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Research: The more ‘stuff’ you have, the more likely you are to be a procrastinator

DePaul University psychology professor examines relationship between procrastination and clutter

Joseph Ferrari
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, has spent his career researching procrastination. In recent research, Ferrari and his co-authors connected clutter with procrastination for the first time. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — An overabundance of “stuff” can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health and disrupt their sense of home, says procrastination researcher Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.

According to findings recently published in the journal Current Psychology, Ferrari and co-authors investigated the connection between procrastination and clutter and discovered that chronic procrastination can lead to problems with clutter in the home.

Ferrari, the author of the 2010 popular consumer book “Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done,” has studied procrastination since the late 1980s. His previous research determined that procrastination has many causes and consequences and that it’s different from delay, pausing, waiting, pondering or prioritizing.

In this Q&A, Ferrari discusses the link between clutter and procrastination, explains chronic procrastination, and describes several myths of procrastination.

Q: In a series of recent studies, you led a team of researchers who looked at procrastination and clutter. What did the research uncover?
A: I think it’s important to first define both. Procrastination is a tendency to delay the start or completion of a desired task to the point of experiencing discomfort. It leads to dysfunctional ways of being, and consequently, a reduced quality of life. Procrastination is not the same thing as waiting, postponing or delaying. In general, delaying is not a problem, waiting is not a problem, when we do those things we are often gathering information. To procrastinate is to avoid something strategically and purposefully. Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that create chaotic and disorderly living spaces. It’s not the same thing as hoarding, it’s broader than that. It’s not a psychological disorder like hoarding is, at least not yet.

In our research, the findings suggest that a general propensity to procrastinate when it comes to attending to routine, everyday tasks, such as sorting and disposing of personal inventory items, can lead to problems with clutter. Procrastinators reported excessive clutter and that their overabundance of possessions negatively affected their identity. The more clutter you have, the more likely you are to be a procrastinator. Which makes sense, because you’re unsure of what to get rid of.

Q: What is chronic procrastination and how does someone know if they have it?
A: Chronic procrastination is when someone has procrastination tendencies not only in one setting or one task, but throughout their entire life. It's a maladaptive lifestyle. They do it at home, school or work, and in relationships or responsibilities. They are always delaying, it's very frequent. Procrastinators are tremendously great excuse makers. They always have a reason. They never take the responsibility on themselves. It's why working on time management doesn't provide relief for procrastinators. They will have their ready excuse. It's never their fault.

Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator. If you are a chronic procrastinator — 20 percent of people are and many are seeking help — cognitive behavioral therapy may help you learn how to change the way you think and the way you act.

Q: Does age play a role in procrastination behavior?
A: This is the first time that age was looked at when it comes to clutter and procrastination. In the research, we found no significant difference between age groups when it comes to indecision, clutter and procrastination. While procrastination and indecision are not surprising, the results on clutter were a little surprising. We thought that older individuals might have more clutter due to a higher income and a longer time to acquire items, but it may depend on what people define as clutter. It could be a personal perception. Nevertheless, what we all need to know is how procrastinators collect clutter through the year, which could involve following a group of procrastinating kids well into adulthood.

Q: What’s your advice for people who are concerned about clutter and procrastination in their life?
A: I'm very much interested in the meaning of home. What does home mean to people? In research, I’ve found that the more the clutter, the lower the sense of satisfaction with home. Extending that to procrastinators, people who are more indecisive hold onto their things because they can't decide what to keep. I would suggest for people to focus on relationships, not relics. Life is not about me, it's about we. It's about us together.

Q: What are some common myths around procrastination?
A: Here are three I’ve found through my research:

  • It’s a myth that today’s technology makes it so much easier to procrastinate. There's always been technology — think how the telephone helped ease the need for writing letters, cars helped replace the horse and buggy, and the snooze button helped people delay getting out of bed. All those technologies were developed in the 19th or 20th centuries. Technology today doesn't make it easier to procrastinate, it's all about how you use or don't use it.
  • It’s a myth that our lives are busier today. There are 168 hours in a week, and that hasn't changed since Egyptian times. The question has never been "do you have more to do now than in generations past?" The question is “how do you manage your life among the 168 hours?” That's why you don't manage time, you manage yourself. There's a saying, "You can't control the wind, but you can adjust your sails."
  • It’s a myth that people work best under pressure. I did a study in 2001 where we put procrastinators under time restraints and they did worse than non-procrastinators. They made more errors, took longer, and scored worse. However, they felt like they did better. The vast majority of times, waiting until the last minute doesn't work.

Ferrari’s most recent research findings on procrastination and clutter appear in Current Psychology, Volume 37, Number 2, in three separate studies:

  • “Procrastinators and Clutter: An Ecological View of Living with Excessive ‘Stuff’,” by Ferrari; Catherine A. Roster, University of New Mexico; Kendall P. Crum and Matthew A. Pardo, DePaul University.
  • “Delaying Disposing: Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations,” by Ferrari and Catherine A. Roster, University of New Mexico.
  • “Decisional Procrastination: Assessing Characterological and Contextual Variables around Indecision,” by Ferrari, Kendall P. Crum and Matthew A. Pardo, DePaul University.


Joseph Ferrari

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