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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

[Wherein our hero puts it off... but later returns and wonder how, and why, it could've been done better]

So I'm at the pointy end of the semester. My exams have all been turned in and now I'm left to deal with the rising spectre of exams. It's wierd - you can work as hard as you like all semester and earn up to 50% of your overall grade, but the final exam is the kicker often worth half or more of your overall grade. It makes you think - was that 8% piece worth the three days of effort, or could I have better used that time elsewhere? Could I have cut some corners? What if I just took a day off and went to the beach for some R&R, would that have had long-term gains?

And of course there are the despicable folk who complain 'Oh, I was up all night doing that assignment. I only started it yesterday afternoon'. Assuming they're telling the truth and assuming there were no influencing variables (like family problems, etc) my first reaction is Screw you, I don't care, you should've used your time better, my second reaction is I respect you just a little less for making that decision and complaining about it and third, so help me if you do better than me....

Naturally, I'm looking at procrastination. I found this interesting paper which argues that, across nations, levels of procrastination do not vary significantly, suggesting there's something very base about that is not highly influenced by culture (Ferrari et al, 2007). But that's merely an aside...

Having said that it's fairly safe to assume that we all know what procrastination is like, and it we've probably all opted to sit at our computer and engage in some mindless distraction (facebook, twitter) when we should've been writing our essay/report/thesis. I should also point out that procrastination is trait-like and significantly and negatively linked to levels of conscientiousness. Trait-like simply means that levels [of procrastination] remain fairly constant over the life span, or long period of time (Lee, Kelly and Edwards, 2005).

But it's not all bad. There are a couple of ways to overcome procrastination. The first is called 'Implementation Intentions' which is horrendous jargon for 'a plan'. To be fair, however, it's a special kind of plan. Instead of saying "I will write my essay Saturday" you ought to write "I will finish my essay Saturday, by 4pm, and I'll do it on campus in the Library". A study conducted by Owens, Bowman and Dill (2008) took a bunch of students and assessed them on their levels of procrastination (and split them into High and Low groups). They then offered all of the student extra credit (FREE CREDIT!) for participating in a second study. The trick was some engaged in 'implementation intention' and others did not. It was found the low procrastinators turned up more often than high procrastinators (as expected, really) but that overall those who used the implemnetation intention were 8 times more likely to show up. If you think about it, that's the high procrastinators pulling that value up because they're the ones least likely to show. It seems people benefit from this kind of planning. It's not a perfect analogue for writing an essay or studying for an exam, but it's probably good advice none-the-less.

The second method to overcome the negative effects of procrastination is... (oh gods) Self-forgiveness. Yes, that's right, if you blow off that book chapter, ignore your essay, or play too much farmville, you should just forgive yourself and try harder next time. So let me outline the study, to give it some context, Wohl, Pychyl & Bennett (2010) followed a bunch of first year psyc students over a whole semester. They measured their rates of procrastination and self-forgiveness before and after a mid-semester exam, and before and after a final exam. They found that students who procrastinated prior to the mid-semester exam sucked on the exam, but of those who forgave themselves did way better on the final.


Wohl et al, 2010

[This was initially very confusing for me, because in Australia a 7 is the high score...]

Anyway, as you can see if you eff up, and identify that your procrastination was key, and forgive yourself, you may do better a second time round. There's some other motivational things tied in there, it's likely a fair messy experiment, but an effect was found.

Finally, another group has suggested there are different kinds of procrastinators. There are passive procrastinators who bail on their responsibilities because, well, they don't have a good reason. And there are active procrastinators, who bail on their responsibilities because they believe they work better under pressure. Both groups engage in the same levels of procrastination, but the active group is more likely to achieve satisfactory outcomes than the passive group, who is likely paralyzed by indecision and apathy (Hsin Chun Chu & Choi, 2005). Personally, I've never liked people who justify their procrastination by saying "I work well under pressure". I've never seen anyone who claims that ever attempt to falsify that statement, never have I seen them follow up that statement with "I tried to write an essay three weeks early once, and I did really poorly, more poorly than I would've if I'd crammed". To me it seems like they just justify their procrastination better; to be fair, however, they may actually be excellent performers under pressure, more so than this passive group is. I just can't believe that they can't focus that performance over a longer time scale and perform even better still. Show me the data, and I'll believe.

At any rate, now that you've finished reading this instead of working/studying you can consider whether it was time well spent. Perhaps you ought to forgive yourself and move on to better things next time, or, if you're an active type, just keep on reading and put it off to the last minute. It seems procrastination is a topic more interesting than I'd first expected, though my opinion about those last-minute-crammers who complain about how hard they work hasn't changed. Not least because all those last minute crammers come and use up all the computers in the library the day before assignments are due, leaving me and the other future-minded folk high and dry after days or weeks of effort.

Ferrari, J., Diaz-Morales, J., O'Callaghan, J., Diaz, K., & Argumedo, D. (2007). Frequent Behavioral Delay Tendencies By Adults: International Prevalence Rates of Chronic Procrastination Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38 (4), 458-464 DOI: 10.1177/0022022107302314

Wohl, M., Pychyl, T., & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (7), 803-808 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

Chu AH, & Choi JN (2005). Rethinking procrastination: positive effects of "active" procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance. The Journal of social psychology, 145 (3), 245-64 PMID: 15959999

  LEE, D., KELLY, K., & EDWARDS, J. (2006). A closer look at the relationships among trait procrastination, neuroticism, and conscientiousness Personality and Individual Differences, 40 (1), 27-37 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.05.010

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great piece!  You have just validated all of my procrastination.  I forgive myself for not coding the tagging system yet.  Now, what else do I need to fix?

UC Davis
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That was an interesting piece backed-up with some nice studies.  I find that only procrastinate when I don't have an immediate deadline.  So if I have somethign due tomorrow I will work tirelessly until it is done with minimal (if any) breaks.  However if it is due in a couple of weeks I'll do a little bit and then procrastinate, and keep doing that until it is done.

So really it might just be that people who say they work better underpressure find that they work harder and for a shorter period of time when they leave it until the last minute, rather than they acchieve better grades/results.

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As a high-performing over-achieving procrastinator I have to say I agree with Will.  I've often used the "work better under pressure" excuse if you want to call it that,  and when I think about it what I really mean, is that I enjoy those all-nighter or day-before sessions where I am super focused for more hours at a time than most people prefer to work.  I have a hard time working on something due in several weeks for 2 hours a day - I'd much rather spend the day or so before working on it all day or whatever.  And so far this strategy hasn't failed me, and my advisor and other people complement me on my writing (even that which is produced at the last minute)...e.g during my candidacy exam, we had to write an off-topic grant in 1 month (including all the reading) and instead of focusing all month, I spent the first 2 weeks pulling 40-hr weeks in the lab and reading a little at night, and ended up writing the proposal in 2 or 3 nights at the end, and my committee still said I did a great job (and my advisor who wasn't on my committee said it was one of the best proposals from a grad student she'd ever seen).  Doing the critical experiment to see if better grades result from procrastnation approaches would be very hard I would think.

Captain Skellett

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Aye, I was procrastinating when I read this.

Why am I doing this again?
Washington University
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Procrastination is my constant companion.  Right now, me and Procrastination are "looking up papers" to find a suitable technique for extraction of membrane bound extracelluar proteins that do contain salts or harsh chemicals to allow us to perform very sensitive activity assays following the extraction.  What was that Procrastination?  It is time for a break for Ghirardelli Square Milk Chocolate with Caramel Filing you say?  I guess we did work very hard....

Washington University School of Medicine
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I want chocolate too! No fair!

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