Why we can't stop procrastinating

    One night around 10 p.m., in the first few weeks of fall quarter, Heather Herzog helped her roommate, Carol Li, strap herself to a desk chair with a bungee cord.

    This was a last-minute attempt to keep still and stop procrastinating, says Li, a Weinberg sophomore. Although it was a joke, many students can relate to feeling like they need to use force to keep themselves focused.

    When asked if she procrastinated often, Li hesitantly responded, “Sometimes” followed by, “Not really” and finally, “Actually yeah.”

    But she’s not alone in putting things off until the last minute.

    According to Joseph R. Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, 70 to 75 percent of college students admit to procrastinating. But why do we do it? Procrastination is somewhat of a paradox because people do it against their better judgment. Over 95 percent of procrastinators wish to reduce it, according to studies conducted at the University of Houston in 2002. Ferrari, who has researched procrastination and its roots, attributes its prevalence in modern times to cultural and societal failures.

    “Our culture doesn’t give the early bird the worm anymore and it allows people to delay without any serious consequences,” Ferrari says. “Society doesn’t give any incentive for doing things early and offers no serious consequences for doing things late.”

    Ferrari’s book, Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, explores the causes and consequences of procrastination. The book’s main focus is the study of chronic procrastination that extends through every aspect of a person’s life and includes a chapter on academic procrastination. Ferrari said the book is relevant for “anybody who suffers from procrastination or lives with anyone who does.”

    Academic procrastination differs from chronic procrastination because it is situational. In Ferrari’s research, students from three different institutions, a highly selective university, an average university, and an open-enrollment type of school, were asked under what conditions they were more likely to procrastinate. Data showed that across the board, students are more likely to procrastinate in a small discussion groups than in average lecture-style classes. They are also more likely to procrastinate when the instructor is a young, lenient female, Ferrari says.

    Northwestern students are no exception. All students interviewed admitted to procrastinating in one or more of their classes; students interviewed included freshmen, sophomores and juniors who were taking freshman seminars, lectures and technical classes.

    Those interviewed admitted that it is harder procrastinating in a math or technical class because the material builds upon itself and it is easier to fall behind. Most thought procrastinating in a larger lecture-style class would be easier, because it is easier to blend into the crowd.

    “I’d say it’s a diffusion of responsibility,” says Weinberg junior Ksjusha Povod. “There are so many other people that might have actually done the reading and stuff, so you don’t feel as inclined to do the work.”

    But most students that took smaller seminars admitted they procrastinate about the same as they did in their larger classes. For them, the deciding factor for procrastination doesn’t relate to the class size or subject, but to the course’s structure. Many students say they procrastinate more in classes with infrequent assignments — McCormick sophomore Leah Bowen, for instance, says she procrastinates most in her organic chemistry class of 200 people because there are no assignments except a midterm every three weeks.

    Weinberg freshman Linda Flores admits to procrastinating on every assignment for her seminar, “Earthquakes.” “I’ve kind of found it’s easier to procrastinate in a seminar class,” Flores said. “But it might just be because of my professor — she kind of just let us do what we want to do, as opposed to a lecture class where everything’s set in stone.” Flores said her assignments consisted mainly of writing papers that needed to be turned in through email any time before class started.

    The people that procrastinate most are those with low self-esteem and high public self-consciousness, according to Ferrari.

    “(Procrastinators are) people who are very concerned about what other people think of them,” Ferrari said. “You can either come across as not being able to do something, having low ability or you can lack effort. Procrastinators would rather people think they lack effort instead of ability”

    Although Ferrari says procrastination has not been amplified by modern technology, many students say that the Internet and other technologies distract them from getting work done.

    “I always have other things going on concurrently while I’m doing work so it makes everything take longer,” Communication sophomore D’Laney Gielow said. “I lose an average of four to five hours doing stuff that’s not homework when I could be doing homework and being efficient.”

    To keep from procrastinating on the Internet, Gielow says she uses “SelfControl,” an application for Mac that blocks access to websites the user chooses for a period of time. For those that lack self-control, SelfControl helps keep distractions like Facebook and Sporcle at bay, while motivating users to get work done before the clock runs out. Sadly, the application does not yet exist for PCs.

    The truth is that it is impossible to avoid procrastination all the time, because life tends to get in the way of absolute efficiency. Perhaps, with a better understanding of procrastination, procrastinators can learn to get important things done… eventually.


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