Procrastination Nation

Got something important to do? Read this instead, and learn what drives us to put things off. And all you procrastinators can take heart: 90 to 95 percent of the population joins you in whiling away the hours.

Procrastination Nation

If my life could be summarized by a bumper sticker, it would be something like: “I’d rather be procrastinating.” If I had a motto, it would be: “Why do something today that could easily be put off until tomorrow?”

I am a procrastinator. I have been for as long as I can remember. At Wellesley, some friends used to refer to me as “The Vortex” because of my ability to suck people into doing things, typically when studying would have been the more prudent option than, say, watching The Thorn Birds mini-series (roughly eight hours of glorious melodrama).

When this magazine’s illustrious editor first suggested I write a piece on procrastination, I thought she was joking. Or perhaps taunting me in some cruel way. She knows I’m a procrastinator (I used to work in the magazine office); everyone knows I’m a procrastinator. But she was serious, and I was intrigued, so I accepted. [Editor’s note: The first thing she did after accepting the piece was ask for an extension.]

Perhaps this article would allow me to get at the heart of my procrastinating tendencies. I could blame them on my early fascination with Scarlett O’Hara and Gone With the Wind. Or my writer’s need to work under the pressure of a deadline. Or perhaps I would finally turn the proverbial procrastination corner, and finish this assignment early! [Editor’s note: She turned this piece in at midnight on the day it was due.] If nothing else, perhaps I could determine why, although lots of people procrastinate, not all of them are, in fact, procrastinators.

Procrastinators of the World, Unite!

Putting off doing something unpleasant is a fairly typical human response. There are very few people in the world who relish diving into a sink full of dirty dishes or writing a detailed work report. Studies indicate that anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of people report procrastinating occasionally. However, 26 percent of Americans consider themselves chronic procrastinators, according a 2007 study published in Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association. [Author’s note: I like to consider myself a functioning procrastinator.]

Of course, not everyone realizes that they are procrastinators. Michelle Tullier ’84, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, had her epiphany at a rather interesting time. Although she had done workshops on time management and procrastination for years, she says, “Until I sat down to write the book, I think I was in denial. I was unwilling to admit to myself and others that I was a major procrastinator myself.” Now Tullier sees the patterns in her behavior more clearly. “To finish my doctoral dissertation, I stayed up for three days and three nights straight,” she says. “I don’t recommend trying that at home.” She continues to work with issues of time management, specifically in career development, in her current role as the executive director of the Center for Career Discovery and Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Once I realized it was OK to acknowledge that [I am a procrastinator], it really made me even more qualified to help other people with it.”

But what, at its heart, is procrastination? One of the earliest English dictionaries defined the word as just “delay,” but this certainly isn’t the full sense of the word as it’s used today. “Procrastination is avoidance,” says Robin Cook-Nobles, director of Wellesley’s Counseling Service and dean of the Office of Intercultural Education at Wellesley. “When we’re threatened in life, we’re wired to respond in certain ways, and avoidance is one of them.”

Cook-Nobles runs a workshop on procrastination every semester to help students with procrastination issues. “I try to empower them to be proactive and take charge,” she says. “When they leave [the workshop], they have a framework and different techniques, but they also have a different way of looking at what procrastination is that’s more empowering.”

In the workshop, they look at what is and isn’t procrastination. For instance, students fill out schedules with everything they have to do, from classes to homework and long-term assignments to extracurricular commitments. “They beat themselves up all the time, but I tell them, sometimes you’re not procrastinating. Just realistically, your schedule is too full,” Cook-Nobles says. “We talk about what to give up, and the students often feel like they cannot give up anything and that they have to do everything.”

But doing everything can be daunting. Which is why it’s probably better to … knit? Lucy Archer ’12 is a firm believer in what she’s deemed “procrastiknitting,” and she finished an entire sweater (complete with thumbholes) in a week and a half. Of course, it was the week and half she was supposed to be studying for exams. “I ended up giving it, and all my other yarn, to my roommate to hide until that set of exams was done,” Archer says. “For women who will, we’re very good at being women who almost won’t.”

Why We Don’t Do What We Don’t Do

If you ask procrastinators why they’re putting something off, you’re sure to get a variety of responses, often starting with a laugh, some mention of “needing to feel the pressure,” and ending with a shrug. Most of the time, procrastinators don’t actually know why they’re procrastinating. [Author’s note: I like to think I procrastinate because it’s the one thing at which I’m sure I truly excel.]

While researching her book, Tullier found that household chores consistently came up as one of the top things people put off doing, along with other simple tasks like scheduling appointments. “This is how procrastination happens,” she says. “We think it through too much, we often dwell on the negative, or we overcomplicate things.”

Cook-Nobles agrees. “Procrastinators throw time away,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I need an hour,’ but it has to be right on the hour or the half-hour. They have these rules in their head.” And if those rules aren’t met, the work doesn’t get done. The size or importance of the work often doesn’t seem to matter, either. “It could be anything. It could be a two-page paper,” Cook-Nobles says. “It has nothing to do with their ability to do the task.”

