WASHINGTON — Procrastination in society is getting worse and scientists are finally getting around to figuring out how and why. Too many tempting diversions are to blame, but more on that later.
After 10 years of research on a project that was only supposed to take five years, a Canadian industrial psychologist found in a giant study that not only is procrastination on the rise, it makes people poorer, fatter and unhappier.
Something has to be done about it, sooner rather than later, University of Calgary professor Piers Steel concludes. His 30-page study is in this month’s peer-reviewed Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association.
In 1978, only about 5 percent of the American public thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators. Now it’s 26 percent, Steel said.
And why not? There are so many fun ways to kill time — TVs in every room, online video, Web-surfing, cell phones, video games, iPods and Blackberries.
At work, e-mail, the Internet and games are just a click away, making procrastination effortless, Steel said.
“That stupid game Minesweeper — that probably has cost billions of dollars for the whole society,” he said.
The U.S. gross national product would probably rise by $50 billion if the icon and sound that notifies people of new e-mail suddenly disappear, he added.
And there’s good reason to worry right now about the problem of procrastination.
“People who procrastinate tend to be less healthy, less wealthy and less happy,” Steel said Wednesday. “You can reduce it, but I don’t think you can eliminate it.”
Psychologist William Knaus, who has written several self-help books on fighting procrastination since 1977’s “Overcoming Procrastination,” said Steel is “absolutely right.”
He said he found it harder to wean chronic procrastinators from the habit of delaying than to wean alcoholics from booze. Knaus mentioned one businessman who spent 40 hours of delay time to avoid five minutes of work.
“It’s a huge problem,” Knaus said. “I think the majority of mental disabilities people have — anxiety, panic — they can be defined as a special case of procrastination.”
There is personal financial fallout from procrastination, too. Delay in filing taxes on average costs a person $400 a year and last-minute Christmas shopping with credit cards was five times higher in 1999 than in 1991, Steel found in a review of more than 500 economic and psychological studies about putting off unpleasant chores.
Steel’s study found that in the past quarter century, the average self-score for procrastination (using a 1-to-5 scale with 1 being no delaying) has increased by 39 percent.
Overall, more than a quarter of Americans say they procrastinate. Men are worse than women (about 54 out of 100 chronic procrastinators are men) and the young are more like to procrastinate than the old, Steel said. Three out of four college students consider themselves procrastinators.
Early studies looking at U.S. and Canadian cultures didn’t find any differences in the two countries’ procrastination problem, but Steel said when he has more time he’ll get around to more cross-cultural studies.
The causes of procrastination combine temptation, sense of immediacy, the value of doing the job, and whether you believe you can get the work done, Steel found. He even created a complicated mathematical formula, complete with Greek letters, to figure out when a person is likely to procrastinate.
Temptation is the biggest factor. And it’s why procrastination is getting worse, Steel said, citing technology.
“It’s easier to procrastinate now than ever before. We have so many more temptations,” he said. “It’s never been harder to be self-disciplined in all of history than it is now.”
But procrastination goes back thousands of years, before technology. Ancient literature harps on the problem, Steel said. Knaus mentioned a book from 1852: “Thoughtless Little Fanny: The Unhappy Results of Procrastination.” The author is just called “a friend of children.”
While many self-help books say perfectionists procrastinate because they don’t want to get things wrong, Steel found just the opposite. Perfectionists procrastinate less and do better because they avoid delaying. However they do worry more about putting stuff off, he said.
Studying procrastination as a field has a benefit, said the professor. The more he knows about the problem and the causes, the less he procrastinates — even though he sheepishly acknowledges his study was completed five years late.
The good thing about studying procrastination, he said: “If you take a day off from it, you can always say it’s field research.”