Do You Let Things Slide?

In a season when all of us are filled with lists of what we aim to do in the next few weeks and months, it may be instructive to look at the underside of resolve.

After all, 20% of us identify ourselves as chronic procrastinators. That's when putting things off is a whole lifestyle unto itself. Bills go unpaid. Tax returns go unfiled. Life gets deferred. Excuses become an art form.

And who among the rest of us hasn't had occasional brushes with procrastination?

Procrastinators are made, not born, says Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Chicago's De Paul University. Studies show the trait comes from the kinds of intereactions we have with our parents when young.

Procrastinators come from households with an authoritarian father, men who are cold and stern. Their children turn to putting off tasks as a form of rebellion. It's a coping strategy at home that doesn't help them in the outside world.

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But it becomes part of them. And over time they rationalize it in different ways. There are three types of procrastinators.

• There are the thrill-seekers, who find they get a rush of euphoria by waiting to do things at the last minute. The resasons they offer for their behavior tend to relate to external causes: "I was busy at work." It sounds plausible and no one can verify it.

• Avoiders fear failure or success. They are very concerned about what others think of them. They'd rather have the world think they lack effort than that they lack ability. The reasons they give for their behavior have to do with matters internal: "I don't like shopping."

• Decisional procrastinators can't make up their mind and let other make decisions for them.

Procrastination is never a useful coping strategy. It's why people don't get promotions. It's why they exasperate other around them; it shifts the burden of getting things done onto others. And it's why procrastinators turn to alcohol more than the rest of us.

The U.S. has more procrastinators than other English-speaking countries, according to Ferrari. But all of them sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own paths. They choose things that can hurt their performance. They look for distractions, especially ones that don't require a lot of effort.

Procrastination is not a matter of time management, Dr. Ferrari insists. For the 20% of Americans who are procrastinators, it is a pervasive matter that extends into every domain of life. Procrastinators need to change the way they think and they way they behave.

And they need the rest of us to hold their toes to the fire. Part of the problem is, we let them get away with it.

"We believe their excuses," says Dr. Ferrari. "We give them the benefit of the doubt. We are so concerned to be polite that we don't make people observe deadlines." Even worse, we don't view it as the serious problem it really is.

If you're a procrastinator, the best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who won't let you get away with things. Then model your behavior on them.

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