I’ve been bragging to people for years about how lucky I am not to have an addictive personality. But isn’t denial one of the primary characteristics of an addict? Sure, I’ve never been an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler, but when I take stock of the habitual behaviors I do engage in, I realize I’ve been lying to myself all along. The difference between stereotypical addicts and me is that while they’re hooked on risky activities or toxic substances, I can’t resist not doing anything—I’m a certified, class-A procrastinator. If it can be done today, I’ll do it tomorrow (or never). If I have a far-off deadline to meet, I’ll still end up butting right up against it (or miss it altogether). I’m nothing if not consistent in my tendency to make things as stressful as possible for myself by shirking responsibility until the last possible moment, then cramming four days’ worth of work into six hours and nearly collapsing in the process.
My ultimate opportunity to test my keen time-wasting abilities came when I was self-employed for three years. So many temptations, so little time. Go surfing or edit bank documents? The frigid ocean water would surely make me more alert when I returned to my desk. Waste time looking at celebrity-gossip Web sites or get a head start on that big book project? Duh—Hollywood’s survival depended on me. Go grocery shopping or … you get the point.
My poor decisions resulted in countless late nights and weekends of work. As my nine-to-five friends enjoyed their Saturdays, I’d be MIA, burning the midnight oil and fretting about getting in under the wire with a project I could’ve finished days earlier if only I’d had some self-discipline. Now that I have a full-time job again, I’m relieved to be able to put those days behind me—but my memories of them are vivid enough to constantly remind me to get my work done on time, every time. After all, procrastination may seem like an inescapable, universal affliction, but it doesn’t have to be.
I’m Late! I’m Late! For a Very Important Date!
Writer Hara Estroff Marano interviewed two leading experts on procrastination for a 2003 Psychology Today article: Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Their comments cast chronic procrastinators in a grave light—as ill-adapted self-saboteurs who undermine the severity of their condition. Furthermore, these psychologists believe that chronic procrastinators share a number of behavioral traits that perpetuate their bad habits.
- Procrastinators are masters of self-deception who tell themselves the same lies so frequently that they begin to believe them. Common justifications for procrastination include lines like “I work best under pressure” and “I’m most creative when I’m on a tight deadline.” As Ferrari and Pychyl point out, however, creativity and efficiency can’t be channeled or predicted so readily; rather, these statements are just defense mechanisms.
- Not only do procrastinators avoid tasks regularly, but they also consciously look for easy distractions—especially checking email compulsively—to make their postponement of more important obligations feel worthwhile. These diversions also allow procrastinators to continue denying the underlying emotional issues that make them put things off.
- Procrastination is just one of many characteristics of people who have difficulty with self-regulation; another symptom is that they often drink greater quantities of alcohol than they intend to. Just like the distraction email provides, alcohol represents an easy escape route for procrastinators who are averse to exploring the psychological underpinnings of their condition.
John M. Grohol, PsyD, adds that procrastination is rooted in cognitive distortions (irrational thought processes) that manifest themselves in several different forms: people who overestimate how much time they have left to perform a task and underestimate how much time they’ll take to complete it, people who believe they’ll be more motivated to do certain tasks in the future, and people who believe that they won’t be able to complete a task unless they’re in a very specific mood—which, conveniently, is usually not the mood they’re in at the moment.
Why Do Today What You Can Do Tomorrow?
The causes of procrastination are individualized and difficult to pinpoint; factors such as poor schooling, a lack of household routines, and sheer laziness can all hamper people’s ability to buckle down and accomplish tasks on time and without rushing. However, Ferrari proposes that most procrastinators fall under three general categories: thrill seekers, who get a rush out of dodging responsibility; avoiders, who are so fearful of failure that they would rather be perceived as lacking incentive than as lacking ability; and decisional procrastinators, who resist making decisions because they don’t want to be accountable for the outcome of events they orchestrate.
In addition, while some adults undergoing psychological counseling unfairly blame their parents for every issue they have, procrastination is one inclination that may truly be Mom’s and Dad’s fault. As Ferrari explains, parents who are particularly authoritarian are often so controlling that they prevent their children from developing a healthy ability to self-regulate—and even when those children grow up and leave home, they remain incapable of establishing and adhering to productive timelines.
From Tardy to Timely
The negative ramifications of procrastination extend far beyond the immediate consequences of missed deadlines—whether they’re related to work, bill paying, social obligations, or holiday shopping. Procrastinators can experience insomnia, severe stress, gastrointestinal problems, and even persistent depression as a result of their escapist ways. Their personal and professional relationships also suffer; procrastination breeds tension, resentment, and mistrust among coworkers and friends when one party is continually forced to pick up the other’s slack.
The good news is, even perennial procrastinators who have already burned some bridges can redeem themselves, although doing so is a rigorous, multifaceted process that requires long-term dedication. According to the Counseling Services office at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, the most effective regimen for recovering procrastinators involves:
- Acknowledging self-defeating tendencies, including fear of failure, perfectionism, and difficulty concentrating
- Identifying personal goals and priorities, strengths and weaknesses, and values, and keeping written records of this information
- Setting realistic goals by dividing large, overwhelming assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks
- Modifying your environment by minimizing noise, working at a desk (not in bed), maintaining an organized workspace, and having all the necessary resources and equipment on hand before work commences
Get ’Er Done
Unless you’re a naturally thin countess with no relatives or friends, you’re part of the same rat race as the rest of us—juggling professional duties and personal relationships with exercise and social activities. Given all that we have to balance on a daily basis, procrastination is bound to rear its ugly head in our lives on occasion. For the people who make a lifestyle of it, though, it can become a crippling burden that leaves financial hardship, broken relationships, and emotional duress in its wake. If you’re discovering that poor time management is your MO, rather than an occasional glitch in your routine, don’t underestimate the strain that will befall you as a result. Consult a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and implement the steps above to begin reconditioning yourself—because getting help is one item on your to-do list that you definitely can’t put off until tomorrow.