Why Students Procrastinate: A Qualitative Approach
In this study we adopted an impartial view on academic procrastination in order to gain new insights for the development of intervention programs. Following a qualitative approach, we thereby explored antecedents of procrastination by attending to the actual voices and experiences of 29 students. Students’ subjective theories were in line with some antecedents that previous research had addressed (lack of motivation or volitional control), but also revealed relatively new aspects of academic procrastination that concern students’ social relatedness and task competence. Considering these findings, we suggest ideas on how to assist students and how to design intervention programs.
Procrastination—needlessly putting off until tomorrow what could be done today—is a ubiquitous phenomenon around which a large body of research has evolved in recent decades. Steel (2007) provides a concise summary of the variety of current definitions of procrastination: “To procrastinate is to voluntarily delay an intended course of action, despite expecting to be worse off for the delay” (p. 66). The majority of procrastination research has focused on academic procrastination (e.g., postponement of studying for an exam or writing a term paper), which is highly prevalent in academic contexts. Estimates indicate that up to 70% of college students consider themselves procrastinators (e.g., Schouwenburg, 1995), and that 50% procrastinate consistently and problematically (e.g., Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Students have reported that procrastination typically accounts for more than one third of their daily activities and often manifests itself through sleeping, reading, or watching TV (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau, & Blunt, 2000).
Academic Procrastination: Consequences and Intervention Programs
The results of a variety of studies suggest that students often suffer as a result of chronic procrastination for the following reasons. First, procrastination led to underperformance or reduced academic performance (Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995; Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Second, students who procrastinated experienced less stress early in the semester, but more stress later and more stress overall (Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Procrastinators were also more anxious throughout the entire semester (Rothblum, Solomon, & Murakami, 1986) and more agitated before a test (Lay & Schouwenburg, 1993) compared with students who did not procrastinate. Third, study results show significant negative correlations between self-reported procrastination and health (Sirois, 2004; Sirois, Melia-Gordan, & Pychyl, 2003; Tice & Baumeister, 1997) and between self-reported procrastination and financial well-being (Elliot, 2002; as cited in Steel, 2007). Thus, procrastination not only impedes academic success, but might also [End Page 397] impair the general development of college students: procrastination decreases the quality and quantity of learning while simultaneously increasing the severity of stress, anxiety, and health-related problems and decreasing financial well-being. Not surprisingly, then, between 60% (Solomon & Rothblum, 1984) and 95% (O’Brien, 2002; as cited in Steel, 2007) of procrastinating students wished to reduce their procrastination.
It goes without saying that the development of procrastination interventions is indispensable. In line with the results of studies on the correlates of procrastination, most interventions have either focused on teaching strategies (e.g., goal setting, time management, planning, monitoring, and creating the right environment for studying) or on implementing therapeutic strategies (e.g., cognitive restructuring; for an overview of interventions see Schouwenburg, Lay, Pychyl, & Ferrari, 2004). These interventions have had mixed results concerning their effectiveness. Unfortunately, further publications that include reliable outcome data (i.e., sufficient group size, double-blind attention-placebo trails) regarding procrastination interventions are scarce. According to the only existing meta-analysis of the few studies that did include reliable outcome data, procrastination intervention programs achieved only marginal overall effectiveness (Ferrari et al., 1995).
A possible explanation for the marginal effectiveness of interventions could be that these interventions have not included essential aspects of procrastination. Given that the interventions are based on specific theoretical considerations (e.g., procrastination is a self-management problem; van Essen, van den Heuvel, & Ossebaard, 2004), important ideas for interventions might remain undeveloped because specific reasons and correlates of procrastination are unidentified. Two characteristics of procrastination research support this train of thought. First, procrastination research has focused on explaining procrastination as a dispositional variable, thereby relating it to traits and other trait-like personality variables (e.g., van Eerde, 2003, 2004). Thus, most of the existing research has reported correlations between instruments that assess procrastination and instruments that assess other constructs (e.g., conscientiousness; for a meta-analysis see Steel, 2007). Consequently, procrastination research has rarely considered the situational aspects of procrastination. Second, due to the predominant quantitative design in procrastination research, it has hardly accounted for students’ perspectives of their own procrastination and their subjective theories about procrastination. The focus on personal aspects of procrastination and the predominant quantitative research design might entail some form of myopia or foreclosure, causing researchers to neglect aspects that might be important for interventions. On the one hand, researchers might overlook situational aspects of procrastination; on the other hand, they might fail to see specific, personal aspects, because the methods used to assess procrastination and the other constructs are always aligned with a specific research background. Therefore, focusing on students’ actual voices and subjective theories might reveal new insights for theoretical groundwork in procrastination research and for the development of more effective interventions.
