A study that was recently published in Psychological Research sheds light on the connection between procrastination and a common phenomenon—people forgetting to do things that they intend to do later.
The study focused on the concept of prospective memory (PM), which the researchers introduced as follows:
“Most individuals reading this paper will already have experienced the following situation: after a busy day at work, we look at our mobile phone and suddenly feel bad, as we realize that we (again) forgot to reply to a friend’s text message. Such incidents are associated to prospective memory (PM), our ability to remember to perform a planned action (i.e. replying to a friend) at a particular moment in the future… PM abilities allow us to remember to attend a meeting at a specific time, to call a family member on their birthday, to take our medication before breakfast, or to turn off the stove after preparing a meal.”
Specifically, the researchers focused on the relationship between PM failures, which represent our tendency to forget things that we intend to do later, and procrastination, which represents our tendency to unnecessarily postpone things. They examined these phenomena in a sample of 92 university students, in several ways:
- First, participants were asked to complete a self-reported procrastination questionnaire; this measured their tendency to engage both in voluntary delay, which involves actively putting off actions or decisions, as well as in observed delay, which involves delaying things in a more passive manner.
- Second, participants were asked to send predefined text messages to the experimenter over the course of several days; participants were allowed to choose when they wanted to send the messages (e.g. on Friday at 11:25), with only a few constraints, but they had to choose the times in advance, while at the experimenter’s lab, and they had to memorize the times before leaving.
- Finally, participants received a signed sheet confirming their participation in the experiment, which they were instructed to scan and send via email before the end of the semester, in order to get course credits; the goal of this was to measure their tendency to procrastinate in practice (referred to by the researchers as behavioral procrastination, and contrasted with the earlier self-reported procrastination).
The researchers discovered two main things from this experiment:
- The tendency to procrastinate more in practice is associated with more PM failures, meaning that, in general, the longer participants postponed sending the sheet, the more texts they forgot to send.
- The tendency to engage in less voluntary delay, as reported by the questionnaire, is associated with more PM failures, meaning that, in general, the lower participants’ tendency to engage in voluntary delay was, based on their self-reports, the more texts they forgot to send.
Because of the unexpected nature of the association between voluntary delay and PM failures, the researchers conducted a follow-up cluster analysis, with the goal of classifying distinct procrastinator profiles based on participants’ voluntary delay, behavioral procrastination, and PM failures. Based on this analysis, they identified three main types of participants:
- Non-procrastinators, who reported low levels of voluntary delay, postponed the behavioral procrastination task for only a short amount of time, and had the lowest rates of PM failures.
- Conscious procrastinators, who reported high levels of voluntary delay, postponed the behavioral procrastination task for the longest amount of time, and had a medium rate of PM failures.
- Unconscious procrastinators, who reported low levels of voluntary delay, postponed the behavioral procrastination task for a long amount of time, and had the highest rate of PM failures.
Based on this, the researchers state the following:
“It seems that if one is conscious about procrastination, the negative impact of procrastination on performing a real-life PM task may be limited. It could be that this awareness allows individuals to set up strategies to ‘limit the damages’ and, therefore, to still remember a relatively large proportion of their prospective intentions in real-life.
In contrast, consequences of procrastination seem more severe for individuals who are not conscious of their procrastination habits. In these cases, individuals may—unawarely so—postpone tasks for longer periods and thereby increase the number of forgotten PM tasks.”
This suggests that, when it comes to helping procrastinators reduce the harmful impact of their procrastination, the first step is to help them realize that they procrastinate, and that this can negatively impact them in various ways, including when it comes to forgetting to do things that they intend to do later.
In addition, procrastinators can use various anti-procrastination techniques, such as breaking apart large tasks and planning ahead for future contingencies, in order to reduce their procrastination, which could end up also reducing their PM failures.
Furthermore, when trying to avoid PM failures in particular, procrastinators can use strategies that help them address this issue directly, such as setting reminders for themselves, as well as strategies that help with both procrastination and PM failures, such as developing a routine, creating a to-do list, or gamifying relevant behavioral patterns.
Summary and main takeaways
- Prospective memory (PM) is our ability to remember to perform planned actions at specific times in the future (e.g. remember to send an email on Thursday at 10).
- PM failures occur when we forget to do things that we intended to do, or when we forget to do those things on time.
- The present study found that conscious procrastinators, who are aware of their procrastination, suffer from higher rates of PM failures than non-procrastinators, but also that unconscious procrastinators, who are unaware of their procrastination, suffer from even higher rates of PM failures.
- This suggests that the first step to reducing the harmful impact of procrastination in this regard is to become aware of your procrastination and of how it affects you.
- Other things that can help reduce PM failures are strategies that help with it directly, such as setting reminders, general anti-procrastination strategies, such as planning ahead for future contingencies, and specialized anti-procrastination strategies that also help with avoiding PM failures, such as developing a routine, creating a to-do list, and gamifying relevant behavioral patterns.