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Online Exclusive: U of C prof studies art of procrastination

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Tell yourself you are going to study. Check Facebook. Tell yourself you're actually going to study... after a refreshing nap. Eat. Watch Colbert. Check Facebook. Say you're going to study tomorrow. Sleep. Repeat.

For many university students, procrastination is a serious problem resulting in high stress levels when cramming a week's work into one night. University of Calgary business professor Dr. Piers Steel is studying why people procrastinate by conducting a meta-analysis of papers from various disciplines to come up with a single theory to explain the phenomenon.

"We are constructed on a deep motivational topography," said Steel, who believes procrastination is not only a learned behaviour, but is also deeply rooted in genetics.

"Procrastination made sense in an environment of evolutionary adaptation [in a] hunter and gatherer society, where you had to gorge when something salty or fatty came along."

But, nowadays because of surplus, what used to be adaptive is no longer helpful, noted Steel.

People procrastinate because they over-value short-term gains, which leads to other problems such as overeating, smoking, drug addiction and gambling, said Steel.

Steel's analysis--which will be published in the American Psychological Associations' Psychological Bulletin--shows people who procrastinate the most tend to be more impulsive and have lower self confidence.

"U.S. gross national product would probably rise by $50 billion if the sound and icon that notifies people of new e-mails suddenly disappeared," projected Steel, concluding that technology makes procrastination a lot easier.

"College students are in the perfect storm for procrastination," said Steel, whose studies have shown college students have a higher rate of procrastination than any other group. Seventy-five per cent of college students admit they are procrastinators, with procrastination accounting for up to one third of their daily activities.

"The younger you are, the less experience you have knowing yourself, what you need to do to get things done," said Steel, explaining students have fewer self-regulatory skills.

Through his research, Steel created a mathematical formula he calls the "Temporal Motivation Theory" which measures the desirability of a task, or utility mathematically.

Dr. Steel noted his quantitative studies can be used to increase motivation, but can also be used for more experimental methods.

"Once you have a mathematical equation for motivation, you could take a personality test," said Steel. "From that I could take an extraction of who you are. The equation could be an underlying program for an avatar--like in the Sims--you could see what you would do in a certain situation."

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