Volume 2, Number 2 (2017) pp 103-120 doi 10.20448/804.2.2.103.120 | Research Articles
Procrastination is defined as the tendency to delay the performance of tasks that have a deadline date. Between 70 and 95% of university students procrastinate occasionally, and 20-40% do so chronically. Procrastination affects both people’s health and the quality of their work. The objective of the present study was to identify whether Mexican researchers in psychology procrastinate (no similar studies were found during a literature review), and determine the academic, work-related and health effects of this behavior. A total of 221 Mexican psychology researchers participated, 91 men and 131 women, aged 20-65 years (by answering an on-line questionnaire designed ex profeso). Results showed the following: 91% of respondents reported procrastinating; the activity with the highest levels of procrastination was writing reports and/or academic articles (63%); 29% reported that procrastination generated anxiety; 42% observed that it damages their health; 18% mentioned that procrastinating reduced the quality of their work; and 17% reported that it had had many negative effects on their lives. This article discusses the importance of identifying the factors that propitiate academic procrastination given the negative effects of this behavior on researchers’ health and work quality.
Keywords: Procrastination, Researchers, Mexican, Health, Anxiety.
Citation | María Antonia Padilla Vargas (2017). Academic Procrastination: The Case of Mexican Researchers in Psychology. American Journal of Education and Learning, 2(2): 103-120.
Copyright: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
Funding : This study received no specific financial support.
Competing Interests: The author declares that there are no conflicts of interests regarding the publication of this paper.
History : Received: 2 May 2017/ Revised: 2 June 2017/ Accepted: 5 June 2017/Published: 8 June 2017
Publisher: Online Science Publishing
Procrastination is the tendency to postpone tasks that have a deadline date (Cid, 2015). Academic procrastination involves postponing the performance of academic tasks. It is a multifaceted phenomenon that seems to involve affective (preference for working under pressure), cognitive (decision to procrastinate), and behavioral components (concluding tasks before the deadline) (Fee and Tangney, 2000). Studies have shown that 20-40% of the general population procrastinate chronically (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984; McCown and Johnson, 1991; Ferrari et al., 1995; Ferrari et al., 2005) and that 70-95% of university students procrastinate occasionally (Ferrari and Pychyl, 2000; Onwuegbuzie and Jiao, 2000; Steel, 2007) . Also, it has been determined that 30-50% of doctoral students in the areas of education and psychology in the United States never earn their degrees (Johnson et al., 2000; Ehrenberg et al., 2009). It appears that the situation in Mexico is similar, since a study designed to analyze the terminal efficiency of students enrolled in a Master’s program in Learning Technologies at the University of Guadalajara (2001-2006) found that only 41.27% of the students who graduated in that period obtained their degrees by the stipulated year of 2010 (Álvarez et al., 2012).
The only study of academic procrastination among Mexican students that we found (3 others were located, but they examined procrastination in the health field) was conducted with a population of nursing and obstetrics students at the UNAM (Alba-Leonel and Hernández, 2013). In that case, participants were asked to respond to an ex profeso-designed Scale of Academic Procrastination. Results showed that 100% of respondents reported procrastinating while performing their academic activities.
1.2. Causes of Procrastination
Scholars in this field have not reached a consensus on the causes of procrastination. Some observe that self-efficacy and self-regulation show strong inverse relations to procrastination (Klassen et al., 2007; Klassen et al., 2008; Sirois and Pychyl, 2013; Cid, 2015) but others affirm that it reflects individuals’ histories of reinforcement; that is, procrastination becomes a habit reinforced by performing short-term, gratifying activities while postponing tasks considered unpleasant (Rothblum, 1990). Still others suppose that procrastination persists because it temporarily relieves anxiety (Steel, 2007) even though the emotional relief and positive state of mind that it generates are only temporary. Other academics sustain that procrastination reflects non-adaptive perfectionism; i.e., the tendency to establish high performance standards coupled with an excessively critical evaluation of them and a growing concern with making mistakes (Kagan et al., 2010; Galarregui and Keegan, 2012). This implies that procrastinators make unrealistic demands upon themselves (Steel et al., 2001; Ellis and Knaus, 2002). Finally, there are those who argue that procrastination is due to flaws in the planning, organization and administration of time (Schouwenburg et al., 2004; Hussain and Sultan, 2010; Sánchez, 2010; Pardo et al., 2014) self-regulation, and execution (Klassen et al., 2007).
