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Procrastination: Self-regulation in Initiating Aversive Goals

Wendelien Van Eerde*

Faculty of Technology Management, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands

Atermoyer (``remettre au lendemain ce que l'on peut faire le jour meme'') est à  Á un phenomene courant, qui peut etre facilement reconnu comme une l'un de à   ces comportements de non travail et d'evitement. Cependant les theories de la  motivation au travail n' ont pas consacre beaucoup d'attention aux raisons pour lesquelles les gens ne font pas certaines choses dans le travail. De meme à  Á que l'etude du comportement anormal sert a comprendre le comportement   normal, de meme l'etude de l'atermoiement augmente la comprehension de à  l'autoregulation. Dans cet article, l'atermoiement est compris comme le fait   Á d'eviter la mise en úuvre d'une intention. Il se caracterise par le soin mis a    Á Á esquiver l'intention et par la preference donnee a un comportement ou a des   Á idees qui distraient de la repulsion a l'intention. On identifie les variables,  Á processus et conditions rtenant aux differences individuelles. On suggere des  strategies pour surmonter l'atermoiement. Procrastination is a common phenomenon that is easily recognised as one of the behaviours involved in not doing and avoiding work. However, work motivation theories have not devoted much attention to why people don't do things at work. Just as the study of abnormal behaviour is used to understand normal behaviour, so can the study of procrastination enhance the understanding of self-regulation. In this paper, procrastination is defined as the avoidance of the implementation of an intention. It is characterised by the avoidance of the intention and the preference for behaviour or thoughts that distract from the aversiveness of the intention. Individual difference variables, processes, and conditions are identified. Strategies to overcome procrastination are suggested.


Although procrastination is a widespread and easily recognised phenomenon, which affects many at work, it is a neglected topic in work motivation.

________________ * Address for correspondence: Eindhoven University of Technology, Faculty of Technology Management, P.O. Box 513, 5600 MB Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Email: [email protected] This paper is based upon a Ph.D. thesis written at the University of Amsterdam. # International Association for Applied Psychology, 2000. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.



An increased understanding of the antecedents, motivational dynamics, and effects of procrastination will help to identify the appropriate strategies to overcome the dysfunctional aspects of the behaviour. The theoretical relevance of procrastination lies in two neglected topics in work motivation, avoidance and impulsiveness.


Most work motivation theories describe how motivation increases performance and enhances satisfaction, and how individuals actively try to achieve positive outcomes. Rarely is the focus on why people do not do things or how they avoid outcomes. Procrastination can be considered as an illustration of how people are motivated not to do things (see also Van Eerde & Briner, 1999) and how people sometimes avoid, rather than approach, outcomes. Approach and avoidance cannot be considered exact opposites (Higgins, 1997), or as consisting of interchangeable units (Locke, 1975). Rather, approach and avoidance are different dimensions, where avoidance is a reaction to threat, or generally ``to avoid pain'', and approach is a reaction to an incentive, ``to attain pleasure''. These two dimensions are the basis of hedonism. Modern work motivation theories have moved away from the hedonism base and have treated motivation as a predominantly cognitive process. However, it is still assumed that people strive to attain goals, values, or purposes, which are underpinned by human needs to avoid pain or to attain pleasure. The focus in acting is on a goal (Locke, 1975), and the goal is affected by notions of avoiding pain or attaining pleasure. Recent reseach on action tendencies towards an attitude object suggests that reaction times to positive and negative words imply the avoidance of negative outcomes without conscious awareness (Chen & Bargh, 1999). Chen and Bargh (1999) suggested that an immediate, automatic response to threat may serve the purpose of preparing an individual for appropriate action even when attention is focused on conscious goal-directed activity or when attention is restricted in some way, for example when a person is tired. Procrastination may be seen as task avoidance in the same sense.


