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Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON. Department of Psychology email link to Tim_Pychyl@carleton.ca link to Carleton University Home Page
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A Brief History of Procrastination

The word procrastination has a long history much of which has not been written. The earliest reference that we could find regarding procrastination is depicted here.

Copy of
microfilm from library) This 17th Century sermon copied from the microfilms held at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada) reflects the connection of task avoidance or delay, volition or will, and sin. To procrastinate is to sin.

It is interesting to note how Reverend Walker prefaced his sermon. He wrote,

I enquired of the most Learned, Grave, Conscientious and Experienced Ministers for direction; and one query I propounded was, what subjects, or what texts they had found most useful and most successful to awaken, convince and convert their hearers. To which a very holy, learned, aged and experienced minister replyed by naming a text against procrastination; adding he never found his ministry so successful upon any, as upon that subject, upon which very text I have preached many sermons since.

What we learn from this short excerpt of the sermon’s preface is that the topic of procrastination was not Walker’s alone, and that a prevalent connotation of procrastination was certainly evil and sin.

At the risk of taking a very light-fingered approach to history here, it is important to note that this connection between task avoidance or delay and sin has not always been represented in language and culture. For example, ancient Egyptians had two verbs that have been translated as meaning procrastinate. As Ferrari and his colleagues note (Ferrari et al., 1995), "one [meaning of procrastination] denoted the useful habit of avoiding unnecessary work and impulsive effort, while the other denoted the harmful habits of laziness in completing a task necessary for subsistence, such as tilling the fields at the appropriate time of year in the Nile flood cycle" (p. 4).

The english verb itself is based on the Latin verb procrastinare, combining the common adverb “pro” implying forward motion with “crastinus”, meaning belonging to tomorrow. Again, Ferrari and his colleagues note (Ferrari et al., 1995), "the combined word is used numerous times in Latin texts . . . Roman use of this term seemed to reflect the notion that deferred judgment may be necessary and wise, such as when it is best to wait the enemy out and demonstrate patience in military conflict" (p. 4).

As Ferrari et al. (1995) conclude, perhaps to the ancients, procrastination involved sophisticated decisions regarding when not to act, an opposite tendency from impulsiveness and acting without adequate forethought.

More modern definitions of procrastination include a number of components or dimensions. For example, Milgram (1991) has proposed that procrastination is primarily: 1) a behavior sequence of postponement; 2) resulting in a substandard behavioral product; 3) involving a task that is perceived by the procrastinator as being important to perform; and 4) resulting in a state of emotiona l upset.

A range of definitions certainly coexist, as do multiple measures of the construct. For more information on the definition of the term, see Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research and Treatment by Ferrari, Johnson & McCown (1995). Chapter two ( Procrastination Research: A Synopsis of Existing Research Perspectives) and chapter three (Assessment of Academic and Everyday Procrastination: The Use of Self-Report Measures) provide a thorough overview of the existing literature in this area.

For an interesting perspective on procrastination in the everyday lives of students, see Rachelle Thibodeau’s thesis listed on the Information about the Procrastination Research Group page.


References

Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., & McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance. New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press.

Milgram, N. (1991). Procrastination. In R. Dulbecco (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human biology (Vol. 6, pp. 149-155). New York: Academic Press.

For a complete list of references to the literature in this area see

Research Of Interest - Bibliography


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PRG Copyright 2001, Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, Carleton University
Updated April 27, 2001 8:55 AM
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