An examination of “arousal procrastination”

I recently discovered that one of the world’s leading experts in procrastination is based in Ottawa. His name is Dr. Timothy Pychyl and he runs the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University. I wrote an article about him for The Globe And Mail, and you can read it below.

This story looks at some of Dr. Pychyl’s most recent research. Ever heard of an “arousal procrastinator”?


Special to The Globe and Mail
February 16, 2009

Timothy Pychyl takes a certain amount of pride in the fact that he recently managed to make a classroom full of students and a group of lawyers squirm in their seats.

Both groups included people who said they delay work to the last minute because it brings out the best in them. Thanks to research he recently completed, Dr. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and director of the school’s Procrastination Research Group, was ready to call their bluff.

“I told them, ‘It’s not that you work better under pressure, it’s that you only work under pressure.’ ”

His explanation, which was delivered during a procrastination seminar at an Ontario law firm and during a university class, caused both groups to become visibly uncomfortable. “They hate it when you call them on their excuse,” Dr. Pychyl says.

The research, which has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, found that people who claim to require the pressure of an impending deadline to produce their best work – called “arousal procrastinators” – are in large part fooling themselves. “It seems to be one of the last socially acceptable defences for procrastination,” Dr. Pychyl says.

“They’re saying, ‘Don’t pick on me, this is part of my personality and character.’ But our study says we don’t see any evidence of that,” says Dr. Pychyl, who has spent two decades researching procrastination.

Dr. Pychyl and Kyle Simpson, a recent Carleton masters graduate, asked 311 undergraduate students to complete an online questionnaire that assessed their personality traits and level of procrastination to see if a correlation exists. Research published in the 1990s suggested there is a subtype of procrastinators who are the same people who indulge in sensation-seeking behaviours such as skydiving, or who have extroverted personalities. These so-called arousal procrastinators put things off because they required a higher level of stimulation to perform.

“It seems counterintuitive that someone would consciously wait until the last minute to do something, because most of us know that’s quite stressful,” Dr. Pychyl says. “These people would say, ‘That’s why I do it.’ ”

But in their research, Dr. Pychyl and Mr. Simpson found no correlation between personality type and procrastination. Their resulting research paper, tentatively titled “In search of the arousal procrastinator” concludes that “individuals who claim that they are motivated to procrastinate because they believe they work better under pressure are likely fooling themselves, providing a seemingly believable explanation to excuse their procrastinatory behaviour.”

Dr. Pychyl says people cling to the idea of working better under pressure in an attempt to “reduce the dissonance of what they’re doing – which is nothing – and what they should be doing – which is working.”

Isolde O’Neill, the president of Getting It Together Personal Organizing in Toronto, frequently encounters clients who claim they do their best work at the last minute.

“I’m seeing it more often now among really high-performing professionals,” she says. “They are near the top of their industry or profession and that strategy has worked for them until now.”

Ms. O’Neill says she is brought in when a person’s organizational habits are failing them – and procrastination is often a factor.

“When you defer and do things in a rush, eventually everything [in your life] becomes a last dash,” she says. “It’s not just that one project – you’ll have the same last-minute system for getting up in the morning. It isn’t about thriving, it’s about surviving.”

In theory, a true arousal procrastinator would thrive under last-minute pressure. But that wasn’t supported by the research.

“When people do things at the last minute, what they feel when they accomplish it is not joy but a sense of relief that they pulled it off,” Dr. Pychyl says. “That marks a procrastinator.”

He says research has found that procrastination has a negative effect on a person’s happiness.

“Just getting started on a task is a way to prime the pump to increased happiness and success,” he says. “Procrastination actually undermines our well-being.”

Because of the research, Dr. Pychyl feels empowered to challenge self-professed arousal procrastinators.

“One of the lawyers came up to me at my talk and told me, ‘You’ve painted me perfectly with this brush,’ ” he says. “These were intelligent, articulate, argumentative people, and not a soul came up and told me I got them wrong.”

He hopes these findings will prevent people from believing they do their best work at the last minute.

“There is little evidence that people work better under pressure,” Dr. Pychyl says. “This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who procrastinate for arousal reasons, but they are fewer in number than we ever imagined.”

However, as Ms. O’Neill can attest, general procrastination remains quite common.

“Whenever somebody calls me for a job I assume it won’t happen for a year,” she says. “That’s how much they put it off.”

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