1.3. Consequences of Procrastination
Various studies have found that procrastination has certain consequences: (a) high levels of stress (Flett et al., 1995; Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Rice et al., 2012; Natividad, 2014; Pardo et al., 2014; Cid, 2015; Beutel et al., 2016) that exacerbate health problems, especially those associated with the immune system by increasing the organism’s vulnerability to infectious diseases like the common cold (Cohen et al., 1991; Lacey et al., 2000; Cid, 2015) (b) psychological distress (Natividad, 2014; Cid, 2015) that includes episodes of angst, anxiety and/or depression (Flett et al., 1995; Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Rice et al., 2012; Pardo et al., 2014; Cid, 2015; Beutel et al., 2016) (c), low-quality performance (Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Steel et al., 2001; Ariely and Wertenbroch, 2002) and, (d) low academic grades (Rothblum et al., 1986; Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Rice et al., 2012) .
1.4. Empirical Background
Up to now, the vast majority of studies have used self-reports and questionnaires with scales like the Likert instrument (e.g., The General Scale of Procrastination, Lay (1986)) as strategies for identifying procrastination and its effects. Little work has been carried out in controlled laboratory conditions that permit identifying the specific variables that are assumed to affect procrastination in humans, given that non-human animals also procrastinate, as Mazur (1996;1998).
Regarding analyses of human procrastination in controlled laboratory conditions, we can mention studies by: (1) Froese et al. (1984) who evaluated the joint effects of task difficulty and interest on procrastination; (2) Ferrari and Dovidio (1997) who sought to determine whether procrastination in decision-making reflects deficits in cognitive abilities; (3) Ferrari and Tice (2000) with their interest in exploring whether procrastination might function as a protective strategy when facing evaluative tasks; (4) Ferrari and Dovidio (2000) who examined the variables that intervene in decision-making from the assumption that procrastinators require a higher threshold of certainty before making decisions and, hence, seek additional information on available options, thus delaying their choice; and, (5) Ferrari (2001) whose study was designed to evaluate the effects of cognitive load, self-consciousness and exposure to time constraints on the speed and precision of the performance of procrastinators and non-procrastinators.
Other work conducted in controlled laboratory conditions includes 6 studies by the author of this article and collaborators (Torres, 2015). In our work, we have found that some of the variables identified to date as being responsible for procrastination –namely, the response cost (Catania, 1992; Mazur, 1996;1998) and the availability of distractors (Senécal and Guay, 2000; Riva, 2006; Iturrizaga, 2012)– do not affect the levels of procrastination seen in our participants. One phenomenon that we have observed consistently, however, is that procrastination seems to be an interactive style (Ribes, 1990;2009; Ribes et al., 2005) that is, regardless of the variables manipulated some participants always procrastinated and others never did. Of all the variables evaluated by us, the only one that consistently showed a concrete effect was task segmentation (Angarita, 2012) as participants always tended to procrastinate on performing the more extensive segments of the task when this was divided into parts of varying length (Torres and Padilla, 2012;2014; Torres et al., 2012a;2012b; Torres et al., 2013a;2013b; Torres, 2015; Torres et al., 2017).
With respect to the possible link between procrastination and stress, various studies show that the scores obtained on procrastination scales correlate positively with measures of perceived stress (Ferrari et al., 1995; Rice et al., 2012; Pardo et al., 2014; Beutel et al., 2016) . In this sense, Tice and Baumeister (1997) stands out, as they conducted two longitudinal studies to analyze this potential relation in university students. To identify procrastination, at the beginning of the semester participants were given the deadline date to hand in their final course essay, but also received the instruction that if they did not manage to meet that date they would automatically receive an extension to hand it in at a later date. To measure procrastination and stress, a procrastination scale was applied and the students were asked to record –for 30 consecutive days– the symptoms of stress that they experienced daily and weekly, together with their academic work requirements. Also, upon handing in their final work, they were asked to respond to a questionnaire designed to indicate the level of relief they felt upon terminating such work. Results from the beginning of the semester showed that procrastinators reported less stress and better health than non-procrastinators, but at the end of the semester they reported higher levels of stress and worse health than non-procrastinators. Also, the procrastinators achieved lower grades than the non-procrastinators on all their academic work.
