According to recent research by Piers Steel of the University of Calgary, about 15-20 percent of the population engage in procrastination. Steel analyzed 691 published studies on procrastination for a recent issue of the Psychological Bulletin. Steel has an entertaining presentation on procrastination here. I didn’t know that Leonardo da Vinci was considered to be a procrastinator.

Putting off a project is not necessarily procrastination. If you believe that you have much more time than you need to complete a project, you may delay starting work without actually procrastinating. Procrastination occurs when you KNOW you should start, but don’t. Because your idea of how long a project takes and your supervisor’s may be different, it’s a good idea to use the time you’re given. If a professor gives students three weeks to work on a paper, he/she expects three weeks, not one night, of work. In my experience as both a student and professor, one of the variables that drives procrastination is success. If you procrastinate and still get an A, you are more likely to procrastinate in the future. If you get “burned,” then you tend to reform.

According to Steel, procrastination can be predicted by looking at the desirability of a task, its immediacy, the value of completing the task, and the person’s sensitivity to delay. Applying Steel’s approach to weight loss, we can see why some people succeed and others fail. Losing weight is tough–in spite of snake oil promises to the contrary, dieting hurts. However, the value of completing the task is extremely high, both for how we feel about ourselves and our health. Immediacy is a HUGE problem for most dieters, though. The pleasure of that ice cream sundae right now might mask the even greater, but months distant pleasure of reaching a healthy weight. So we come back to individual differences in delayed gratification.

Steele notes that risk factors for procrastination include task aversiveness, impulsivity, distractibility, and achievement motivation. Not too surprisingly, given the association of many of these risk factors to personality, and a growing recognition of the biological predispositions to personality, some psychologists have suggested that people are genetically predisposed to procrastination.

If you spend more time playing Spider Solitaire than finishing a paper, is there hope for you? Steel is optimistic. Because of the importance of expectancy in procrastination, if you expect to finish your work in a timely manner, you will. The more experience you have with self-control, the more you will expect to behave in a self-controlled manner.