Purpose of Study
The purpose of this study was to extend the current understanding of academic procrastination and to provide new ideas for college personnel who assist procrastinating students and design procrastination interventions. We focused on exploring the antecedents (i.e., triggers) of academic procrastination because they play a crucial role in reconstructing [End Page 398] the conditions and contexts of academic procrastination. The question guiding our research was: Why do students procrastinate? Our aims for the study were twofold: (a) to ensure a thorough investigation of the antecedents and (b) to attend to the actual voices and experiences of students. Therefore, we adopted a qualitative approach implemented through interviews with students. A qualitative approach enabled us to identify new aspects of procrastination in a way that would counterbalance the aforementioned shortcomings of the predominant quantitative research approach. This idea goes along with the need for additional in-depth qualitative research on procrastination voiced by the authors of one qualitative study (Schraw, Wadkins, & Olafson, 2007). We aimed to answer that need and designed this study to complement previous research. Schraw and colleagues (2007) identified three sources of antecedents to academic procrastination: self (interest, organizational skills), teacher (clear expectations for the course, well-organized course materials, tests and graded assignments), and task (low background knowledge, task difficulty). We intended to provide a more precise differentiation to map the antecedents of academic procrastination more fully.
Research on procrastination and its antecedents is organized along two different lines of reasoning. The first regards procrastination as a personality variable (trait procrastination) and investigates persons who tend to procrastinate habitually, regardless of the situation. The second line of research conceptualizes procrastination as a behavioral phenomenon that depends on situational factors; that is, the purposeful delay of tasks within a specific setting (Ferrari, 1998) or with specific task characteristics (Lay, 1990; Milgram, Sroloff, & Rosenbaum, 1988; Schouwenburg et al., 2004). Although there have been numerous efforts to relate trait procrastination to several traits or other trait-like personality variables, thereby building an extensive nomological network in this realm (e.g., van Eerde, 2003, 2004), research on situational or action-oriented aspects of procrastination has been scarce. The composition of the Procrastination Assessment Scale–Students (PASS; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984) emphasizes this fact. The PASS is the only instrument, among many that assess academic procrastination, that examines the reasons for procrastination. These reasons, however, also limit the focus to personal reasons for procrastination (evaluation anxiety, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, dependency and help-seeking, task aversiveness, lack of self-confidence, laziness, lack of assertion, fear of success, feeling overwhelmed, poor time management, rebellion against control, risk-taking, and peer influence).
Here, we review central research contributions concerning both personal and situational lines of reasoning (for a detailed review, refer to the meta-analysis by Steel, 2007). The purpose of these studies was to show how procrastination correlates with personality traits, behavioral patterns, and situational characteristics. Thus, the majority of studies required participants to complete a questionnaire or a series of questionnaires that operationalized procrastination and the constructs that related to procrastination. Because procrastination research has largely focused on academic procrastination, all studies took place in an academic context. Almost all of these studies utilized a sample of students in their early to mid-20s. Overall, the samples comprised an even number of female and male students and included students from a wide range of fields of study. [End Page 399]
Personal Antecedents of Procrastination
Research in this realm has focused on exploring the nomological network of trait procrastination by relating it to the facets of the five-factor model (Costa & McCrae, 1992; e.g., van Eerde, 2003, 2004; Watson, 2001). The results of meta-analyses (Steel, 2007; van Eerde, 2003, 2004) have shown that most studies focused on neuroticism and conscientiousness. In the case of neuroticism and its related traits, procrastination correlated positively, and most often moderately, with neuroticism, irrational beliefs (e.g., fear of failure, perfectionism), self-handicapping, and depression; it correlated negatively and moderately with self-efficacy and self-esteem. Regarding conscientiousness and its related traits, procrastination correlated negatively, and mostly strongly, with conscientiousness, organizational skills, achievement motivation and achievement striving, and self-discipline; it correlated positively with distractibility. Extraversion, excitement seeking, and impulsivity correlated positively with procrastination. The facets of agreeableness (i.e., low rebelliousness, low hostility, and low disagreeableness) correlated negatively with procrastination; openness to experience, however, correlated minimally with procrastination. Moreover, intelligence correlated also minimally with procrastination, consistent with the result of another study in which student procrastinators did not differ in intellectual performance from nonprocrastinators (Ferrari, 1991).
