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Ann Wheeler, Landmark College

Ann Wheeler.jpgProcrastination is a useful word choice to explain why something didn’t get done because it incorporates a variety of reasons, from lack of interest in the task to underestimating the time it would take. While behavioral researchers have noted relationships between procrastination, motivation, anxiety, and self-esteem (Owens & Newbegin,1997), some definitions also include subtle judgmental language, implying character flaws in those who procrastinate. Merriam-Webster (2006) defines procrastination as “to put off intentionally and habitually the doing of something that should be done.” Yes, those who procrastinate seem to make a conscious choice when they delay action, and yes, some procrastination becomes chronic; however, “should be done” subtly scolds the procrastinator, as does Solomon and Rothblum’s (1984) definition, “the act of needlessly delaying tasks.” Beardsworth (1999) also confirms this negative connotation by stating, “the deferral of action is considered negatively…since procrastination implies…refusing to act when action is called for.”

I was intrigued to find that when my advisees reflect on their academic performance, those with academic difficulties use similar judgmental language, often citing “procrastination” or “laziness” as the root issue and the need to “work harder” as the solution. In 2007, I launched a closer investigation into the concept of procrastination by noting specifically the word choices used when advisees assessed timeliness of coursework completion and course grades. Since that time, categories have emerged that I have termed “procrastination language,” suggesting a common language is present among those with chronic coursework completion difficulties. The categories include:

  • blaming oneself or others
  • judgmental comments
  • use of the word “procrastination”
  • excessive agreeability
  • exaggerated confidence
  • excessive use of “I don’t know”
  • excessive planning, not doing
  • tentative comments (“will try to” rather than “will”)
  • positive spin (highlights one positive in a majority of negatives)

I continue to find that those who use procrastination language have less successful learning outcomes when grades are used as the measure of success, and the academic advising setting is ideal to promote student awareness of procrastination behavior and the language that can maintain that behavior.I recommend that advisors first train themselves to note and place advisee comments into the categories above. Then, revisit these initial impressions to go beneath the apparent. For example, blaming oneself is easy to recognize in advisees who apologize for their poor grades or openly rebuke themselves; however, advisees who vow to “work harder” or “study more” sound like they have a plan of action when they could actually be criticizing themselves for being lazy. Finally, training advisees to recognize their individual procrastination language can be a first step to move from academic inaction to action.

What purpose does procrastination language serve? “Procrastination may become a coping mechanism for maintaining self-esteem” (Owens & Newbegin,1997). I propose that procrastination language can shield the self-esteem by lowering expectations, deflecting criticism, and distracting from the inaction. Blaming oneself allows an advisee to preempt the judgmental language of others. Replies of “I don’t know” or “I will try to finish” actually give permission not to continue the task. Disregarding the Academic Support Center because “at my last college it didn’t help me at  all” or being satisfied with a poor exam grade because “we only had three days to learn the material” deflect and distract by blaming others. A more subtle example, “I’m just not into American History…now Ancient History, I could get all A’s,” actually blames the subject! Other ways for an advisee to deflect calls to action by the persistent, questioning advisor are to distract with positive language. Acknowledging the 15-page paper that is overdue by commenting, “I have three pages almost done and I’m doing the rest tonight” is an example of “Positive Spin” or focusing on one positive in a field of negatives, as the comment draws attention to what is completed and away from the possibly unrealistic plan to finish the paper.

Another example, “This is a lot better than my first exam,” attempts to distract the advisor that neither exam is passing. Being excessively agreeable to the advisor’s recommendations or an advisee commenting extensively on what needs to be done could distract from the advisee’s lack of confidence to carry out the planning and recommendations.

Procrastination language can be subtle, often masquerading as a plan of action, and if unrecognized, can provide the struggling advisee with a rationale for inaction, sometimes to the point of academic paralysis. While procrastination language might help an advisee cope with the stresses of post-secondary education, instead its chronic use can preserve procrastination behavior as the shield becomes too durable and the deflection and distraction too subtle to recognize. The academic advisor can harness this language to find a positive pathway to successful academic outcomes and the academic advising setting is ideal to promote awareness of the challenges of procrastination behavior and the language that can maintain it.

Ann Wheeler
Academic Advisor
Landmark College


Beardsworth, R. (1999). Practices of procrastination. Parallax, 5(1), 10. doi:10.1080/135346499249795

Mish, F. (Ed.) (2006). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (11th ed.) Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. 

Owens, A. M., & Newbegin, I.  (1997). Procrastination in high school achievement: A causal structural model. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality12(4), 869-872.

Solomon, L., & Rothblum, E.  (1984). Academic  procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31, 503.

Cite this article using APA style as: Wheeler, A. (2012, June). From inaction to action: Recognizing the language of procrastination. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2012 June 35:2


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