The high percentages of academic procrastination observed in studies conducted in distinct sociocultural contexts, the adverse effects on health and work quality that it causes, and the lack of consensus on the causes of this phenomenon underline the need to carry out systematic analyses of procrastination to identify the variables that propitiate it in ‘natural’ environments and under controlled laboratory conditions. This is especially important because the prevalence of procrastination seems to be increasing (Klassen et al., 2008) so the problems associated with it could be exacerbated. It is important to note that most published studies analyze the prevalence and characteristics of procrastination (academic and general) in English-speaking countries, so there is a significant gap regarding Spanish-speaking populations (concretely, in Mexico), as certain authors have pointed out (e.g., Ferrari et al. (2005)). Finally, we were unable to find any studies that examined whether researchers in psychology procrastinate, or the effects that this has on their health, activities and opportunities (academic and employment-related). Thus, our study was conducted against this background as an exploratory analysis of the general characteristics of procrastination, as reported by this population.
Participants were 221 Mexican researchers in psychology, 91 men and 131 women, aged 20 to 65 years. All were members of a Mexican organization that brings together researchers in psychology. We should emphasize that participants were from virtually all academic institutions in Mexico that do research in psychology.
A 15-question, multiple-choice on-line survey designed with the free software tool SurveyMonkey, which specializes in designing questionnaires to be answered on electronic devices (SurveyMonkey Inc. [U]). Because our objective was to determine: (a) whether Mexican researchers in psychology procrastinate; and, (b) the effects of this phenomenon; the survey included questions on participants’ gender, age range, academic degree, whether they were researchers in training or professionals, whether they procrastinated (with frequency if the response was affirmative), type of task that increased procrastination, whether procrastination generated anxiety and affected their health or the quality of their work, whether it had had negative effects on employment or their academic career, whether it had changed over time, and, finally, other activities performed while procrastinating (see Appendix A for the complete survey). However, this article reports the results of only 13 of these 15 questions, due to space limitations and because two elements were not deemed to be of high priority in relation to the central objective of this report, and so were eliminated: (1) why respondents thought that people procrastinate; and, (2) if they feel that they can stop procrastinating.
We must emphasize that this study is exploratory in nature because the analysis of the phenomenon of procrastination in Mexican populations is in its initial stages. For this reason, no variables were manipulated. The strategy used to invite potential participants to respond to the survey was an e-mail message sent to their institutional addresses that included an informed consent form which explained that previous findings on procrastination from studies performed under controlled laboratory conditions were not conclusive with respect to the variables that affect it. The letter further explained that no studies have attempted to ascertain whether researchers in psychology manifest procrastination, so we considered that the first step in exploring this issue would be to determine whether this target population actually procrastinates or not. Finally, we assured that all data gathered through the survey would be treated confidentially and would only be used for research. Once they agreed to participate, participants were sent instructions to access the SurveyMonkey platform and the survey described in the Instruments section.
It is important to mention that the free version of SurveyMonkey allows users to design surveys that are limited to 10 questions. For this reason, we divided our instrument in 2 parts (so it had to be sent in two messages). Once responses were received, we selected only those researchers who answered both parts of the survey, eliminating the others from the sample. Unfortunately, due to an error by the platform, some researchers received duplicate copies of one or both survey sections. Since that raised the possibility of receiving duplicate results, those participants were also eliminated from the sample. As a result, the final sample included 221 participants (51 surveys were discarded: 43 because the researcher did not answer both survey sections, and/or 8 because the participant received duplicate one or both sections of the survey).