Procrastinators and nonprocrastinators did, however, differ on volitional variables (e.g., Dewitte & Lens, 2000; Dewitte & Schouwenburg, 2002; Lay & Burns, 1991; Wolters, 2003). In a study of 35 first-year college students, for example, procrastinators formulated the same amount of intentions, but implemented significantly fewer of these intentions than nonprocrastinators (Dewitte & Lens, 2000). Another study (Dewitte & Schouwenburg, 2002) followed 54 first-year students over the 11 weeks that preceded their exams. They had to report their study intentions and behavior, the reasons they failed to implement their intentions, and the perceived impact of their studying behavior on their final grades. The results showed that in situations of motivational conflict, procrastinators did not resist temptations or shield themselves from distractions while working on a task. Apparently, the intention–action gap (Steel, 2007) was as an antecedent to procrastination in these studies.
Situational Antecedents of Procrastination
Most of the research concerning situational antecedents has focused on the task that students procrastinated. Steel (2007) reported 2 task-specific factors of procrastination; namely, the timing of rewards and punishments and the degree of task aversiveness. Research has also considered the difficulty and attractiveness of a task (Ferrari & Scher, 2000; Harris & Sutton, 1983; Senécal, Lavoie, & Koestner, 1997), showing that the more difficult a task was, the more likely participants were to procrastinate. In one study (Ferrari & Scher, 2000), for 5 consecutive days, 37 college students listed the daily academic and nonacademic tasks they intended to complete and recorded whether they actually completed them. Participants were more likely to procrastinate on tasks they found difficult than tasks they found less difficult. Studies have also considered the ambiguity (Harris & Sutton, 1983) and plausibility of a task (Milgram, Dangour, & Raviv, 1992), indicating the more ambiguous and the less plausible a task was, the more likely participants were to procrastinate. In another study (Milgram et al., 1992), 112 college students had to complete several questionnaires [End Page 400] at home. Milgram and colleagues provided the students with either plausible or implausible research rationales. The students in the group that had received plausible rationales procrastinated significantly less in completing the questionnaires than students in the group that had received implausible rationales. The same was true for the time-pressure and bindingness of completing a task (Ferrari & Scher, 2000; Harris & Sutton, 1983; Milgram et al., 1992) and the exertion and anxiety associated with a task (Ferrari & Scher, 2000). In addition to these task-specific antecedents, context variables, such as the relationship to other tasks (Harris & Sutton, 1983), type of feedback (performance feedback vs. no feedback), type of test associated with the task (performance vs. interest), and autonomy in time management (Senécal et al., 1997), all correlated with procrastination.
The Present Study
In summary, most quantitative research on the antecedents of procrastination has concentrated on conscientiousness, anxiety, impulsiveness, volitional aspects, task-inherent characteristics and variables concerning the proximal context of task completion. Student procrastinators and nonprocrastinators do not seem to differ in intellectual performance (Ferrari, 1991; Steel, 2007); considerable differences, however, emerge with regard to conscientiousness, neuroticism, impulsiveness, and volitional competencies. Consistent with these results, most interventions have focused on training programs that offer strategies for different facets of self-regulation or on implementing therapeutic strategies, such as cognitive restructuring (e.g., Schouwenburg et al., 2004). Without doubt, these interventions—and the antecedents that procrastination research has focused on—display high face validity; however, by merely relying on antecedents with high face validity, researchers may have overlooked essential antecedents of procrastination that could provide new insights for the development of interventions. For example, although procrastination researchers have extensively examined the Big Five and other personality variables, they may have overlooked situational aspects of procrastination. Furthermore, although research has covered intellectual and volitional competencies, other competencies might also play a role in procrastination.
Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore antecedents of academic procrastination in an impartial way, avoiding the influence of any theoretical bias. To ensure a thorough exploration of antecedents and attend to the actual voices and experiences of students, we adopted a qualitative approach, conducting and analyzing interviews obtained from a student sample. The aim of this qualitative content analysis (cf. Mayring, 2004) was to develop a comprehensive category system pertaining to the antecedents of academic procrastination.
