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Summary Article: Procrastination
From International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies

Procrastination is the act of successively delaying tasks or decisions. Although individuals know that a task is supposed to be done, they fail to do it on time and, as a consequence, they often feel distressed, namely anxious and guilty. Although procrastination is not a popular issue in organizational behavior, most people have already procrastinated sometimes, with consequences for their personal lives and their work performance.

Conceptual Overview

Four types of procrastination have been identified: (1) academic procrastination, concerning postponing academic assignments; (2) life routine procrastination, dealing with current life routines, such as buying Christmas presents or filling out tax forms; (3) decisional procrastination, which means lack of timely decision making, in minor or major issues; and (4) compulsive procrastination, which includes task and decisional procrastination in the same person. These four types may be subsumed into task and decisional procrastination. As a process, procrastination involves avoiding the implementation of an intention, because the individual is distracted (with more pleasant activities or thoughts) from a behavior that is considered to be emotionally unpleasant, notwithstanding that behavior’s leading to positive outcomes in the future.

This process is explained in the economic literature as a form of time-inconsistent behavior. It is expected to occur when the present costs of doing something or making a decision are more salient than future costs, leading individuals to postpone tasks until tomorrow without realizing that the same dilatory behavior will occur again tomorrow. Procrastination is therefore an intra-individual phenomenon, which affects the procrastinating individuals, but may also have negative consequences for colleagues or the organizations they work for.

To understand procrastination, the appraisal-anxietyavoidance model of stress and coping, developed by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman should be revisited. This model stresses the role of cognitive appraisal and states that individuals will assess whether a given situation or task is threatening to their well-being—primary appraisal. They will also evaluate whether they possess the appropriate resources to deal with the threatening situation—secondary appraisal. Perceptions of inadequate resources induce anxiety, and individuals may adopt a dilatory coping strategy, by putting off the task or decision.

Both personal and situation determinants have been found to generate procrastination. The personal approach looks for individual personality differences. Norman Milgram and Rachel Tenne, using the big five personality traits, found that the personality trait of low conscientiousness is related with task avoidant procrastination, whereas neuroticism correlates with decisional procrastination. The authors argue that people display generalized behavioral and affective tendencies within particular types of procrastination; i.e., task avoidance procrastination includes delays in performing both academic assignments and life routines, while decisional procrastination covers both major and minor decisions.

The situational approach to procrastination emphasizes the circumstances under which people tend to procrastinate. Task aversiveness (difficulty and/or boredom and uselessness) and fear of failure have been found to elicit procrastination, as well as impending evaluations, which would trigger anxiety related to fear of failure and, over time, lead to lower self-esteem. Organizational cultures under threat, such as when performance is declining or during a hostile takeover, as well as the presence of ambiguity, overload and powerlessness are also reported to elicit procrastinatory behavior.

Finally, an interactional approach maintains that high trait procrastinators are more likely to engage in dilatory behaviors when they have a boring/difficult activity to perform while, at the same time, they have an impending evaluation. It’s the interaction of individual and situational characteristics that elicit procrastination, which can thus be viewed as a self-handicapping strategy aimed at protecting a vulnerable sense of self-esteem.

Individual procrastination has negative and positive effects. At the psychological level, anxiety and distress, sense of failure, low self-esteem, and self-criticism have been found to derive from procrastination. At the performance level, procrastination leads to lower performance, lateness, and absenteeism, as well as to lost time for colleagues or other people in general. Not all consequences are negative, though, and procrastination may be a solution to instill challenge in a boring task by increasing time pressure, or may serve as a temporary self-protection device for a task or a situation that is too difficult, or even a justifiable strategy to improve performance in creative or very complex tasks, where search for additional information or insight is needed, the delay providing some extra time for that purpose.

Critical Commentary and Future Directions

Considering the potential negative consequences of procrastination for individual performance and wellbeing, as well as for organizational outcomes, this construct is still understudied. Research has made extensive use of experimental studies, with students as subjects. Field studies on task and decisional procrastination in work contexts are needed to evaluate the validity of the construct. Of particular importance is the study of decisional procrastination among managers, especially in risk situations.

The extent to which procrastination differs from prudent decision making is relevant for organizational efficiency. A deeper understanding of different types of procrastination and both the personal and situational characteristics that may elicit them will help in the development of strategies to overcome procrastination, such as by increasing and improving individual feedback, or changing task design, to introduce external feedback and social control.

Additionally, research on procrastination may profit from a multicultural approach, which takes into consideration different organizational and national cultures, where different norms regarding time utilization may exist. Future research should therefore explore the cultural dimension and the organizational context, which does not seem to have been sufficiently covered yet.

    See also
  • National Culture; Organizational Culture

Further Readings
  • Ferrari, J. R.; Johnson, J. J.; McCown, W. G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York: Plenum.
  • Lazarus, R.; Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.
  • Milgram, N.; Tenne, R. Personality correlates of decisional and task avoidant procrastination. European Journal of Personality, 14, (2000). 141-156.
  • Senécal, C.; Lavoie, K.; Koestner, R. Trait and situational factors in procrastination: An interactional model. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12(4), (1997). 889-903.
  • Solomon, L. J.; Rothblum, E. D. Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 33, (1984). 387-394.
  • Tice, D. M.; Baumeister, R. F. Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8(6), (1997). 454-458.
  • Van Eerde, W. Procrastination: Self-regulation in initiating aversive goals. Applied Psychology International Review, 49(3), (2000). 372-389.
  • Rita Campos Cunha
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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