“Procrastination is defined as the gap between intention and action,” says Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD, associate professor of psychology and director of the procrastination research group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Let’s say you woke up this morning intending to go to the gym at noon, but you put it off because a project kept you at your desk through lunch, then you had to pick up your child from school. Now it’s the end of the day and you’re beating yourself up because you didn’t get your workout in and you need some data files recovered. “That’s not procrastination; it’s simply poor time management,” explains Pychyl. Yet the opposite is true if you planned to go to the gym at noon but went to lunch with a co-worker instead. “Then you have to wonder why you’re putting things off,” he notes.
The Great Divide
How strongly you intend to complete a task isn’t the only factor that determines whether you procrastinate. Personality traits may dictate how well you act on your intentions. “We have some basic traits that seem to be quite human, quite universal. Some people call them the big five in personality,” remarks Pychyl. One such trait is conscientiousness — how orderly and dutiful we are. “If you’re very low on this trait, you’re more likely to be a procrastinator,” he states. “In terms of why people procrastinate, it seems to be a stable personality disposition that distinguishes people.”
While the other big five traits don’t seem to be as closely related, some relationship exists between extroversion and procrastination because of impulsivity. Pychyl explains: “Impulsivity is related to procrastination in the sense that we aren’t able to shield one intention from another. A concrete example is: It’s 5 p.m. and my intention is to go to the gym. I need to protect that intention from other things. So let’s say two of my friends want me to grab a pizza and a beer with them. Now I face a choice, and I have to protect my original intention. And to the extent that I’m impulsive, I may not do so well protecting that intention. So impulsivity is related to procrastination, and that has some relation to extroversion as a personality trait.”
The whole idea of protecting your intentions and their follow-up actions relates to an important concept that psychologists call self-regulation. “On some levels, procrastination represents a breakdown in self-regulation,” says Pychyl. “When you have an intention and you self-regulate to achieve that intention, anything that’s going to distract from that is very important. Impulsivity would be an example of that,”
Closing the Gap
A typical method of procrastination is to say we’ll start tomorrow instead of today but often that doesn’t actually happen. “One thing that seems to make a difference in people playing out those intentions is implementation intentions,” reports Pychyl, who edited the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality’s special issue on procrastination. The term coined by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer may explain how to fill the gap between intention and action.
“An implementation intention is that not only do you say you’re going to do X, but that you’ll do behavior X in situation Y at time Z,” Pychyl explains. If you want to jog tomorrow morning, for example, you’ll facilitate that intention by putting your clothes and shoes next to your bed and saying: “The moment I get up, I’m going to put on those clothes and head out the door.” You have a clear idea what situational cues will be there to ensure you follow through with the intention. “Some people procrastinate simply because they have vague intentions that aren’t operational action statements,” notes Pychyl.
If you have a general intention, you need to make it much more specific, he adds. Creating an implementation intention breaks your goal down into specific tasks, then you provide yourself with cues to remind you of what you’re supposed to be doing. That will make you more likely to complete the tasks that get you to your goal.
Because we’re victims of habit, the key is creating those situational cues. So if you normally stumble out of bed in the morning, make a cup of coffee, turn on your computer and view your e-mail, you need to have something there to signal, No, that’s not what I’m doing today I’m putting on these clothes, and I’m going for a run. “An implementation intention provides some concrete external stimuli that jogs your memory,” Pychyl remarks.