Procrastination and self-control

Levels of self-control can have a major influence on our tendency to put things off, no matter how important those things may be. Delays can be costly, yet despite knowing this people will still leave making that appointment with the doctor until their specific ailment has become more difficult to treat or delay putting money away for retirement even though they know that the earlier they start, the bigger the rewards will be. Similarly, students will complete homework tasks the night before they are due or be seen frantically completing it on the bus to school.

Self-control can be broadly thought of as a character trait, as the ability to get on with the task in hand, avoid distractions and accepting that there will be many short-term temptations to potentially disrupt or derail longterm goals. It's related to similar traits like self-discipline (a sub-category of conscientiousness) and grit, all of which are related to higher academic outcomes (Hagger & Hamilton, 2019). However, we are yet to fully understand exactly how these constructs differ from each other. What we do know is that the ability to attend to the task in hand and not become distracted follows a developmental trajectory so, for example, a teenager is likely to be better at focussing attention than a primary school child. Self- control is also a skill that is included within executive function, which means there are strategies we can use to improve it. Being aware of our own powers of self-control is important to overcoming procrastination. Self-control also relates to immediate and delayed gratification, in that having the ability to resist immediate temptation in the short-term can reap higher benefits in the long-term.

The long-term benefits of self-control were highlighted in a number of studies conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and are generally referred to as the marshmallow experiments. Those children who were able to delay gratification by not eating a marshmallow immediately displayed greater qualities later in life that were important for successful academic outcomes, such as increased attentiveness, a heightened ability to cope with stressful situations and greater verbal fluency (Mischel, 2015).

But why do some people display higher levels of self-control than others? More recent research has set out to examine this question, a question that is important if we are to attempt raising levels of self-control. One suggestion comes from neuroscience and relates to differences in the way brain regions operate in individuals with high levels of self-control. Others suggest that the behaviour of the children may relate to trust, in that some children simply didn't believe that the researchers would keep their word.

Individual differences in self-control, however, may be related to economic factors. Research by Tyler Watts of New York University, for example, suggests that those children who were unable to hold out for the extra marshmallow may have been making a logical decision based on their experience of poverty (Watts, Duncan & Quan, 2018). In environments where food is scarce it would make logical sense to eat now because there is little guarantee of food later. In other words, the ability to delay gratification is more about the environment in which people are raised than some innate quality. We might, therefore, need to think about the study environment as well as the innate traits of the individual when considering procrastination.

We tend to describe these differences in terms of sophisticated procrastinators and naive procrastinators. Sophisticates hold more rational expectations and are fully aware of future-self problems - they know that they procrastinate and, as a result, make choices based on past behaviours. Sophisticates are more skilled at examining their future behaviours in light of what they have done before, so if they waited until the last minute to complete an essay last time (and received a poor grade) they may well adapt their decision-making the next time and complete the essay much earlier.

Naive procrastinators, however, are oblivious to their future self-control problems and may hold an overly positive opinion of their future selves' ability to complete the task despite past experiences to the contrary. Rather than telling themselves they need to get on with the task early, they have confidence in their ability to get it done in the end.

Others may fall between these two extremes (so-called partially naive procrastinators). They are fully aware of the problems their future-self will experience, but manage to miscalculate the importance of their past experience and its relationship to future behaviour.

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