And while some turn to craftwork to procrastinate, others procrastinate over the crafts themselves. “When my sister-in-law was pregnant with her first child, I started crocheting a baby blanket,” says Beth Iandoli ’85. “I finally finished it a year ago. For that child’s baby shower. As in, that child was having a baby.” And although she had 27 years to complete the project, Iandoli still had to stay up until 2 a.m. on the day of the shower to finish it. [Author’s note: Procrastinators apparently like to coin new terms for their procrastination, perhaps as yet another form of procrastination. Iandoli’s term? “Procraftination.”]

So why can’t we finish the paper or the baby blanket or the report in time? “It’s often a combination of inner and outer factors,” Tullier says. “So often the advice given out there about overcoming procrastination either focuses on the psychological aspects or the more environmental factors. The reality is, it’s often a combination of both.”

External or environmental factors often relate to the need to be more organized or not having the information necessary. “Some people put off doing something simply because their desk … or their computer desktop is messy,” Tullier says. “So much of the time, it’s about not putting roadblocks in your way, and we create those by having messy surroundings or not reaching out to other people as resources.”

Internal factors include things like perfectionism, fear of failure, and even the fear of success. “The fear of success, especially for Wellesley women, seems like such a ridiculous concept,” Tullier says. “Wellesley women aren’t afraid to be successful. But what that often means … is that if you do something on time and you do it well, you’re going to be expected to do it again, and probably expected to do it even better and faster.”

Cook-Nobles points out that procrastination can also be a response to external pressures. “Sometimes, procrastination is a passive-aggressive expression of resentment or anger,” she says. “Say someone is feeling pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer, but they really don’t want to do it. So they don’t have the motivation, and then unconsciously, they get out of it by not doing so well.”

Some people may think they are procrastinators, but there might be deeper issues at play. There could be undiagnosed learning disabilities, and that, of course, is not actually procrastination. At Wellesley, students can be assessed at the Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center for additional support. Cook-Nobles also notes that sometimes mental-health issues can be at the root of what some consider procrastination: “If you’re depressed, you might lack motivation, which could result in getting behind academically.” Students can seek support at the Stone Center, and class deans are often helpful here, as well.

Combating Procrastination

Although there are no easy answers in the fight against procrastination, there are some tips that can help.

1. Break the Work Down

“Try to break assignments or coursework down into bite-sized pieces,” says John O’Keefe, Wellesley’s director of advising and academic support services and dean of the class of 2017. “This helps students feel like they can get a small thing done, and that, in turn, builds positive momentum.”

2. Create a Schedule, and Be Specific

“Put everything on your schedule that you have to do,” Cook-Nobles says, and include time to take breaks.

3. Create “Do Dates,” Not “Due Dates”

This is Tullier’s favorite piece of advice. “If you simply schedule times that you’re actually going to do things, do parts of the project, it frees you,” she says.

4. Get a Buddy

“It’s good not to let yourself get isolated,” Tullier says. Students who study together, even on disparate subjects, often provide each other with support and motivation, Cook-Nobles says.

5. Pick Your Battles

“Don’t try to tackle everything in your life at once,” Tullier says. “Pick the things that bug you the most or that have potentially the most serious implications if you don’t get them done on time.”

6. Give It Time

No one breaks the procrastination habit in a day. “Most anybody can sustain something for a day, a few days, maybe a few weeks,” Tullier says. “But most psychologists feel it takes at least a few months to incorporate real change in your habits.”

7. Reward Yourself

This doesn’t just mean that you get a treat if you finish a task. “It also means really being mindful of what you’re doing,” Tullier says. “Take the simple step of pausing and giving yourself credit.”

College, the Alma Mater of Procrastination

College students may be the most notorious procrastinators. The 2007 Psychological Bulletin study found that anywhere from 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate. Not surprising—how can they resist? Not only do most colleges offer a wide variety of programming (lectures, exhibits, concerts, and more), but also nearly endless opportunities for socializing and lots (and lots) of unstructured time.

“In high school, your time is structured for you, and in college, the skill of learning how to structure your own time is something that is very important to address explicitly with younger students,” says John O’Keefe, director of advising and academic support services and dean of the class of 2017. Although much of that unstructured time could be used to keep up with Wellesley’s demanding coursework, sometimes it’s … not.

The internet, of course, is a time suck [Author’s note: technical term] for many a procrastinator, and college students today have a lot of technological diversions to choose from. “I will purposely pick fights (read: feed the trolls) on controversial articles or videos just so I can initiate a long and pointless back-and-forth exchange,” says Megan Locatis ’16. “I once argued for around six hours with some guy in Germany in the comments section of a feminist parody of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines.’”

Alicia Olivo ’19 puts off doing work by putting together music to work by. “Sometimes when I really, really don’t want to do my homework, I’ll go on iTunes or Spotify and start making playlists,” she says. “These playlists will end up being about 70 or so songs long, and if I still am not willing to do my work, I’ll listen to the beginning and end of each song and order them in such a way I think will sound pleasing. Then I do my work. Sometimes.”

