Procrastination and Task Avoidance Theory, Research, and Treatment

Joseph R. Ferrari, Judith L. Johnson, and William G. McCown

Springer Series in Social and Clinical Psychology, 1995

Procrastination and Task Avoidance is another one of Dr. William McCown’s premier works, covering an intriguing area of psychology, procrastination. For those who want to better understand the complexity in this common, yet often debilitating behavior, the authors bring together theory, research and application.

They explain the interwoven elements of anxiety, depression, passive-aggressiveness, perfectionism, agitation, conscientiousness, and other related characteristics, regarding this behavior that affects life satisfaction in 25 percent of all adults.

Professor and psychologist, Dr. William McCown, currently Director of the Graduate School at Louisiana University at Monroe, told the Times, “Although this book is 15 years old, sales continue to be strong … This attests to the fact that clinicians often encounter people with problems related to procrastination and are frequently stymied.”

Up until Procrastination little scientific attention was given to his characteristic, which is often at the root of problems in human productivity and happiness. The authors speculate that the trait may have been considered too minor or too “flippant a topic to be granted much scientific credence.” However, they say it is both a contributor and an outcome of psychiatric conditions, negatively impacting productivity in work, school, families, and relationships.

“I became interested in this topic for my master’s thesis research,” Dr. McCown said, “because I was trying to make sense of the behavior of some clients that I had seen in treatment. At the time I found that there was almost no literature on the topic.”

“Several years later,” he said, “I wrote the book with Joe Ferrari, a colleague from Illinois that I had previously published with, and my former spouse [Dr. Judith Johnson], who previously was at the New Orleans VA Medical Center. Our intent was to write a book that was both practical and scholarly. We include extensive case histories to illustrate the multiple etiologies of chronic procrastination, which really is a serious problem for many people. It is causally linked to health problems, poor school performance, and general life dissatisfaction.”

Procrastination is laid out logically and with the thoroughness and vision that characterizes McCown’s other books. Many of the chapters could stand alone, combining theory, research and application and walking the reader through what is known about the topic. This is psychology at its most interesting,

where authors clarify and define the topic, so that the reader sees how the behavior might have developed, how it is best measured, how it is nested in personality and clinical syndromes, and how it might be modified.

“I believe that procrastination may have multiple etiologies,” said Dr. McCown, noting why the book was needed and some of the confusion that still exists. “There is the trend today to say that it is simply a facet of low conscientiousness. This is not true,” he explained. “Sometimes very perfectionistic people are procrastinators, in part because they fear that they will not live up to their own high standards. Depression and anxiety may also be causal factors, both of which are not related to conscientiousness.”

Procrastination and Task Avoidance provides this clarity in a concise eleven chapters, beginning with, “An Overview of Procrastination.” Authors review definitions, prevalence, and clinical significance. In one of the few studies on prevalence in a nonstudent population, McCown and Johnson found that over 25 percent reported that procrastination was a significant problem. Using his

Adult Inventory of Procrastination McCown found scores for men reach a peak in the mid to late 20s, then decline until about age 60, when scores begin to go up. For female scores decline from a high in the early 20s, and are lower than males. But then at age 60, females’ procrastination scores rise and are higher than for men. McCown also examined over 1500 college students and found that 19 percent of freshmen, 22 percent of sophomores, 27 percent of juniors and 31 percent of seniors indicated that procrastination was a significant source of personal stress.

In Chapter 2, “ Procrastination Research,” authors examine childhood personality development, the behavioral perspective of reinforcement, escape, and avoidance conditioning, the role of state anxiety, and of specious rewards. They review cognitive and cognitive-behavioral theories with irrational beliefs, self-statements, locus of control, learned help- lessness, and irrational perfectionism. Sections on depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety are included, along with how procrastination relates to achievement motivation, intelligence and ability, impulsivity and extraversion. Authors also note the neuropsychological and biological variables.

