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.
Neuroticism is closely associated with worry, irrational beliefs and low self-esteem. Irrational beliefs are those that cannot easily be proved or disproved to the individual, such as, “I am inadequate” or “this task is too hard.” In fact, since personality traits have a genetic component, it is all too tempting to think “I can’t overcome my biological programming” and give up! Procrastinating can also create a negative feedback loop that makes future procrastination even more likely. In other words, “I failed last time, why even try this time?”
Conscientiousness refers to distractibility, organization, motivation, and follow-through (aka willpower). Those who procrastinate may be easily distracted and disorganized. And while highly conscientious individuals enjoy hard work for its own sake and are therefore more likely to follow through, it is possible that the opposite is true for procrastinators.
Honey’s tip: Positive self-talk may help you gain self-esteem and the courage to try. And implementing systems (such as setting up auto-pay for your bills) means that you don’t have to worry so much about getting distracted or not following through. We only have so much willpower, and setting some things up to be done automatically reserves your mental energy for the tough stuff.
Some good news: Procrastination and demographics
The good news is that we tend to procrastinate less as we age. This is likely due to a variety of factors. Steel suggests that, over time, we develop strategies to avoid procrastination and foster good habits. This sounds likely to me — certainly I’m more responsible now than I was a decade ago.
In addition, I believe it’s possible that once you’ve done something successfully once, it becomes harder to believe that you’re too inadequate or the task is too difficult. Just like procrastination can become a negative feedback loop, successfully completing tasks can lead to positive feedback loops where you don’t dread the task so much next time. Learning more about a task may also help decrease task aversiveness and worry.
I’d also suggest that we view time differently as we age. When I took stock of 2013, I noted that:
They say that the reason time seems to speed up as you get older is because each day/month/year is a smaller fraction of the time you’ve been alive. For example, a year seems a lot longer when it’s 10 percent of your life instead of less than 3 percent.
As a result of this shift in perceptions, I think it’s possible that we become more sensitive to the “timing of rewards and punishments” task characteristic. In our 20s, knowing that a task needs to be completed a year from now might seem so far off as to be almost unimaginable. In our 40s and 50s, a year from now seems just around the corner, so we might be more likely to take action right away.
Have you ever had problems with procrastination that had a significant negative impact on your financial life? How did you overcome it?