Most alumnae can tell similar stories, although many of them revolve around the hardest of hard deadlines: finals. And, as it turns out, the internet didn’t create procrastination. Just ask Barbara Shepherd Poore ’66. “During exam weeks, you could hear the obsessive shuffling and reshuffling of cards up and down the hall as people played solitaire, myself included,” she says. “The principal one I used was this game called Blue Moon. I don’t even remember how it was played. All I remember was it was so difficult to actually complete it, that it only happened once in a blue moon.”

For Idora Sopin-Vilme ’10, it was her final finals period when things got really interesting. “A mixture of procrastination and a serious case of FOMO [fear of missing out] meant that I put off my four exams for the last two days of finals (Friday and Monday). I also had four papers to write over that same time period,” she says. “So, after a quick nap after my second exam on Friday evening, I stayed awake until Monday at 4:30 when I handed in my last paper.”

Stories like these can also become part of a culture of procrastination that is often found on college campuses, according to Tullier. Students often “brag” about how much work they have to do, and how little time they have left to do it.

“What one hears from students is that there’s a culture of stress and a little bit of competition around stress sometimes,” O’Keefe says. Of course, stress and procrastination are just parts of the college experience, along with demanding courses and engaging faculty. “All of these things are part of the reality of being a college student today,” O’Keefe says. “Part of stress is just motivation to accomplish things that are challenging and to really push yourself.”

Of course, college students don’t get to have all the procrastination fun. Lots of alumnae do post-grad work in procrastination, starting with and including graduate school and the perennially put-off dissertation. “I’ve always been a procrastinator,” says Barbara Poore. “But this is one of my triumphs over procrastination: Somewhere in my 50s, I went back to graduate school and got the Ph.D. that I never could finish the first time because I was such a procrastinator.”

But even after finishing the graduate degree, procrastination can still come into play in our professional lives, as well. Jane Rothchild ’79 finished law school, took and passed the Massachusetts and Connecticut bar exams, and then took the New York bar exam a few years later. “Although New York provides five years to complete the post-exam paperwork, I never did it,” she says. “I ended up waiving in. I was admitted on motion based on the number of years I’d been practicing.”


Procrastination can have many consequences, most of them obvious and expected. If you put off your dissertation too long, you’ll end up staying up for three days straight to finish it. But losing sleep and losing grades may be nothing compared with losing once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Just ask Virginia Licklider Still ’98. “I’d hit that point that we all know, where I had barely enough time to churn out a paper and slide under the deadline, and I had just settled in to it when I found out I’d won Violent Femmes tickets. For that same night,” she says. “I knew it was my only chance to ever see them live, and I was right. And I couldn’t go.” Still had to give the tickets to friends. “They came back aglow with how amazing the show had been. It was one of my lowest points at Wellesley.”Sometimes, however, the procrastination is worth it. Jane Zhou ’10 was an academic peer tutor at Wellesley, but despite her knowledge of study skills, she was (and is) a procrastinator. “I put off everything,” she says. Her senior year she had several final papers, a final problem set, and a presentation due on the last day of class, and little time left to do it in. “WZLY had randomly decided to bring Passion Pit to campus for a concert, but I stayed up all night doing senior decorating, then I had to do all that other stuff, so I missed that concert.” Even so, she doesn’t regret it. “I really enjoyed senior decorating,” she says. “That was definitely one of the highlights of college, so it was worth it.”

Tullier is quick to point out that procrastination is not always a bad thing. “Like anything we have about ourselves that could be a negative, if we can just channel it in some positive direction, it often works really well for us.” And sometimes, it works out in our favor unintentionally. Last summer, Rachel Utomo ’19, who hails from Indonesia, put off submitting some forms for her new I-20 student visa, and after she finally did turn in the paperwork, she put off scheduling her interview with the U.S. embassy. “Apparently, around the time that I was procrastinating, the U.S. government suffered a massive data breach, so all embassy appointments and interviews needed to be rescheduled, and all I-20s being processed were rejected,” she says. “So I suppose, as ironic as it sounds, procrastination saved me time and energy.”

In the end, “it’s about balance and not just about getting things done,” Tullier says. “At Wellesley, I procrastinated. Lots of late nights up in Tower Court, goofing around with roommates, having fun. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

I’m still not sure what lies at the heart of my procrastination fascination, but I don’t feel alone. A lot of people procrastinate, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like Tullier, and Zhou, and others, I have many great memories because I put off doing the prudent thing and opted to watch The Thorn Birds with friends instead. But I guess I’ll think about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day. [Editor’s note: We could not get her to stop quoting Gone With the Wind.]

Jennifer E. Garrett ’98 is a writer and editor living in the Seattle area. In the spirit of getting into the story, she pulled an all-nighter to write this article. Luckily, she did not have to get up for class in the morning.

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Wilma Kassakian (Riemenschneider) ’68
Jane Burka '68 published the definitive book," Procrastination: Why You Do It..." in 1980. As a former library employee, I can tell you that this book was widely read and almost always overdue.

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