Participants included 29 students attending a medium-sized German university (11 males, 18 females). Their ages ranged from 19 to 29 years (M = 23.2, SD = 2.8). The participants were enrolled in 17 different fields of study with the majority in educational sciences (n = 5), biology (n = 3), and computer sciences (n = 3). Their time as students ranged from 2 to 14 semesters (M = 6, SD = 3). Two interviewers recruited the participants on the university campus during lunch or other free periods, intentionally seeking a variety of study fields, ages, and semesters studied. They asked students whether they could spare some time for an interview study concerning [End Page 401] academic procrastination and then briefed students that we were especially interested in the actual voices and experiences of students on this issue. If students were interested in participating, the interviewers led them to a quiet room and then provided the participants with thorough information about the study conditions (i.e., that the interviews would be confidential and anonymous, that interviewers would digitally record the entire interview, that participants could ask for a complete deletion of their interview data at any time, and that participants could call off the interview anytime during the interview process). After the participants had verbally given their consent to these conditions, the interviewers asked a few questions covering demographic aspects (age, field of study, number of semesters studied). After the interview, the interviewers debriefed the participants in detail about the aim of the study and asked whether the participants wanted to listen to the interview and/or erase it. If the participants were interested in academic procrastination, the interviewers provided more information. All participants were highly interested in the topic; moreover, they turned out to be highly information-rich (Patton, 1990) concerning academic procrastination. The participants received some popular German candy for their participation.
The trained interviewers followed a semi-structured interview guide (see Schilling, 2006; Tesch, 1990). The interviews covered a variety of topics concerning a past procrastination experience (e.g., symptoms, frequency, influencing factors, consequences). For the purpose of this article, we concentrated on the parts of the interviews pertaining to the antecedents of procrastination; therefore, we only describe the steps taken to prepare and interpret the data for these parts.
The interviewers first asked the participants whether they were familiar with academic procrastination. Consecutively, the interviewers asked the participants to remember a situation in which they had put off doing something they had intended to do. To investigate the antecedents of procrastination, the interviewers explored this past procrastination experience by probing for reasons (e.g., What kind of personal or situational aspects caused this procrastinating behavior?), symptoms (e.g., How did you realize that you were procrastinating?), and influencing factors (e.g., What kind of factors influenced your procrastinating behavior?) related to this experience. At the end of the interview, the interviewers asked the participants to list the reasons, symptoms, and influencing factors for their academic procrastination in general. Although the interviewers used a written interview guide covering the topics to be addressed, they did not arrange the questions in a fixed order or wording. Instead, they asked the questions whenever and however it seemed most natural. The interviews took 18 minutes on average. We included all interviews in the analysis.
Content Analysis and Category System
First, our research assistants transcribed all interviews. Then, we (the first and second authors) segmented the interviews into idea units. We understood an idea unit as “a segment of text that is comprehensible by itself and contains one idea, episode, or piece of information” (Tesch, 1990, p. 116). Afterward, we eliminated every idea unit but those concerning antecedents of academic procrastination. All antecedents represented aspects that the interviewees used to explain their procrastination.
The aim of the analysis was to develop a category system referring to the antecedents of academic procrastination. We developed [End Page 402] the category system iteratively, following a deductive–inductive procedure of qualitative content analysis (cf. Mayring, 2004). We started coding with a small set of interviews that covered a limited set of themes. These themes were derived from theoretical considerations concerning the antecedents of academic procrastination (e.g., anxiety). Whenever we encountered an idea unit that seemed relevant from a theoretical perspective, but was not covered by the already existing themes, we added a new theme (e.g., procedural task competence). For themes with low agreement, we either defined the theme more precisely or excluded it from the category system. We then applied the revised category system to another set of interviews. We repeated this procedure of application, revision, and reapplication several times, ultimately developing a hierarchically organized category system. Simultaneously, we developed and refined a coding manual containing a description of each theme, examples of typical statements, and coding rules pertaining to the inclusion and exclusion of segments. We then trained an independent group of research assistants to code the interview segments by using the coding manual. Eventually, they coded all segments of all interviews according to this manual.
To minimize bias in our analysis process, we pursued two strategies. The first strategy was to allocate the different steps to different individuals. We, the first and second authors, developed the interview guide, segmented all interviews, and developed the coding manual. The trained interviewers were not involved in the development of the interview guide and the category system or in the coding of the interviews; and the trained coders were not involved in the development of the interview guide and the category system or in conducting the interviews. We, the authors, were involved in neither conducting nor finally coding the interviews. The second strategy related to the content analysis process. We discussed the themes with two independent auditors at several points. One of the auditors had rich experience in conducting and analyzing qualitative research. The other auditor contributed broad knowledge about procrastination research and was especially involved in developing the deductively derived categories. Over the course of content analysis, the auditors continually made suggestions for revising some of the themes, mainly encouraging us to combine overlapping themes and to clarify some themes.