Impulsiveness, or the opposite to the delay of gratification, has been studied extensively in children (Mischel, 1996), but has not been a topic of research in work motivation. However, impulsiveness may play a role when individuals are faced with multiple goals and they need to decide what to do now and what to do later, as is often the case in any job that allows for some discretion in work scheduling. In other words, intertemporal choices need to

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be made. Intertemporal choice can lead to increased planning and greater analytical effort, but can also be influenced by impulsiveness, a well-documented phenomenon in animals and humans in performing actions over time (Ainslie, 1975; Loewenstein & Elster, 1992). Impulsiveness is the preference for short-term outcomes over future rewards, even though these may be more valuable in an objective sense. This preference of immediate rewards, also called the inability to delay gratification (Mischel, 1996) is sometimes dominant to the extent that it may be called self-defeating. In procrastination, the long-term reward will follow the execution of an unattractive action. The impulsiveness shows itself when a person chooses a less important but more pleasant activity instead.


Procrastination has typically been defined as a trait or behavioural disposition to postpone or delay performing a task or making decisions (Milgram, Mey-Tal, & Levison, 1998). This focus on dispositions has important shortcomings because intraindividual processes that may explain the differences between individuals remain uninvestigated. However, the dispositional approach may be reconciled with the idea that procrastination can also be described as a process. As such, procrastination involves the avoidance of the implementation of an intention. The avoidance is characterised by distraction with more pleasant activities or thoughts. The intention concerns a behaviour that is experienced as emotionally unattractive, but cognitively important because it will lead to positive outcomes in the future. Defining procrastination is problematic in the sense that it is an intraindividual process, something that depends on internal norms of what is late, when to start, and so on. To others, the behaviour may or may not appear to be procrastination (Milgram, Srolof, & Rosenbaum, 1988). The activities that individuals typically procrastinate on may vary widely, from buying presents, to filling out forms, to calling friends on the telephone (Van Eerde, 1998). This shows that the unattractiveness of tasks may be highly personal. However, some of the dimensions that may underlie procrastination for most people will be discussed further on as one of the determinants of procrastination.


The literature on work-related procrastination is virtually nonexistent (exceptions are Ferrari, 1992; Harris & Sutton, 1983; Lay & Brokenshire, 1997; Lowman, 1993; Puffer, 1989). Most publications concern students' procrastination (see for an overview Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995), and largely concern cross-sectional self-report studies that relate the tend# International Association for Applied Psychology, 2000.



ency to procrastinate to other psychological variables. A few studies on students have employed experimental designs (e.g. Milgram, Dangour, & Â Raviv, 1992; Senecal, Lavoie, & Koestner, 1997). Other publications on procrastination include self-help books (e.g. Burka & Yuen, 1983; Knaus, 1998), or those that take a clinical or therapeutical perspective. In the available research on procrastination, the primary focus has been on the personality traits that influence avoidance behaviours of students. For example, in the Big Five Factor Model of personality, conscientiousness, and, to a lesser extent, neuroticism are related to trait procrastination, which is considered a lower order trait (Johnson & Bloom, 1995; Schouwenburg & Lay, 1995). Within this approach, trait procrastination may result in behaviour through different motives. One of the motives most often associated with procrastination is fear of failure (Ferrari et al., 1995), but also passive aggression, revenge, or other motives have been mentioned in publications. None of the studies have shown any ability factors associated with procrastination. According to Milgram et al. (1998) different kinds of procrastination can be distinguished, such as academic, decisional, and compulsive procrastination. However, no strong empirical support is given for the distinction between these types, and the categorisation appears to have been made according to different outcomes of the behaviour. In order to classify procrastination, it may be more useful to specify the relevant dimensions of the psychological feature of situations, and to establish whether arguments for specificity within or across situations can be made. This will be attempted in the section on the situational determinants, discussed later in this paper.


