The tomorrow people

August 12, 2005

Procrastination is a common affliction, particularly among students. Michael North ponders the reasons why some folk don't just do it

Penny Aspinell, student counsellor at Leeds University, runs workshops to help students who are compulsive procrastinators. But there is a problem. "I run two workshops a year for about a dozen students at a time," she says. "Twenty-four book to come but they don't all arrive or they turn up late."

The anecdote seems like good material for a stand-up comedian, but procrastination is a serious issue in universities around the world. Research shows that while 14 per cent of the worldwide adult population are procrastinators, students are particularly prone, with up to 75 per cent admitting that they procrastinate about their work. One in five finds it is a significant source of stress that also affects their grades.

Students interviewed by Jean O'Callaghan, a psychotherapist and psychologist at Roehampton University, are often puzzled about their own behaviour but feel unable to change. One says: "I have to be in this fantastic mood to write... but waiting (for the mood) is hell... It's a trick that traps me in its grip." Another ponders: "I sit there wanting to write, but instead I play computer games. I know what I really want to do, but somehow I don't do it."

O'Callaghan, who organised the recent International Conference on Procrastination at Roehampton, argues that the problem is the product of a self-imposed mental construction rather than a fixed personality trait. Through her Start Write counselling programme, she tries to help students to stop seeing themselves as persistent procrastinators and hence conquer the problem.

Clarry Lay, an emeritus professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, defines procrastination "as the gap between intentions and actions".

In contrast to O'Callaghan, his research has focused on identifying character traits that predispose a person to the problem. As a self-confessed procrastinator, he has found that the key triggers are a "lack of conscientiousness" and what he terms "a lack of a sense of ought". "When non-procrastinators intend to do something they understand that they ought to do it, it's their responsibility. When procrastinators intend to do something they understand it as an ideal - they think 'wouldn't it be nice to study for the test tomorrow?'"

Lay still counsels the worst procrastinators at York, helping them to realise that if they impose more reasonable deadlines on themselves they need not repeat the torture of "pulling allnighters".

He volunteers his favourite maxim: "Nothing beats the pursuit of one's intentions. It is the measure of success in life." Lay notes: "Procrastinators like this, it gives them a definition of how to be successful."

For Aspinell, one of the main obstacles between student procrastinators and a finished piece of work is daytime television. She says they look for "short-term gratification" rather than thinking of longer term goals, such as getting a good degree.

She uses a "study buddy" system - where two procrastinating students encourage one another to keep on a more productive track - and group work to make them discuss the familiar patterns of their behaviour and try to do something about it.

One group session involved constructing a board game of these familiar patterns - "went to library, move forward two spaces. Spent afternoon watching Richard & Judy , miss turn."

Such ploys may not cure the most extreme sufferers. "The worst cases are symptomatic of something much deeper: anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, a disparity between what they think they should achieve and what they can achieve," Aspinell says.

Andrea Perry, a psychotherapist who advises universities on dealing with procrastination, adds: "If the habit becomes entrenched, the student may become paralysed by their inability to act constructively or decisively, leading to anxiety, doubt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, obsessions, depression, health difficulties and, in the worst case, to the student becoming suicidal."

Perry, author of The Little Book of Procrastination , has found different causes of the behaviour that were dependent on the university. Students at Russell Group institutions, she observes, are likely to become inert from striving too hard for perfection; while in one modern university she encountered Muslim girls putting off work that would complete their degrees because they wanted to delay the next stage in their lives - an arranged marriage.

Whatever the reasons, all the psychologists and university counsellors at the Roehampton conference agree that procrastination has a corrosive effect on students' lives and can prevent them realising their potential or even completing their degrees.

The global scale of the problem is shown by the work of Joe Ferrari, professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago. He presented data from UK adult populations that showed we procrastinate as much as any nationality in the world. His research led the Peruvian Government to try to change Peru's ma$ana culture to one of timeliness using an advertising campaign that shows children leaping out of bed to get to school on time.

Ferrari accepts, however, that the problem is not "just about time management". He says: "To tell a chronic procrastinator to 'just do it' is like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up."

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