When I was growing up, the U.S. Army had recruiting commercials that showed active soldiers going through a series of difficult physical activities along with the ad tag line, "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day." And if you know anyone who is a habitual procrastinator, that phrase could easily become "...than some people do in a whole month."
As a college professor, I see differences among students in their amount of procrastination all the time. Some students come to my office hours all semester asking questions and keeping up with all of the reading. Others start big projects a few days before they are due only to discover that the project requires more time than they have left to complete it.
There are many causes for procrastination, of course. An interesting paper in the December, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Antonio Pierro, Mauro Giacomantonio, Gennaro Pica, Arie Kruglanski, and Tory Higgins explored an important motivational factor.
In previous work, Kruglanski and Higgins have identified two distinct motivational modes that they call the locomotion and assessment orientations. The locomotion mode is related to action. When you are in that mode, you are driven to do things in the world. The assessment mode is related to thinking about and evaluating aspects of your life. When you are in that mode, you are focused on whether you are dong the right thing.
For example, a shopper in locomotion mode who is looking at the wall of blenders in a big box store will size up the assortment quickly and will grab one and move on. A shopper in assessment mode will spend a long time comparing the various options before reaching a decision.
In a variety of studies, the authors used questionnaires to assess whether people are typically in a locomotor mode or an assessment mode. Locomotor questions were items like "By the time I accomplish a task, I already have the next one in mind." Assessment questions were items like "I spend a great deal of time taking inventory of my positive and negative characteristics."
The authors assessed procrastination either using questionnaires about how often people think they procrastinate or by using actual tasks in which the researchers examined when people performed a task relative to a deadline. In all six of the reported studies, the more that people reported having a locomotor orientation, the less they procrastinated. The more that people reported having an assessment orientation, the more they procrastinated.
In a few studies, the authors also examined potential reasons for procrastination. They found that the stronger people's locomotor motivation, the less distracted they were by other tasks that might get in the way of completing a goal task. So, the locomotor orientation is really associated with getting things done.
The assessment orientation is related to perfectionism. The stronger people's assessment motivation, the more likely they were to be concerned that they might have made a mistake. That concern could lead people to avoid completing a task.
The studies in this paper were focused on differences between people in whether they generally have a locomotor or an assessment orientation.
It is also possible to create situations that affect these orientations. Time pressure, for example, often shifts people into a locomotor mode, which is why students with a tendency to procrastinate often start projects as a deadline looms.
Highlighting the way that projects will be evaluated can shift people into an assessment mode. That mode can create anxiety. Researchers have used instructions that people's performance will be watched and evaluated by experts as a way of inducing stress.
Future research should explore whether situations that bias people toward a locomotor or assessment mode can influence procrastination.