Predictable Procrastinators

By Melissa Navas


It’s 7 A.M. and you have just finished the research paper, two hours before it is due, that your professor assigned on the very first day of class.  As you lay in bed trying to calculate exactly how many minutes of sleep you can get and still be able to make it to your 9 A.M. on time, you wonder how the heck you ended up waiting until the very last minute to complete an assignment– again. Fast-forward exactly 67 minutes.You are “awake” and ready to hand in that research paper. With droopy eyes and no enthusiasm to face the day, you head to the subway where you fall asleep, miss your stop and end up being late for class. Maybe your story differs slightly, but there is no denying that as college students, and humans, we procrastinate constantly; regardless of going through sleepless nights, producing sub-par research papers and all the other downfalls of procrastination. Now, can these issues be avoided? Of course they can, but clearly, and unfortunately, that is not usually the case.


When taking a look at procrastination from an economic point of view, we are immediately faced with the dilemma of rationality. Traditional economics has many founding concepts, one being that people are rational beings. There have been many studies done, within the field of behavioral economics, which show just how irrational people are; and perpetual procrastination is one perfect example. It is only natural for humans to want instant gratification, and therefore, they put off their long-term goals, so instead of working all semester long on a paper, students would prefer to party when the opportunity arises (instant gratification) and put off the paper until the last minute (procrastination of long-term goals). The same goes for many other situations in life: Do the laundry now, or go out to dinner with friends? Save money for your first home, or buy that expensive designer bag? Most people would choose the latter of the two options in both situations. The human race not only has a procrastination problem regarding long-term goals, but a self-control problem, too.

In his New York Times bestseller, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely gives a specific example related to the topic of procrastination that he conducted among his students at MIT. In his study, Ariely sets out to prove that people, as the title of the novel suggests, are predictably irrational, due to the fact that no matter how many times they experience negative outcomes, their brains will still lead them to procrastinate, repeatedly having little self-control over their decision making. There is much more psychology involved in human decision making than most economists think.

In the study Ariely conducted, he used his students as subjects to see whether or not his theories on procrastination would prove to be true. On the first day of class, Ariely handed out the syllabus he had prepared to his students. Once everyone had received a syllabus Ariely let his class know the there would be three papers due throughout the course of the semester, and that the papers could be handed in anytime before the semester came to a close. He proposed an idea to the class - every student was to take a week and set three deadlines for the three papers he had assigned. The guidelines were as follows: once the deadlines were submitted they could not be changed, any papers handed in after the deadlines they assigned for themselves would result in a one percent grade deduction per day, and finally, handing in papers early would have no penalty nor gain. As the weeks deepened and the end of the semester rolled around, the predictable irrationality of Ariely’s students was evident. Two other classes were also being used for this study, one of which had absolutely no deadlines and the other of which had strict deadlines, enforced by Ariely. The grades of the class that got to choose their own deadlines fell somewhere in the middle, not as good as the class with set deadlines, but not as poorly as the class with no deadlines whatsoever. Many students set deadlines for themselves and did not follow through. Ariely’s theories about procrastination and irrationality proved to be true. A rational mind would simply have set all three deadlines for the last day of class, but of course that is not what the students did. Unfortunately, for many of the students, procrastination got the best of them.

           The notion of procrastination is perpetual. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that we’ll stay on top of our deadlines, no matter how many sleepless nights we suffer, and no matter how many groggy, dreadful mornings we are faced with, most of us are hopelessly irrational – and predictably so. Humans are predictable procrastinators. Our brains are simply not wired to function in a rational way. Wanting instant gratification and not wanting to worry about the future is a sin most people are guilty of, and a sin many people cannot shake. The psychological aspects of our behavior provide a whole new insight into why, and how, people make their decisions. Premises of rationality are long gone. It is time for economists to move past the traditional notion of rationality amongst decision-making and embrace the fact that more often than not, people will make irrational choices.

Of course, there have been studies done that try to combat procrastination by providing ways in which people can reduce future chances of committing the act. We have all heard the basic solutions: break assignments into smaller sections, make a to do list, stick with a schedule, etc. But, how about self-forgiveness? According to a study done by Michael Wohl of Carleton University, future procrastination can be reduced by forgiving yourself for previous acts of procrastination. According to a meta-analysis study done by Piers Steel, PhD, between 80% and 95% of college students were found guilty of procrastination, therefore, they seem to be the optimal sample for a study about procrastination. In this study, a sample of 119 college freshmen were recruited to fill out a questionnaire, using the Likert-scale, regarding their study habits, procrastination, and how they felt about it after they received their grades for the first midterm in their introduction to psychology class. Halfway between midterm one and two, the 119 students were questioned again. This time, questions focused around whether or not they felt that their procrastination affected their grade on midterm one. The students recognized that there had been negative affects between their study habits and grades. Lastly, before they took their second midterm, the students answered one final set of questions with regards to their study habits for the second midterm. After all the data was collected and analyzed, via moderate multiple regression, the conclusion was clear. For the students who did not self-forgive for a poor performance on their first midterm, a reduction in negative effects did not occur. However, for those students who did not condemn themselves for procrastinating on the first exam, and forgave themselves for doing poorly, there was a decrease in procrastination levels. The slope of the regression shows that as forgiveness increased, the procrastination prior to midterm two decreased.

The act of forgiveness gives us the opportunity to not only move past our suboptimal behavior, but to forget it, and move forward with little to no guilt hindering us from making better decisions in the future. As students, when we take a long look at the mistakes we make concerning procrastination, we truly feel that there is nothing much that can be done. Luckily, that is not the case. When you have exhausted all the other options and “solutions” to the problem, why not try self-forgiveness. Success starts with the self, and lack of self-forgiveness won’t get you anywhere. There is motivation to do better within self-forgiveness. The next time you receive a poor grade due to procrastination, take a few moments to understand how badly you feel about it, move on, forgive yourself for putting off the work, and realize that you don’t ever want to feel that terribly about a grade again. A little self-loving will do you, and your work, some good.

Name *
Melissa Navas is currently a Sophomore at Pace University and is majoring in economics. She is a member of the Alpha Lambda Sigma Honor Society and serves as an active member of the fundraising committee. In addition to writing for On the Margin, Melissa has participated in numerous school clubs, such as Hedgefund Club and Rotaract Club.

Melissa Navas is currently a Sophomore at Pace University and is majoring in economics. She is a member of the Alpha Lambda Sigma Honor Society and serves as an active member of the fundraising committee. In addition to writing for On the Margin, Melissa has participated in numerous school clubs, such as Hedgefund Club and Rotaract Club.