In total, the coders categorized 582 segments from the 29 interviews into themes related to the antecedents of academic procrastination. All participants contributed to these segments. We calculated intercoder agreement for the all-encompassing category system (i.e., including interview topics that are not discussed in this report) by applying Cohen’s kappa to three random interviews containing 588 segments; the agreement between coders was good (κ = .84). Additionally, we conducted a misfit analysis (Schilling, 2006), covering those statements that coders could not categorize but that seemed related to antecedents of academic procrastination. The participants had formulated the majority of these statements very vaguely (see the Findings section for more information).
The category system consists of three levels of abstraction. The structure of the interview data suggested drawing the first and most abstract distinction between personal antecedents (245 segments) and situational antecedents (284 segments). Whereas personal antecedents incorporates all aspects that were primarily associated with genuine personal attributes of the interviewee, situational antecedents incorporates all aspects that were primarily traceable to [End Page 403] situational factors and factors beyond the genuine personal attributes of the interviewee. On the next level, the personal antecedents are divided into 5 categories (motivational antecedents, volitional antecedents, emotional antecedents, competence-related antecedents, and trait-like antecedents) and the situational antecedents are split into 3 categories (social antecedents, antecedents related to external structure, and task-inherent antecedents). Each of these categories comprises a different number of themes, cumulating in 23 themes in the whole category system. We developed 14 themes deductively (based on theoretical assumptions before coding the interview material) and 9 themes inductively (based on the interview material). Of all segments, we could not assign 53 of them to a specific theme; these concerned personal and situational aspects which the participants had phrased ambiguously. However, many of these segments seemed to follow the underlying theme of “I am a procrastinator—what can I do about it?”, reflecting a somewhat resigned way of living with one’s vices.
Table 1 is a summary of all themes. Category and theme labels are shown below in italics with segment frequency shown as m value (the absolute number of times a theme was mentioned in the interviews) to gather an initial impression of how cognitively available a theme was to interviewees. The categories and the themes are described in detail below.
Personal antecedents comprise motivational, volitional, emotional, competence-related, and trait-like antecedents. The category motivational antecedents has the widest scope of all personal antecedents (m = 113), including themes associated with the initiation of acts originating in the person. The themes range from intrinsic motivation and pressurization to forms of strategic delay. Participants reported that they procrastinated because they were not intrinsically motivated, for example, because they lacked interest in the activity. In contrast, pressurization refers to a form of procrastination due to thrill-seeking behavior. In the interviews, participants reported delaying tasks and decisions because they believed they performed best under pressure. Strategic delay encompasses a variety of different prioritizing and time-management strategies (e.g., “I set my personal deadline well in advance of the official deadline. Then I can postpone the task and still be done in time”).
The category volitional antecedents (m = 32) comprises deficit-oriented themes concerning the planning and performance phase of an act, namely, absent self-discipline, insufficient goal shielding (i.e., shielding current goals from distracting information), and lack of selfstructuring. As for goal shielding, participants reported being easily distracted when starting on a task. In the case of self-discipline, most participants reported not being able to sit down to start a task, although they actually wanted to. Regarding self-structuring, they reported having difficulties organizing their tasks or keeping their personal organizer up to date.
The category emotional antecedents has a very limited scope; it merely includes anxiety (m = 5). Participants reported being afraid of potential negative consequences due to failure and/or of feeling disappointed due to failure.
The underlying theme of the category competence-related antecedents (m = 42) is the lack of competence needed to accomplish a task. On the one hand, participants’ statements concerned a lack of competence in the estimation of time needed; on the other hand, a sufficient degree of procedural task competence seemed to be important for participants to start their intended activities on time. In the case of the former, participants reported having underestimated the time needed to accomplish a task; consequently, they started to work on the task too late (e.g., “Yes, I always think I [End Page 404]
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will have enough time left”). For the latter, participants reported having procrastinated on a task because they just did not know what to do or how to do it and did not seek help (e.g., “I can imagine, that these are often things I do not exactly know how to sort out”). Previous procrastination research has not considered these competence-related antecedents.
In addition to these rather process-oriented aspects, personal antecedents also include the category trait-like antecedents (m = 53), composed of spontaneity, problems with decision making, and laziness. As for spontaneity, participants reported procrastinating because of their spontaneous lifestyle, which was reflected by a somewhat happy-go-lucky attitude. In the case of problems with decision making, participants reported not being able to come to a decision without extensively—or even obsessively—weighing all the advantages and disadvantages (e.g., “Well, I am not a decisive person. Before I decide I delay”).
