By Hara Estroff Marano, published on January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
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
And who among the rest of us hasn't had occasional brushes with
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.
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
• 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.