Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Debt-Ceiling Procrastination?

All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination

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I just finished a NPR Marketplace Morning Report interview about the apparent procrastination around approving a required rise in the debt ceiling. The thing is, this isn't procrastination.

As I'm fond of saying, "All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination." The delay in Congress at the moment is a good example of this.

Despite President Obama's comments that his girls get their homework done ahead of time, the delay in Congress is of a different sort. I agree with President Obama who said "If you know you've got to do something, just do it." This makes sense. However, this is based on another of President Obama's assumptions that "we know what the decisions are." It's not so obvious to everyone, particularly the Republicans, that we know what the decisions are.

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For example, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Republican leadership have advocated for a two-step process that would see some debt relief now and more during the election year of 2012 contingent on the approval of additional spending cuts. This isn't an issue of procrastination. This is strategic delay to negotiate a political compromise.

Of course, with the stakes so high, most Americans (if not everyone who will be affected worldwide) are tired of the partisan bickering. But, this is politics, isn't it? The delay evokes lots of negative emotions, drawing attention to the issue at hand and providing opportunities to make clear political statements about blame and the future.

The Republican strategic delay is matched by President Obama's strategic use of the term procrastination. Procrastination is that form of delay with deep negative connotations. Procrastination reflects a weakness of will, and this is one of many things that Democrats are accusing Republicans of in this rancorous debate.

In addition to the distinction between procrastination and strategic delay, it's also fair to note that the "drop-dead" deadline is August 2nd. To the extent that the Republican's intention is not to decide until later, perhaps August 1st, then again this is not procrastination. Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended act despite the potential to be worse off as a consequence of this needless delay. In this case, the Republicans may well be intending to act to meet the deadline, avoiding the consequences, but only after they have made their point, or points as the case may be.

As much as we may not like it, delay is a strategy which is often used by those not in power. Delay of this sort can be a passive-aggressive strategy to gain some sense of control and perhaps to extort a desired compromise. What it is certainly not is the self-regulatory failure we know as procrastination. This delay is deliberate, intentional and strategic. Knowing this is important, I think, as we can then "call a spade a spade" and perhaps show some intolerance for this sort of manipulation at the expense of the citizens whose economic fate rests in the balance. Then again, that's a political statement in and of itself; and isn't that the whole issue here?

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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