Notably, relatively few statements reflected themes that characterize dispositional aspects of procrastination (m = 53). Participants’ statements tended to reflect modifiable personal aspects (e.g., motivational, volitional, and competence-related) rather than stable personal aspects.
In the category system, situational antecedents has the same scope as personal antecedents (m = 284) and these are arranged at the same level of abstraction. Situational antecedents comprise social antecedents, antecedents related to external structure, and task-inherent antecedents.
The category social antecedents (m = 46) encompasses aspects that not only involve the persons themselves (e.g., their motivation), but also relates to the social setting and the attitudes of others towards a procrastination episode. This category comprises the themes group tasks versus individual tasks, significant others’ attitudes toward procrastination, and role models for procrastination. In the case of the theme group tasks versus individual tasks, participants reported not procrastinating activities that involved interdependence (e.g., “Well, in the beginning of my studies, I did not put anything off, because I was working together with other people”). Participants often explained this behavior through their moral standards or some kind of cooperation ethics. The theme significant others’ attitudes toward procrastination comprises the attitudes of peers, who for our participants were mostly either indifferent or positive (e.g., “Well, some are sort of impressed like, ‘Wow, no way! You got away with it!’”), and the attitudes of parents and teachers, which were negative. In the theme role models for procrastination, role models could be found among family and friends (e.g., “because my sisters are very similar with regard to procrastination”). Role models for procrastination, however, represents a very small theme (m = 6). Other research has not yet considered social aspects like performing a group task versus performing an individual task, attitudes of peers/family/teachers, and the presence of role models among family and friends. In light of our findings, it seems especially surprising that previous research has virtually neglected social aspects of procrastination.
The category antecedents related to external structure has the widest scope of all situational antecedents (m = 179). Themes range from amount of other tasks and diversion by other activities to degree of external structure. In general, participants reported procrastinating on an activity because they had to do other important things or attend to other appointments (e.g., “Yes, because there are more tasks coming up”); however, they often admitted that this congestion of tasks was due to past procrastination episodes. Thus, the theme diversion by other tasks is closely linked to a lack of both goal shielding and self-discipline found in [End Page 406] the category volitional antecedents. Participants reported social temptations as the most frequent distractions (e.g., “If you have people around you and the weather is good, then there are lots of other things to do”). The theme degree of external structure includes aspects of structure on a macro level (e.g., degrees of freedom in organizing the course of study over the years: “At the university, you have many liberties”) and on a micro level (e.g., nonbinding deadlines for assignments and/or missing homework: “Procrastination happens more, I think, if the work assignment is not precise enough”).
The category task-inherent antecedents (m = 59) encompasses the scope of a task (procrastination is more pronounced for more comprehensive tasks), the demandingness of a task (procrastination is more pronounced for demanding tasks), the attractiveness of a task (procrastination is more pronounced for unattractive tasks), extrinsic incentives (procrastination is more pronounced for tasks lacking incentives), and the task importance. For the latter, participants reported procrastinating for two contrasting reasons: first, because the task was unimportant (e.g., “Well, I don’t put off very important things anymore, but insignificant stuff—very often”) and second, because the task was extremely important (e.g., “If the situation is very important, yes, it is possible that a decision is not made immediately”).
The findings concerning situational antecedents suggest that future procrastination research should not neglect the context in which individuals must carry out an intended activity. Otherwise, a model of procrastination might not be comprehensive.
The purpose of this study led to the development of a comprehensive category system for analyzing the experiences with procrastination voiced by students. This category system distinguishes between personal and situational antecedents (described above) and goes well beyond the three sources of antecedents of another qualitative study (i.e., self, teacher, and task; Schraw et al., 2007). Although the majority of themes resemble antecedents that the procrastination literature has previously addressed (e.g., themes in motivational and volitional antecedents), we did find both personal (e.g., procedural task competence) and situational antecedents (e.g., themes in social antecedents) that procrastination research has yet to consider. For example, our findings about motivational antecedents, such as intrinsic motivation, were in line with previous findings (e.g., Schraw et al., 2007). Furthermore, the theme pressurization resembles arousal procrastination, a form of procrastination that Ferrari (1992) introduced and Steel (2010) has questioned in previous studies. The themes self-discipline, goal shielding, and self-structuring in volitional antecedents coincided with previous research that viewed procrastination as a manifestation of volitional problems (e.g., Dewitte & Lens, 2000; Wolters, 2003), while the theme anxiety in emotional antecedents resembles the personal side of avoidance procrastination which previous studies have mentioned (e.g., Ferrari, 1992). However, in the category competence-related antecedent we identified two new aspects: estimation of time needed (students reported having underestimated the time needed to accomplish a task; consequently, they started working on the task too late) and procedural task competence (students reported not knowing how to accomplish a task and not knowing where to seek help). Investigating competence-related antecedents of procrastination in more depth seems to be particularly promising, because competency trainings could be easily integrated into interventions (e.g., by repetitive practice). Concerning the category [End Page 407] trait-like antecedents, previous research has already considered all antecedents we found in that regard (e.g., Ferrari et al., 1995; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984); however, in contrast to what we expected based on the literature, relatively few statements reflected themes that characterize dispositional aspects of procrastination (m = 53). Our participants’ statements tended to reflect modifiable personal aspects (e.g., motivational, volitional, and competence-related) rather than stable personal aspects.