As described above, procrastination was defined as the avoidance of the implementation of an intention. As such, (proximal) self-regulation theories apply to procrastination, rather than (distal) motivation theories (see Kanfer, 1992). Procrastination is viewed here as a motivational mechanism, serving the purpose of avoiding a threat temporarily, in order to protect one's wellbeing in the short term. Procrastination occurs when this threat is dealt with by an avoidance response, which results in postponement of the action. Avoidance responses can be considered as emotion-oriented coping reactions (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), specifically those that are characterised by escaping the problem. This explanation of procrastination is consistent with the appraisal±anxiety±avoidance model of procrastination (Milgram et al., 1998), which states that people assess whether a given situation poses a threat to them, and whether they have the resources to deal effectively with this threat. If they perceive their resources to be inadequate, they react with stress/anxiety reactions, and try to escape from the situation. In the case of procrastination, this escape means putting off doing the anxiety-provoking

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task as long as possible, and this avoidance leads to reduced stress, a negative reinforcement that helps sustain the pattern of behaviour (Milgram et al., 1998, p. 299). Escaping the problem altogether is not always possible and can also be achieved through distraction, which serves to reduce, deny, or escape emotional distress, for example, calling someone instead of starting to write a complicated paper. The distraction is a less important but more pleasant action, an activity that can be taken up and abandoned within a short time span that takes the mind off the unpleasant intended action (Sabini & Silver, 1982). This is typically the type of activity that one regrets having done afterwards, because it was not on top of a priority list. Relatedly, procrastination may be also termed a lost ``should±want'' conflict (Bazerman, Tenbrunsel, & Wade-Benzoni, 1998). That is, a person acts on what he or she wants to do, rather than on what he or she should do to receive future rewards. Individuals do not appear to learn from previous incidents in which they procrastinated, and although they may try to stop it, tend to procrastinate again in similar situations. As suggested previously, negative reinforcement plays a role in this repetition, because procrastination alleviates stress temporarily. Additionally, the encoding of the situation may play a role, in particular encoding in terms of threat in appraising a situation, and loss, after the occurrence of procrastination. When events are encoded as losses, rather than gains, this has different implications for behaviour, according to prospect theory in decision making (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Losses are to be avoided, whereas gains are to be attained. Based upon this principle, foregoing a valuable outcome through inaction leads to repeated inaction in the same domain through regret. Regrettable inaction leads to avoidance of subsequent action in the same domain in order to avoid anticipated regret, even though it may be counterfactual (Tykocinski & Pittman, 1998). Additionally, a general type of psychological inertia may play a role in the continuation of procrastination, that is, the routine of the habit to delay tasks provides an affective incentive, as it may be emotionally straining to start new ways of working that are different from the usual (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). Also, negative reinforcement may play a role in this process, when no negative outcomes occurred, that is, a person may have expected to be ``caught'' by others as a consequence of procrastination, but got away with it. Another cognitive mechanism that may explain the repetition of procrastination is the planning fallacy, or the tendency to be overly optimistic about time left for activities. This optimism appears to arise from the wish to finish quickly, and can be seen as a form of motivated reasoning. Two cognitive processes have been identified that partially mediate the relationship between the wish to finish quickly and the tendency to be overly optimistic in predictions. These are: (a) focusing on the future, and ignoring

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possible barriers that may occur, and (b) neglecting previous experience, particularly failures, that are underscored through attributional processes (Buehler, Griffin, & MacDonald, 1997). When previous experiences are neglected, it is difficult to learn from them, and this may account for the continuation of the behaviour.


The two approaches to procrastination, the trait and the process approach, may be reconciled. Mischel and Shoda (1998) suggested an integration of trait and process variables of personality into a conceptualisation of a cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS). The reconciliation may be achieved by analysing traits in terms of the cognitive and affective processing dynamics. The eventual aim is to identify types of people who differ in types of behaviour, in types of situations. Stable individual differences are reflected in CAPS in two ways: (1) the chronic accessibility of cognitiveemotional mediating units, that are responsible for the processing of selfrelevant information; and (2) the organisation of these units, which characterises how they become salient or activated in different situations and over time. Five cognitive-emotional mediating units are distinguished: (a) encodings, (b) expectancies and beliefs, (c) affects, (d) goals and values, and (e) competencies and self-regulatory plans. CAPS is conceptualised as the outcome of a learning history, in interaction with a biological history, such as reflected by temperamental and genetic-biological determinants. The system is seen as proactive, which implies that individuals shape their environment, in addition to being shaped by the environment. The environment is incorporated into the theory, in that ``when the relevant situational features are present, characteristic processes become activated in a predictable pattern'' (Mischel & Shoda, 1998, p. 240). In the following, determinants and effects of procrastination are discussed through this focus. Fig. 1 gives an overview of the variables to be discussed. It shows that procrastination is a function of a person and situation processed in the CAPS. Procrastination leads to time pressure on the avoided task, and this may have psychological and/or external effects.