Due to the nature of the data collected, we judged that the most adequate strategy for describing our findings was to jointly present the Results and Discussion. Data show that the sample that responded to the survey (221 participants) was well-balanced in terms of gender, with 59% women and 41% men, and participants’ age, with 32% aged 20 to 30 years, 29% 31-40, 17% 41-50, and 22% over 51 (see Figure 1, which shows a slight predominance of younger researchers).
|Figure-1. Age range of participants|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
With respect to participants’ maximum academic degree, Figure 2 shows that the majority had a Master’s or Doctorate –34% and 44%, respectively– while 15% and 7%, respectively, had a Bachelor’s degree or were doing Post-doctoral studies (the former were researchers in training enrolled in Graduate programs when they answered the survey).
|Figure-2. Academic degree of participants|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
The question on respondents’ academic status showed a somewhat balanced sample, as 56% were professional researchers and 44% were in training (i.e., enrolled in Graduate programs) when they responded. We should clarify that the decision to include researchers in training was based on two factors: (1) they do research as part of their training; and, (2) in a few years they will be professional researchers. Therefore, collecting information on their levels of procrastination was fundamental to the study in light of our goal to conduct a systematic, detailed analysis of procrastination among Mexican academics in psychology.Figure 3 presents the data on the central interest of our study; namely, the issue of procrastination by researchers in psychology. This graph shows that the vast majority of participants did indeed report procrastinating to some degree: 59% occasionally, 29% frequently, and 3% always. Upon totaling these three levels of procrastination, the result is that 91% of this population reported procrastinating to some degree.
|Figure-3. Frequency of procrastination reported by participants|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
These percentages agree with the levels of procrastination reported by researchers in other countries, who have found that 70-95% of the general population procrastinate (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984; McCown and Johnson, 1991; Ferrari et al., 1995; Ferrari et al., 2005) . More concretely, they correspond to the 70% index of procrastination observed in university students (Ferrari and Pychyl, 2000; Onwuegbuzie and Jiao, 2000; Steel, 2007) and concur with the percentages of chronic procrastination reported in the literature, which range from 20-40% of general populations (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984; McCown and Johnson, 1991; Ferrari et al., 1995) .
Also noteworthy is the finding that 89% of participants reported procrastinating differentially depending on the type of task they were obliged to perform. On the question of what type of task led them to procrastinate more, 63% signaled writing research reports, articles or theses, 9% analyzing data, and 5% conducting experiments, while 23% said they procrastinated more on ‘other’ activities (see Figure 4).
|Figure-4. Type of activity in which participants predominantly procrastinate|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
This result coincides with other findings in this field, which indicate that subjects consider certain tasks aversive, and this generates high levels of procrastination (Onwuegbuzie and Jiao, 2000). For example, a study of university students in Peru found that they procrastinate more when they have to hand in academic assignments, study for exams, elaborate academic projects, and read books and articles that are ‘unpleasant’ (Chan, 2011). Similarly, a study of Iranian students observed that the highest levels of procrastination appeared in relation to preparing academic assignments, elaborating final papers, and studying for exams, in that order (Vahedi et al., 2012). Finally, Onwuegbuzie (2004) of U.S. students associated higher levels of procrastination with writing final essays, studying for exams and doing weekly readings.
All these results agree with Steel (2007) in his meta-analysis of the literature on this topic. Steel found that task aversion is the most consistent predictor of procrastination. Similarly, Milgram et al. (1995) observed that people postpone task realization more when they consider the activity unpleasant, while Milgram and Tenne (2000) found that procrastination increases when people are obliged to do tasks that they perceive as complex or difficult (Vahedi et al., 2012) in stark contrast to what occurs when a task is deemed interesting, when procrastination is rare (Froese et al., 1984; Ackerman and Gross, 2005). It is assumed that people procrastinate on tasks considered complex because they represent a greater challenge and, therefore, greater risk of not being performed successfully (Vahedi et al., 2012). It is particularly revealing that drafting research reports was reported as the activity that generates procrastination in most of our respondents (63%), since this finding corresponds to those of other studies (see (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Klassen et al., 2010; Natividad, 2014) ) that have highlighted the deficiencies that undergraduate and graduate students show in their technical writing (Pacheco et al., 2007; Padilla et al., 2009; Tamayo et al., 2009; Padilla et al., 2010; Padilla et al., 2010; González-Torres et al., 2011; Padilla et al., 2013; Padilla and Fernández, 2014; Padilla et al., 2015) . Unfortunately, we did not find information about skills of technical writing of psychology researchers.