Our findings indicate that situational factors play a central role in explaining procrastination. We have identified several situational antecedents of academic procrastination. In fact, contrary to the predominant research direction focusing on trait procrastination (e.g., van Eerde, 2004), the situational antecedents category had a similar impact, in terms of the number of segments, as personal antecedents. Although the actor– observer bias (i.e., the tendency to make personal attributions for the behavior of others and situational attributions for ourselves; Jones & Nisbett, 1972) might also be responsible for this circumstance, these findings support the idea of revitalizing the focus of early procrastination research on situational and task-specific aspects of actual procrastination episodes (see Schouwenburg et al., 2004).
In considering these situational antecedents, we identified situational antecedents, (e.g., task aversiveness and degree of external structure) that previous procrastination research had already considered (cf. Schraw et al., 2007; Steel, 2007). Although research has frequently referred to task aversiveness as an antecedent of academic procrastination (cf. Steel, 2007), it has rarely provided a differentiation. Our findings suggest the utility of differentiating task aversiveness into scope, demandingness, attractiveness, extrinsic incentives, and (perceived) task importance. Differentiating task characteristics will contribute to a better understanding of the procrastinated task itself and to an actionlevel analysis of the procrastination episode (see Blunt & Pychyl, 2000; Ferrari & Scher, 2000). The perceived importance of a task is particularly interesting because participants mentioned two opposing scenarios in the interviews: (a) procrastinating because a task is unimportant, and (b) procrastinating because it is important. The former might stand for a functional form of delay related to prioritizing, whereas the latter might represent a threat to the quality of work and life depending on the personal significance of the delayed task. It is obvious that certain things must be delayed to accomplish others; however, not only the nature of the alternative activity but also a set of norms that may differ across individuals (cf. Milgram et al., 1988) determine whether an alternative activity is worth postponing a target activity. Exploring the role of task importance in more depth will help to draw a clear distinction between procrastination and planning (cf. Schraw et al., 2007) and between procrastination and time-management strategies (e.g., prioritizing).
We also found situational antecedents that previous procrastination research had not considered, including diversion by other tasks and social antecedents. In particular, procrastination research has virtually neglected the social antecedents of procrastination and social aspects in general. Until now, research on social aspects has focused on general peer influence (PASS; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984) and on social comparisons by procrastinators (Ferrari & Patel, 2004). This focus might not be sufficient because, according to our findings, social aspects seem to play a profound role in procrastination. First, procrastination seems to be lower or nonexistent in group activities. Second, the attitudes of peers, parents, and teachers seem to promote procrastination. [End Page 408] Because we found that parents’ and teachers’ attitudes towards students’ procrastination are negative, it would be interesting to explore whether these attitudes evoke reactance in the student, thus encouraging a rebellious form of procrastination (Ferrari et al., 1995). Third, students seem to copy their procrastination strategies from role models. Fourth, participants frequently mentioned social distractions in the theme diversion by other activities.
Situational antecedents in general (e.g., task-inherent characteristics, group task vs. individual task settings, and a single intention vs. multiple intentions) probably interact with personal antecedents (e.g., motivational, volitional, emotional, and competence-related antecedents) in a procrastination episode; our findings give the first hint that this interaction might exist. The findings suggest that the distractions that alternative action opportunities offer (situational antecedent), together with the students’ inability to shield their goals (personal antecedent), can encourage procrastination. Students reported that easily distracting themselves while working on a task often resulted in procrastination. Social action opportunities seemed to be the most frequent distractions. Given that students’ everyday lives provide ubiquitous activity opportunities, students may often find themselves having multiple goals (Fries, Dietz, & Schmid, 2008; Senécal, Julien, & Guay, 2003). In line with our findings, previous research has shown that in such situations of goal and motivational conflict, procrastinators do not resist temptations or do not shield against distractions while working on a task (Dewitte & Schouwenburg, 2002); hence, further investigating procrastination within a framework of action regulation and motivational conflicts seems fruitful (cf. Dietz, Hofer, & Fries, 2007). To collect and combine aspects of the interplay of personal and situation antecedents in several procrastination episodes, future research could utilize daily logs.