The chronic accessibility of cognitive mediating units that indicate stable individual differences are proposed in the two areas mentioned before, avoidance and impulsiveness. Both personal and situational determinants are described below.

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PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS ± anxiety ± temporary relief ± stimulation ± regret

PERSON ± avoidance ± impulsiveness




EXTERNAL EFFECTS ± performance ± extra-role behaviour ± social interaction

SITUATION ± organisational factors ± task factors

FIGURE 1. A model of procrastination.

Person: Avoidance

Avoidance reactions occur because the situation is perceived as threatening or affectively unattractive. Prospect theory offers situational explanations for loss or gain framing of options. However, there may be individual differences in terms of encodings of situations in terms of threat or loss, rather than approach or gains. Similarly, people can be primed as having discrepancies from their ``ought'' self, that is, they can perceive negative outcomes in terms of lacking something in themselves, or as discrepancies from their ``ideal'' self, meaning that they are approaching an ideal they have in mind for themselves. Relatively stable individual differences have been found in this self-defining variable (Higgins, 1997; Roney, Higgins, & Shah, 1995). Also, an avoidant, or repressive coping style (Boden & Baumeister, 1997) may be relevant as a chronically accessible style to process self-relevant information. This coping style is characterised by a defensive attentional strategy towards negative emotional stimuli, and involves distraction using pleasant thoughts and memories. Avoidance behaviour leads to different emotional reactions than approach behaviour. Negative outcomes are expected in avoidance behaviour. When behaviour produces negative outcomes, it leads to agitation. When negative outcomes are absent, only relief or quiescence follows. In contrast, approach behaviour leads to the expectation of positive outcomes, whereby the absence of positive outcomes leads to dejection, and the presence to cheerfulness (Higgins, 1997).

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Person: Impulsiveness

Two variables are important in this area: (1) lack of cognitive structure which obscures intertemporal choice options; and (2) competencies in the area of volition (also called self-control or willpower) to overcome the impulse to escape from the unpleasant situation. Individual differences in the preference for and the ability to achieve cognitive structure have been found to influence search behaviour in decision making and planning (Bar-Tal, Kishon, & Tabak, 1997). Also, time scope (Tuttle, 1997) may be important. A short-term scope would encourage impulsiveness and a long-term scope would help to focus on long-term goals and overcome the impulsiveness. Individual differences in the area of volition can be classified as state versus action orientation (Kuhl & Beckmann, 1994). This orientation indicates the self-regulatory style that characterises people in initiating, persisting in, and ending goal directed behaviour. State oriented orientation implies a style of focusing attention on one's emotional state or on the situation, rather than on enacting an intention. In empirical studies, the tendency to procrastinate correlated highly with hesitation, or state-oriented reactions to initiating the enactment of an intention (Beswick & Mann, 1994; Blunt & Pychyl, 1998; Van Eerde, 1998).


One of the questions that is relevant to the occurrence of procrastination is whether the tendency to procrastinate is highly generalisable or tends to be situation-specific. Procrastination between study and daily life domains was highly correlated in one study (Milgram et al., 1998). On the other hand, work implies exchange relations that create interdependency between people that may be less dominant in the study or daily life domain.

Situation: Task Factors

There appear to be certain tasks within jobs that nearly everyone appears to procrastinate on, such as preparing a presentation. For this task, the anxiety associated with giving a presentation to an audience may account for the behaviour. There may be certain dimensions of tasks that make procrastination more likely, because these dimensions pose a type of threat to everyone. A balance between challenge and skill appears to be particularly important for concentration and involvement in an achievement-oriented context (school), more so than in social interaction, when participants are with family or friends (Moneta & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Following this idea, two dimensions of the task in work-related procrastination are

