What We Finally Got Around to Learning at the Procrastination Research Conference


It is a conference built on the idea that precisely because procrastination is problematic for so many people, it is worthy of serious investigation.

Throughout the morning, Dr. Ferrari’s wife, Sharon, stood by the registration table, prepared to morph from greeter to guard if anyone tried to violate one of the meeting’s core rules:

“There’s no day-of registration,” she said.

Here is what we learned about who procrastinates, where they procrastinate and how to halt the loop of perpetual delay.

20 percent of people are true procrastinators

Part of the challenge of studying procrastination is defining it.

Dr. Ferrrari, the conference organizer, defines procrastination as “the purposive and frequent delay in beginning or completing a task to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort, such as anxiety or regret.” His colleague Dr. Anderson says it is “culpably unwarranted delay.” At the simplest level, most researchers agree, you know it when you’re doing it.

One out of five people, researchers have found, fall into a category they call chronic procrastinators or procs (rhymes with crocs). The proc consistently procrastinates consistently in multiple areas of his or her life — work, personal, financial, social — in ways that attendees describe as wreaking havoc, undermining goals and producing perpetual shame. Researchers have built scales to separate the true proc from the occasional procrastinator. They assess not simply how often, but also the severity of consequences with prompts like:

I delay making decisions until it’s too late.

I am continually saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Putting things off until the last minute has cost me in the past year.

It is more complicated than “if you do it X number of times a week you’re a proc.” But if you procrastinate “almost every day, at least half of the time you have work tasks,” that is a solid hint that you qualify, said Julia Elen Haferkamp, a psychologist at the University of Münster in Germany.

“When it’s really procrastination, it’s more like a psychological disease,” said her colleague Stephan Förster, also a psychologist at the University of Münster.

He, and others who treat procs, spoke of broken marriages, lost jobs, deflated dreams, financial disarray and self-esteem issues.

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“I’ve always made the argument that everybody procrastinates but not everyone’s a procrastinator because everybody may put off a task but that doesn’t make you a procrastinator,” said Joseph R. Ferrari, the conference chairman, who has published around 70 papers on procrastination.

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Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

But if 20 percent of the population procrastinates that much, is it definitely bad? One presenter, Jean O’Callaghan, a principal lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London, offered a more positive interpretation of this group, framing them as masters of idleness.

“Maybe cultures need to learn how to do time differently and we can learn from procrastinators,” said Dr. O’Callaghan, who was the chairwoman of the 2005 conference. “To think out of the box about time and what it means to have a meaningful life? To have satisfaction? To have a sense of well-being? Or to produce a thousand articles?”

But Dr. Ferrari, who has published more research articles on procrastination than anyone else in psychology, does not agree that there is any upside to procrastination. (He has even published a few studies that work toward counteracting what he calls the “myth” that procrastinators perform better under last-minute pressure.)

Where is the proc capital of the world?

Pointing to a slide featuring Poland, Britain, Turkey and and Austria, Bilge Uzun, a research scientist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, asked, “Where do you think we find the most procrastinators?”

It was a trick question. She and her co-authors found that all countries surveyed had the same percentage: 20 percent, a finding reinforced by dozens of others studies over the years in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Japan and beyond.

And yet when Karem Diaz Cerna, a psychology professor at Pontifical Catholic University in Lima, surveyed her fellow Peruvians, she was convinced she was going to find an outlier.

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For the past twenty years, researchers have been meeting every other year to discuss the latest in procrastination research. This year’s conference took place in Chicago.

Credit
Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

“We thought, everything was so late there so the scales were not going to work,” she recounted.

But using a comparable questionnaire she also got about 20. Not just in Lima, the capital, but in all regions surveyed.

Stopping the cycle

When Bill McCown, a research psychologist and associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, attended the first procrastination conference in 1997, there were some peculiar ideas floating around about procrastination.

“At the time, it’s just due to the American lifestyle and capitalism. That was one big one,” he recalled.

The presentations at the conference showed that the field has come a long way, but there was plenty of work to be done.

Asked to summarize their advice to the procs of the world, most attendees offered a version of the following: Accept that changing will require learning to manage your emotions and thinking more than figuring out how to manage your time. If it is a severe problem, consider working with a professional who understands procrastination. And for those who have A.D.H.D., the cycle of procrastination may operate differently than for those who do not.

But what does the research say?

“Mostly that we need more consistent research,” said Wendelien Van Eerde, a professor at the faculty of economics and business at the University of Amsterdam, and a co-author of a meta-analysis of studies on interventions for procrastination.

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The researchers spend hours debating definitions of procrastination. The definition of Joel Anderson, left, a Dutch philosopher, is, “Culpably unwarranted delay.” Koroush Dini, right, a psychoanalyst, approved. “I like this, yeah. I think it’s one of the best definitions out there.”

Credit
Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Pushed further on what seemed to work best from the 16 of 989 studies that she felt comfortable comparing with one another, she offered, “C.B.T. mostly,” referring to cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing thought patterns, “followed by time management to some degree.”

And though most attendees at the conference said that they were convinced that chronic procrastination was curable, they also acknowledged that the evidence to back up that claim was not yet there.

Not all delay is procrastination

The conference ends the same way every two years. Researchers select the location for the next gathering.

At first, it seemed that this year’s decision would be a breeze. There were offers to host from Israel, Turkey and Britain.

But wait, some crucial people were missing. Maybe it would be better to figure it out over email?

The room grew tense.

Someone suggested a “steering committee.” Another advocated for a “neutral third party”

The shuttles were waiting. No consensus emerged. Just this once, it would have to wait.

“Oh, that’s not procrastination,” Dr. Ferrari said later. Based on his scientific definition, it counted only as “delay.”

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