Here, it is important to mention Malberg (2000) findings in a study of doctoral students in education designed to identify the factors that complicate or facilitate earning a degree. That work applied a questionnaire to 101 students, and found that the factors that complicated obtaining a degree included procrastination (47.7% of respondents mentioned this as their principle problem), while those that facilitated earning a degree included the ability to write well (81%) and the capacity to do research (79.4%). These results underscore the need to work with doctoral students (and, in general, all students in higher education) to develop these abilities.Turning to the question of whether procrastination generates anxiety in participants, 29% responded ‘always’, and 54% ‘occasionally’ (see Figure 5). This result agrees with those published by researchers who identified a close link between procrastination and anxiety (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984; Rothblum et al., 1986; Lay et al., 1989; Senécal et al., 1995; Haycock et al., 1998; Sánchez, 2010; Pardo et al., 2014) and sustain that the deliberate postponement of task realization creates a high level of unease and angst, and that individuals who procrastinate consistently show stress, distress and fatigue (Höcker et al., 2008).
|Figure-5. Participants’ responses to the question of whether procrastination causes anxiety|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
According to Natividad (2014) procrastinators experience elevated levels of psychological stress brought on by their efforts to complete assigned tasks at the last minute or even after the deadline has passed. They must live with the psychological anxiety that results from the discrepancy between what they had intended to accomplish and what they actually accomplished. On the question of whether procrastination harmed respondents’ health, 42% answered ‘yes’ (see Figure 6). Indeed, one of the most severe consequences of procrastination are the health problems it can cause. Studies have found that, among other effects, procrastination weakens the immune system and makes procrastinators prone to suffering frequent colds, grippe and/or insomnia (Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Sirois, 2007; Sirois et al., 2009; Rice et al., 2012; Sirois and Pychyl, 2013).
|Figure-6. Participants’ responses to the question of whether procrastination harms their health|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
Procrastination produces high levels of stress in university students (Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Höcker et al., 2008; Vahedi et al., 2012) that impact their health. For example, during the final week for handing in essays or examination periods (end of term), a high percentage of that sample reported not eating adequately, not having appropriate sleep hygiene, and experiencing high levels of stress that can generate long-term health problems (Pardo et al., 2014). In fact, procrastination not only causes health problems, but also delays seeking treatment for them, and reduces the frequency of preventive behaviors like exercise, adequate diet, rest and relaxation techniques (Sirois and Pychyl, 2013).
Although we did not find data on graduate students or researchers in psychology (or other disciplines) in the literature related to a possible link between procrastination and stress (or anxiety) and potential health damage, it is reasonable to assume that the results of such research would be similar to those found in university students; that is, high levels of stress and/or anxiety close to the deadline dates to which individuals are constantly exposed, as the results of the present study seem to suggest. This is because, as mentioned earlier, a high percentage of respondents reported that procrastination generates anxiety (29% ‘always’, 54% ‘occasionally’), and 42% said that it is harmful to their health.
With respect to whether procrastination reduces the quality of participants’ work, 48% reported that this happened ‘occasionally’, and 18% said it occurred ‘always’ (see Figure 7). As we mentioned in the Introduction, previous studies demonstrated that procrastination reduces performance quality in general (Ariely and Wertenbroch, 2002) and academic performance in particular (Tice and Baumeister, 1997; Steel et al., 2001). Moreover, studies show that procrastinators tend to earn lower academic grades than non-procrastinators (Rothblum et al., 1986; Rothblum, 1990; Tice and Baumeister, 1997) .
|Figure-7. Participants’ responses to the question of whether procrastination reduces the quality of their work|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
On the question of whether procrastination had had negative effects on participants –such as losing employment and/or academic opportunities– Figure 8 shows that 48% reported few negative effects of this kind, but 17% reported ‘many’ of such consequences. It is significant that almost 20% of participants reported having suffered ‘many’ negative effects of their tendency to procrastinate, as this indicates the severity of the problem that procrastination represents for participants. Unfortunately, we found no other studies that focus on this issue; i.e., the loss of employment and/or academic opportunities due to procrastination. Future studies should analyze this aspect.