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proposed: procrastination on tasks that are unattractive because they are too challenging, and those that are not challenging enough. Complex tasks or difficult goals may be perceived as a threat (Drach-Zahavy & Erez, 1997). For those tasks assessed as too challenging in comparison to one's perceived ability, the threat of evaluation and external pressure may lead to avoidance. For tasks perceived as too easy relative to one's skill, or that are seen as boring or useless, procrastination may be used as a strategy for completing tasks as close to the deadline as possible in order to gain energy and to complete them as fast as possible. Although risky, this strategy is often used, and may even be beneficial to achievement. A model of task procrastination in organisations, which has never been investigated empirically, was proposed some time ago by Harris and Sutton (1983). It places the perception of tasks relevant to procrastination into three categories: (a) the focal task, (b) the relationship between the focal task and other tasks, and (c) organisational systems. The dimensions of the focal task named are difficulty, appeal, ambiguity, and deadline pressure. The relationship between the focal and other tasks includes interdependence, overload, and relative importance. The organisational systems are the normative system, the reward system, and the information system. The impacts of these three categories are moderated by task discretion, such that only people with a certain amount of job autonomy have the possibility to procrastinate. Many jobs do not allow the discretion to prioritise the work, for example, in service jobs where people react on demand, such as waiting tables or answering the telephone. Other jobs may leave much more room for procrastination, such as in creative professions and consultancy, where an end result is not easily defined, and delays can easily be explained and defended and where budgets may be reallocated.

Situation: Organisational Factors

The interdependency between people at work may serve as a source of social control that is lacking in the self-control of the procrastinator. This social control can be considered to be embedded in norms regarding time use, and may be seen as a dimension of organisational culture (Schriber & Gutek, 1987). This dimension of time use would reflect for example the degree to which a group is punctual, and whether it enforces sanctions when deadlines are not met. To complicate matters, what is considered punctual may differ between national cultures (McGrath, 1988), as can be illustrated by the case of norms about the payment of bills within Europe (Van Baardwijk, 1997). The extremes were found in Norway, where a 21-day period is the norm to pay bills, and in Portugal, where it is 50 days. Compliance to this norm also varies. The delay in days of actual payment varies from 6 days in Norway to 41 days in Portugal.

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An organisational culture may promote norms that encourage employees to be punctual, but may also encourage procrastination. Ashforth and Lee (1990) suggested that cultures under threat, for example when performance is declining or when a hostile takeover is likely, may give rise to defensive behaviour. Defensive behaviour may be seen as including both ``. . .reactive and protective actions intended to reduce a perceived threat to or avoid an unwanted demand of an individual or group'' (Ashforth & Lee, 1990, p. 622). Ashforth and Lee (1990) identified four stressors that would give rise to defensive behaviour: threat, ambiguity, overload, and powerlessness. Although Ashforth and Lee do not consider procrastination explicitly, they do describe behaviour such as stalling in which the aim is to appear active and supportive publicly, but to do nothing or very little privately. These situational factors may not only determine the occurrence of procrastination, but also the effects, as discussed below.


Procrastination causes time pressure, and this may be dysfunctional, or may go unnoticed, or it may be functional, depending on the person and situation. The internal, psychological, and external consequences of procrastination also need to be distinguished. Empirical studies of the effects of procrastination are drawn from different sources. No studies of the effects of procrastination at work were identified.

Psychological Effects

Internal negative consequences can arise from the avoidance dynamics. The distraction may not cause the avoided task to disappear completely from an individual's mind; it may surface once in a while and even become a preoccupation (Wegner, 1994). That is, procrastination may produce uncontrolled thinking about what the person actually should be doing. Even though many may rationalise their procrastination, it may still appear unnecessary in hindsight. This may lead to regret, guilt, disappointment with oneself, or other self-relevant emotions. Correlations have been found between procrastination and symptoms of lower mental well-being, such as depression and anxiety (Flett, Blankstein, & Martin, 1995). However, there appear to be individual differences in whether procrastinators are concerned with their behaviour (Milgram & Naaman, 1996), and some do not experience regret or other negative psychological consequences. The effect of procrastination was found to be beneficial to well-being early in a semester, but not late in the semester (Tice & Baumeister, 1997). The short-term advantages may lie in the fact that an unchallenging task may become more stimulating and challenging, and people may enjoy

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the feelings of rebelliousness that result from the risk. For a task that is experienced as too challenging, the procrastination serves as a temporary self-protection, that is useful withdrawal in which attention can be shifted, for example when receiving negative feedback (Brunstein, this issue). On the other hand, people may also use these arguments or rationalisations to justify their behaviour.

