Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator. That said, about 20 percent of adults are presumed to be chronic procrastinators. Although many people might suppose the solution to wasting time lies simply in doing, researchers found that self-forgiveness, a kind of mood repair, and maybe even self-deception, might be the greatest tools procrastinators have at their disposal. “It really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told the Association for Psychological Science. “As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to 'just do it' would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, 'cheer up.'”

Self-Harming Behavior

Defined by scholars, you are procrastinating whenever you needlessly delay an intended course of action even though you know you will be worse-off for doing so. In laymen’s terms, procrastination is when you know you should be doing something and instead you do other things. Though it may appear innocuous, procrastination is often very harmful. Ask any student, procrastination can lead to poor academic performance as well as experiencing shame and guilt. Beyond school, procrastination may cause a person to face very real consequences when they avoid distasteful though important tasks such as filing taxes, checking out health problems, and saving for retirement. Procrastination is a self-inflicted wound.

In a recent study, researchers from Carleton University in Ontario recruited 134 student participants (76 female, 58 male) ranging in age from 16 to 56 years old. After taking their first mid-term exam, the students were asked to measure their level of procrastination in studying for the exam by ranking three statements on a scale from one (strongly agree) to seven (strongly disagree). The three statements were: I put off studying until the last minute; I delayed preparing for the exam by doing other, less important things instead; and I began studying much later than I intended to. Next, the researchers measured participants’ level of self-forgiveness for procrastinating with their rankings (again a one to seven scale) of these statements: I dislike myself for procrastinating; I criticize myself because of my tendency to procrastinate; and I put myself down because of my tendency to procrastinate. After this, the researchers measured how much participants believed their procrastination to have hurt their performance. The participants then went on to take their second and third mid-term exams. When they were done, the researchers received and examined their grades against their self-reported rankings.

Though it might be supposed that self-forgiveness would encourage the students to persist in the status quo of delaying study time, it did not. “When self-forgiveness for procrastinating on preparing for the first midterm examination was high, negative affect was reduced and students were less likely to procrastinate on preparing for the following examination,” the authors wrote. “Conversely, students who did not self-forgive for procrastinating did not experience a reduction in negative affect and continued to engage in problematic procrastinatory behavior.” Perhaps this is surprising but no more so than what another team of researchers discovered when they explored this common, self-defeating behavior.

Deception and Delay

In another study, researchers from DePaul University and Case Western Reserve University asked participants to rate themselves on a measure of chronic procrastination. Then, the researchers divided the participants into two groups and asked them to report individually to a laboratory, where their performance on a math task, the same for all the participants, would be measured. For 15 minutes, participants were allowed to either practice for the task or play a video or work on a puzzle. In other words, they were permitted to procrastinate or practice for the task. There was one important twist, though: the researchers told the first group of participants, 40 women and 19 men, the math task was “an important evaluation of cognitive skills” while the same exact task was identified as “a fun game” for the second group of participants, 48 women and 40 men.

The researchers discovered that when the task was identified as an important evaluation of cognitive skills, the chronic procrastinators spent less time preparing for the evaluation as compared to non-procrastinators. Yet among the second group of participants who thought the math task was just a fun game, the chronic procrastinators did not practice less than non-procrastinators. “Procrastination … occurred only when the task was identified as evaluative, not when the identical task was labeled as a fun or pleasurable activity,” the authors wrote. Though the researchers make no such claim, a little self-deception — this will be fun! — might go a long way in helping procrastinators face a task they'd normally do anything to avoid. Ultimately, though, the researchers believe that doing comes down to identity. "Non-procrastinators focus on the task that needs to be done," Ferrari told the American Psychological Association. "They have a stronger personal identity and are less concerned about what psychologists call 'social esteem' — how others like us — as opposed to self-esteem which is how we feel about ourselves."

Sources: Ferrari JR, Tice DM. Procrastination as a Self-Handicap for Men and Women: A Task-Avoidance Strategy in a Laboratory Setting. Journal of Research in Personality. 2000.

Wohl MJA, Pychyl TA, Bennett SH. I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences. 2010.