Why We Wait

January 26, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - If you have a tendency to put things off - fear not.

A new analysis of the psychological literature by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel purports to shed light on why so many of us put off until tomorrow what we really should do today, and has published a mammoth review of the scientific literature on procrastination in the journal Psychological Bulletin, according to TheStar.com.

Steel claims that statistically there’s very little correlation between anxiety and a tendency to procrastinate – casting doubt on the notion that we put off doing things that we are worried about. Nor did he find any correlation between those who put things off, and a tendency toward obsessive perfectionism (the notion that we don’t do it because it has to be done perfectly).

Steel did, however, find that procrastinators are less confident that they can handle a given task. They’re also more impulsive and less conscientious overall. “Whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right,” Steel says, according to TheStar.com. “People who believe they can are less likely to procrastinate.”

Waiting “Room”

To help explain the behavior, Steel has combined hyperbolic discounting (the tendency to value near-term payoffs more than longer-term rewards) with a theory of motivation called expectancy theory, and came up with something he calls temporal motivational theory (TMT).

He expresses it as a mathematical formula: Utility = E x V / Gamma D .

Utility is the desirability of getting something done. E is expectancy, or confidence. V is the value of the job (not only its importance but also its unpleasantness). Gamma stands for how prone a person is to delay doing things. And D means delay, or how far away the consequences of doing, or not doing, the task are.

Steel claims that the bigger the top number compared to the bottom, the less likely a task will be put off. So if you expect to do well at a job (E), and it’s a pleasant thing to do (V), and you’re not prone to being delayed by distractions (Gamma), and it has to be done right away (D), you’re not likely to procrastinate.

On the other hand, if you expect to fail at a difficult task and you’re easily distracted and it doesn’t have to be done for quite awhile – well, it may take a while.