External Consequences

Three types of behaviour are distinguished as affected by procrastination: task performance, extra-role behaviour, and social interaction. Task Performance. Task performance may be affected by procrastination. Research on students has found a small average negative correlation between procrastination and students' grades, although there is a considerable variation between studies (Van Eerde, in preparation). The main effect of procrastination is that time pressure increases, and not enough time may be spent on the postponed goals. This may result in negative external consequences such as failure to meet deadlines, or a trade-off between the speed and quality of the performance. However, this effect will be mediated by goal difficulty: if a goal is perceived as not challenging enough, time pressure may result in more efficient, and perhaps even more effective, task performance. This is also expressed in Parkinson's Law: Work will expand or contract to fill the amount of time available for it (see Brannon, Hershberger, & Brock, 1999). Procrastination may lead to better task performance in creative tasks, or tasks involving the search for information. In this case, delay may give some extra time in which new insights may be gained. Also, preoccupation with an avoided thought may not be completely dysfunctional, because it may also lead to more thoughts about the avoided goal once these are allowed to surface again (Wegner, 1994). Extra-role Behaviours. When work goals are avoided and private goals used as distracters, procrastination may lead to lateness at work, or even absence and longer term withdrawal. However, when the distraction from unattractive tasks involves functional behaviours, such as helping or talking to others at work, procrastination may have positive effects. Social Interaction. Procrastination does not only concern the procrastinator, but may affect others as well. Others may be waiting, or lose time in reminding persons of deadlines. Political purposes may be served in using procrastination to maintain the status quo, by assigning complex and vague tasks to those who are known to have procrastinated on similar tasks in the past.

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Based upon the model, strategies to overcome procrastination are proposed. These will cover personal strategies in the three areas mentioned previously: avoidance, cognitive structure, and volition. Strategies for changing the task and context in order to prevent the occurrence of procrastination, or to limit its dysfunctional effects, will also be mentioned.

Overcoming Avoidance

A better training in those tasks that are too challenging or too complex may change the encodings in terms of threat. Increased self-efficacy would decrease the likelihood of avoidance, when the procrastination can be traced to perceived incompetence. However, these are not useful solutions for unchallenging tasks. A person may have high self-efficacy for these tasks, and still procrastinate. Making tasks more challenging in various ways apart from increasing time pressure would be useful in these tasks. It is also possible to train competencies relevant to self-regulation in general, such as self-knowledge, self-monitoring, feedback seeking, and awareness of the effect of one's behaviour. This may lead to setting more realistic goals, and knowing whether procrastination will lead to dysfunctional effects.

Cognitive Structuring

Planning is an effective strategy to overcome distraction (Sonnentag, 1998). Planning is a way to structure decision making by setting a goal in terms of content and time span, and anticipating the steps leading from a goal to action. This may help overcome difficulties when circumstances change, because possible solutions have been considered. The plans may include three components: standards, monitoring, and strength (Baumeister et al., 1994). Plans structure self-control, or take into account other sources of control, such as social control and feedback from the environment. Time awareness is an important component for making realistic plans. According to Buehler et al. (1997), overly optimistic predictions of time may be made more realistic by taking into account previous experiences and possible distractions or other barriers that may occur in the future execution of the task. When tasks differ in importance, the most effective strategy is to prioritise the tasks according to importance, and to execute them as prioritised. Time management (Drucker, 1966) extends planning in terms of importance and time goals into a method which makes achievement of plans more likely. More specifically, recording time, managing time, and consolidating time are suggested as leading to effective execution of multiple goals: in other

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words, the awareness of how long activities typically take, the distinction between important and less important tasks, and organising time to the extent that large chunks of uninterrupted time are reserved for optimal concentration. Research by Pham and Taylor (1999) showed that mental simulation of the process for doing well on an exam led to better grades, in comparison to two other conditions that involved simulating a desired outcome or using unstructured self-monitoring. These mental strategies imply that planning can be done cognitively, and need not be written down, as long as the mental simulation is concrete, specific, and involves the processes of attaining a goal, rather than the outcome of a goal. However, planning does not appear to be a common strategy for most people, and even if planning takes place, it may still not result in the execution of these tasks as prioritised (Van Eerde, 1998). Perhaps more is needed than structuring activities, and volition may be the crucial factor in overcoming procrastination.