|Figure-8. Participants’ responses to the question of whether procrastination had had negative effects on their academic life and/or employment|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
As Figure 9 shows, the level of procrastination in most participants has changed over time: 19% reported that it had increased, while 39% answered the opposite. The latter finding agrees with reports by some authors who have found that procrastination tends to decrease with age (Beswick et al., 1988; Balkis and Duru, 2009; Beutel et al., 2016; Rodríguez and Clariana, 2017) . The reason adduced for this tendency is that as people age they acquire more tools that allow them to plan and administer their time more adequately. Also, observations indicate that older adults perceive time as ‘limited’, unlike younger adults who may perceive more options, possibilities to choose, and greater availability of future opportunities (Carstensen et al., 1999; Beutel et al., 2016).
|Figure-9.Participants’ responses to the question of whether their level of procrastination has changed with age|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
One particularly interesting finding was the kinds of activities that participants said they perform while procrastinating (i.e., while avoiding elaborating a mandatory task with a stipulated deadline). As Figure 10 shows, 55% reported watching television and 37% said they surfed the Internet. The latter index agrees with findings from Saleem et al. (2015) who observed a strong positive correlation between procrastination and addiction to the Internet; a phenomenon that is especially prevalent among younger people (Beutel et al., 2016). One possible explanation of this addiction is the broad, easy access to the Internet in both educational and work environments (Davis et al., 2002; Beutel et al., 2011).
|Figure-10. Participants’ responses to the question of what activities they perform while Procrastinating|
|Source: On-line survey 2016|
To finalize, it is important to mention that because this was an exploratory study, and due to the nature of the data that can be gathered with the instrument used to apply the questionnaire, it was not possible to subject the data to any correlational analysis. Future research on procrastination should include measurements of this kind. Another limitation of our work concerns the nature of the data (i.e., self-reporting), since the level and characteristics of the procrastination reported by respondents may not correspond to their real procrastination behavior. Hence, we consider it indispensable to design studies in which, in addition to requesting self-reports of procrastination, observe the behaviors performed by participants when they have to perform academic tasks.
The objective of this study was to conduct a first approach to academic procrastination in a Mexican population in order to determine whether researchers in psychology procrastinate, and the levels and characteristics of this behavior. Data show that a large number of participants reported high levels of procrastination (similar to those identified in the literature in this field), and that –like the findings from other studies– procrastination generates anxiety, negatively affects health, impacts work quality, and can lead to the loss of academic and/or employment opportunities. These results emphasize the need for systematic analyses of procrastination among Mexican academics that will identify the variables that propitiate it since, as mentioned above, there is no consensus on the factors responsible for this behavior. It is important to emphasize that because a significant correlation has been found between procrastination in general and academic populations, it is reasonable to assume that identifying the factors that propitiate academic procrastination will allow us, in the short and medium terms, to design strategies that will help reduce this phenomenon (and treat its adverse effects) not only in the academic domain (at all educational levels), but also in other, equally important, areas, including health and employment.
The author would like to thank Adriana Gabriela Quezada Velázquez for her valuable comments on a previous version of this article.
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Questionnaire used to identify procrastination
Please answer the following questions by marking the appropriate option.
1. What is your sex (gender)?
2. What is your age group?
3. What is your maximum academic degree?
4. Are you a researcher...?
5. Procrastination is defined as the voluntary delay in performing an obligatory task. Do you consider yourself a procrastinator?
6. If you procrastinate… Does your level of procrastination differ depending on the task you are obliged to perform?; for example, realize an assigned task, conduct an experiment, write a thesis, write an article, etc.
7. If you procrastinate… What task increases your levels of procrastination?
Writing a thesis or articles
Doing administrative procedures
8. Does procrastination cause you anxiety?
9. Do you believe that procrastination harms your health?
I don’t know
10. Do you consider that procrastination reduces the quality of your work?
11. If you procrastinate… Has your procrastination had negative effects on your life?; for example, loss of employment and/or academic opportunities.
12. Over time, my level of procrastination has…
Remained the same
13. If you procrastinate… What do you do while procrastinating?
Surf the Internet
Go out with friends, spouse, or family