In Chapter 3, “The Use of Self- Report Measures,” assessment methods are described, including McCown’s and Johnson’s Adult Inventory of Procrastination (AIP), the Mann’s Decisional Procrasti- nation Scale, General Procrasti- nation Scale, and Procrastination Assessment Scale-Students.

Authors provide a model in Chapter 4, “Academic Procrastination,” including how fear of failure and achievement-related fear often

result in avoidance. They clarify the fear of failure, procrastination, avoidance, big five characteristics, and self- worth, then flow into specific treatment of academic procrastination.

Chapter 5 is “Trait Procrastination, Agitation, Dejection, and Self- Discrepancy,” and the author defines how discrepancies between “ideal self” and actual evoke emotions of disappointment or shame, and how discrepancies between the “ought self” which represents duties and responsibilities evoke fear and uneasiness.

In “Dimensions of Perfectionism and Procrastination,” Chapter 6, authors explain the distinct dimensions of “other-oriented perfectionism,” (the individual sets unrealistic standards for others), “self-oriented perfectionism” (the standards apply only to oneself), and “socially-prescribed perfection- ism” (concerns meeting expectations of others). Within this multidimensional perspective authors delve into correlational research and suggest a fascinating set of issues, including how socially- prescribed perfectionism correlates with fear of failure.

In Chapter 7, “Procrastination, Negative Self-Evaluation, and Stress in Depression and Anxiety,” authors pull together a variety of constructs and research to show how procrastination results from interactions between early learning, anxiety, depression and negative self-concept. A review of the impact of life stresses is included, and the development of “self- uncertainty,” pessimism, and

optimism. Included is a model for overall adjustment.

In Chapter 8, “The Role of Personality Disorders and Characterological Tendencies in Procrastination,” authors explain the relationship between procrastination and personality disorders.

Specific guidance for treatment is offered in Chapters 9, “Treatment of Academic Procrastination in College Students,” and 10, “Treating Adult and Atypical Procrastination.” Authors include the common cognitive misconceptions of individuals who procrastinate, such as overestimation of time left to perform a task, underestimation of time needed, and overestimation of future motivation. Authors also describe a 10-session group approach with detailed instructions and point out the need for a careful and full assessment because of many issues that can be overlooked, such as stress or the “addiction” to procrastination.

“During the past 20 years I’ve treated or treated or supervised treatment of over 300 people who had procrastination problems,” Dr. McCown told the Times. “They can and do get better, but often it takes multiple treatment interventions to find what works.”

“One consistent finding,” he said, “is that about a third to half of the variance in the construct can be accounted for by ADHD symptoms. Whether there are deeper similarities is yet to be researched. It would be exciting if the behavioral and other interventions effective for adult ADHD also worked for procrastination.”

“I have seen cases where procrastination had a psychodynamic or family etiology,

though the prevailing wisdom among many clinicians is that it is best characterized and treated by cognitive behavioral methods.”

“I want to emphasize that procrastination tends to be chronic. Like depression, it seems to be stress-related. If a person is successfully treated, they will most usually require follow up sessions to keep from relapsing in the future.”

The final Chapter, “Epilogue as Prologue,” completes the text with a perspective on the need for additional research to propel this important area forward. Dr. McCown explained, “Since the time I wrote it the literature regarding procrastination has increased 300 fold. There is even a meta-analysis available in the literature. Unfortunately, what are lacking are quality studies to determine what type of treatment works best for which type of procrastinators.”

Procrastination and Task Avoidance is an informative, interesting, and worthwhile text for clinicians and research psychologists who deal with the human condition. The content is still quite useful, even though Dr. McCown may be planning to update. “I hope we can put out a second edition soon,” he noted. That would be a treat.

Dr. William G. McCown, clinical psychologist, professor, and international consultant, is the coauthor/editor of eight books. He has held various positions in the U. of Louisiana at Monroe, including Director of Training and interim Associate Provost. Presently he is interim Director of the Graduate School.

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