of chronic procrastination, the devastating effects on their own lives are enough to be concerned about.
Parsing the procs
One of the impressions you come away with from a conversation with Prof. Joseph Ferrari is that he’s very far from being a procrastinator. That’s not just because of the sense of alacrity that he projects; it’s also because of the sheer amount of work he has done in the field of the study of procrastination. He said that he publishes about 12 papers a year, which has added up to a massive oeuvre in his main topic of study. He has also published four books on the subject, including the layperson’s guide Still Procrastinating?: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.
In fact, it was Prof. Ferrari, the Vincent DePaul Distinguished Professor of Psychology at DePaul University, who basically single-handedly started the academic study of procrastination. He told me that he had serendipitously stumbled onto a fallow field of inquiry, sometime between 1987 and 1988, while he was still in university.
“I was sitting in a doctoral class on self-defeating behavior. The professor was interested in unusual topics in regard to when people sabotage themselves and purposely hurt themselves. I raised my hand and said it sounds like procrastination could fit.
“She said, ‘Yeah. That sounds true.’
“I asked, ‘What does the research show?’
“She said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m sure someone has done the research.’
“This was in the days before the Internet so I wrote procrastination in the back of my notebook and, after the class, went over to the library. I went through and looked and found practically nothing on procrastination. There were about 200 articles but they all dealt with writer’s block and how to help students, but as a social psychiatrist I wanted to understand what the causes were for why people do this. There really wasn’t anything in the field.”