In the course of suggesting ideas for future procrastination research, we want to note the limitations of this study. Our findings are based upon the verbal reports of university students whom we asked to remember a procrastination episode. Naturally, these narrations originated in students’ subjective theories of procrastination. Because we did not explicitly ask them to remember a procrastination episode that had entailed negative consequences, these subjective theories might not fairly reflect the harmful aspects of procrastination, but instead, they might be distorted by students’ wishful thinking concerning positive aspects of procrastination. Because our purpose was to explore procrastination in an impartial way, we decided not to ask them explicitly to remember a procrastination episode that entailed negative consequences. Furthermore, we interviewed the students without assessing their procrastination tendency with one of the well-known procrastination scales (e.g., Lay, 1986). Consequently, we were unaware whether our sample represented the opinions and beliefs of students who were chronic procrastinators, incidental procrastinators, or nonprocrastinators. In keeping with our intention to draw attention to students’ actual voices and experiences, an assessment of the students’ procrastination was not relevant. However, for future research it may be worthwhile to examine whether the antecedents differ systematically between chronic and incidental procrastinators and, if so, in what regard. In addition, the sample size of our study seems small; however, the 29 participants represent a wide variety of study fields, ages, and semesters studied, and produced enough interview material to extend the understanding of procrastination.
One purpose of the study was to derive new ideas for assisting procrastinating students [End Page 409] and designing procrastination interventions. Most interventions so far have concentrated on teaching self-management strategies or on psychotherapeutic methods (for an overview see Schouwenburg et al., 2004). Although our findings indicate that these are fruitful paths to follow, they also indicate that situational aspects of academic procrastination should be taken into account when developing assignments, service programs, and interventions.
First of all, colleges and universities should provide information about procrastination and about ways to overcome procrastination to students and faculty. Possible dissemination strategies could be via brochures, a procrastination newsletter, a special procrastination homepage, and procrastination information days.
Secondly, previous research together with ours indicate that procrastination is a multifaceted phenomenon. Creating awareness among faculty of these many facets and how they can impede academic success might help faculty to effectively help their students who struggle with procrastination to overcome it. Altering specific aspects of academic environments could help students reduce their procrastination. Regarding the social antecedents of academic procrastination that we found in our study, establishing cooperative learning settings that require interdependence among students seems to be a promising approach. Concerning the task-inherent characteristics (e.g., scope of task), creating tasks that prevent, rather than promote, procrastination, might be another promising approach. Furthermore, complementing assignments with information about writing centers, library help desks, and similar programs, for example, can support students to seek help efficiently when they lack procedural task competence. A procrastination newsletter for the faculty could be one way to inform faculty regularly about strategies to prevent procrastination; seminars on how to create assignments and cooperative learning settings to prevent procrastination could be another.
Thirdly, student affairs professionals, in turn, should design an intervention program for detecting and dealing with motivational conflicts. This program should create awareness of the multiple goals that students pursue in their daily lives and on the need for successful self-regulation in the face of multiple goals and many distracting options. Professionals could supplement existing self-management training programs (e.g., van Essen et al., 2004) with sessions concerning the implementation of intentions in the face of motivational conflicts (e.g., Gollwitzer, 1999) and with sessions about establishing an interference-free learning environment. Further, training programs should focus on the importance of effective academic help-seeking and should provide students with information about how and where to seek help when they lack procedural task competence.
On a final note, we suggest that the multiplicity of antecedents calls for tailored interventions. The individual pattern of antecedents should help student affairs professionals assign students to the type of intervention (e.g., self-management training, cognitive–behavioral coaching, tandem learning) that best suits their procrastination pattern. Such an approach demands an instrument that incorporates all possible antecedents. In testing and expanding on our exploratory, qualitative findings, future research should contribute to the development of this instrument and thus encourage the development of tailored interventions. [End Page 410]
Katrin B. Klingsieck is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Paderborn.
Axel Grund is a postdoctoral research fellow of Psychology at the University of Bielefeld.
Sebastian Schmid is a postdoctoral research fellow of Psychology at the University of Regensburg.
Stefan Fries is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bielefeld.