Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.
Aah, procrastination. Controlling our time can be difficult, and most of us are intimately familiar with the act of delaying the act of starting or completing a task. Piers Steel, professor of human resources and organizational dynamics at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary and author of “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done,” has made the study of procrastination into an academic specialty.
Steel believes that putting off a task in and of itself is not considered procrastination. In a 2007 article in the Psychological Bulletin called “The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure,” he says that procrastination is when one “voluntarily delay[s] an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” Procrastination is thus different from, though related to, poor time management.
Why do people procrastinate? And what does procrastination have to do with finances? Research into the first question is still being conducted. What is clear is that procrastination can have devastating effects on one’s finances. According to H&R Block, about 25 percent of the people wait until the last minute to file their taxes. What’s more, the average procrastinator pays about $400 more due to rushing and last-minute errors.
Procrastination can also lead to putting off other important financial tasks, such as, paying off debt or saving for retirement (even when you have the means to do so). So how can you light a fire and overcome procrastination? A good first step is to identify why you are procrastinating in the first place.
Procrastination and task characteristics
In his article, Steel suggests that “unless people procrastinate randomly, the nature of the task itself must then have some effect upon their decisions.” And it’s true. I don’t procrastinate watching the latest episode of "Grey’s Anatomy," but I do procrastinate mopping the kitchen. Steel believes that the main task characteristics that lead to procrastination are “timing of rewards and punishments” and “task aversiveness.”
These characteristics are pretty simple to define. “Timing of rewards and punishments” essentially means that the farther off a deadline is (or if it is a task without a specific deadline), the less likely we are to feel a sense of urgency to complete the task. People usually wait until a deadline is closer before feeling motivated to take action.
“Task aversiveness,” on the other hand, means how enjoyable (or unpleasant) we find the task. If it’s something we like, we probably will get to it very quickly, perhaps to the point of the activity becoming a time sink, which is a form of procrastination in itself. If it’s something we hate, it goes to the bottom of the old “to-do list.”
Honey’s tip: One way to combat procrastination due to these factors is to give yourself a public deadline — say, inviting your mom over for brunch on Sunday to ensure that you’ll mop the floor on Saturday. Another might be to come up with a reward so that you associate the task with something pleasant — say, telling myself that watching the new episode of "Grey’s" is my reward for mopping the floor.
Procrastination and individual differences
Many psychologists divide personality traits into five categories, called the Big Five or the Five Factor Model (FFM). These five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (OCEAN). Of these, Steel explores neuroticism and conscientiousness most closely in relation to procrastination.
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