Strengthening Volition

Increasing the perceived proximity and value of the avoided task, and decreasing the perceived proximity and value of the distraction may help to overcome procrastination (Schouwenburg, 1995). The value of the avoided task may be increased by making intentions public, which would enhance goal commitment. Also, when the avoided task is perceived as boring, strategies to increase interest may be used, such as finding meaning and variation in the simple task (Sansone & Harackiewicz, 1996; Sansone, Weir, Harpster, & Morgan, 1992). A task that is avoided because it is too complex and too challenging may be made more tractable by creating proximal subgoals and setting shorter deadlines. Proximal goals lead to increased self-efficacy, resulting in better performance (Latham & Seijts, 1999). In addition, ``implementation intentions'' (Gollwitzer, 1993) are a way to seize the right opportunity to act by visualising the concrete time and place in which action will take place, and stating this aloud to oneself. Limiting the likelihood of distraction is in general more easily achieved by temptation-inhibiting strategies than task-facilitating strategies (Mischel, 1996). If distraction cannot be prevented, it may be effective to think of one other thing, instead of engaging in unfocused distraction, as preoccupation with the avoided thought appears to decrease when it is replaced by one other thought (Wegner, 1994). Finally, making pleasurable distractions more distal can be achieved by planning to perform activities at a certain point in the future, perhaps as a reward after the unattractive task has been finished.

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Altering Conditions

Altering the task and context so as to minimise procrastination can be achieved in many different ways. One way is to restructure the task in ways that increase external feedback, reduce freedom to make decisions, and increase social control. However, a high degree of external control may be detrimental in the long term. The conditions that need to be enhanced should be beneficial to self-regulation and should not be threatening, in order to prevent avoidance reactions. This can be achieved by selection, training, and task instruction. Task instruction may have effects similar to the approach, rather than avoidance, framing of goals (Roney et al., 1995), by giving explicit task instruction and training in such a way that learning rather than anxiety is enhanced when errors occur (Frese, Brodbeck, Heinbokel, Mooser, Schleiffenbaum, & Thiemann, 1991). Another method of task instruction that may be useful is ``guided mastery'' (Debowski, Wood & Bandura, 1999) which enhances self-efficacy in novel tasks, and helps a person overcome the disruptive effects of failure or cognitive overload. These two types of instructions appear to provide a buffer when barriers occur, or ``affective inoculation'' in self-regulation. These methods of instruction have been shown to help people overcome setbacks, and to persist in a novel complex task, and may also help in initiating aversive goals. Self-regulatory strategies could also include steps to limit distractions. Examples include maintaining a clean desk, switching off the telephone or e-mail for a while, and so on. In addition, group self-regulation may also help a person to overcome procrastination by means of social control mechanisms that are relatively unthreatening. The punctuated equilibrium idea of group development (Gersick, 1988, 1989) may be relevant to interventions to overcome procrastination. Gersick's research indicates that transitions occur in team projects at the midpoint between start and deadline, after which qualitatively different processes take place. In particular, some group members may keep better track of time as the deadline approaches, which may help to overcome procrastination of individual members.


Determinants and effects of work-related procrastination were discussed, by considering individual differences, psychological processes, and situational factors. The discussion provides new ways to study procrastination, and may help in the design and evaluation of strategies to overcome procrastination. Procrastination is a reality in work organisations. Further research on this topic offer the promise of practical strategies for improving

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productivity and mental health at work. Also, theorising and research on procrastination offer potential insights that are not apparent when focusing on positive work behaviours.


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