By Maia Szalavitz, published on August 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
At the age of 37, Jared, a would-be professor in New York state, should be on tenure track at a university, perhaps publishing his second or third book. Instead, he's working on a dissertation in sociology that he'd planned to complete a decade ago. He's blown two "drop-dead" deadlines and is worried about missing a third. His girlfriend is losing patience. No one can understand why a guy they consider brilliant doesn't "just do it." Nor, for that matter, can Jared: "If I could change it, believe me, I would," he swears.
Jared is among the one in five people who chronically procrastinate, jeopardizing careers and jettisoning peace of mind, all the while repeating the mantra: "I should be doing something else right now."
Procrastination is not just an issue of time management or laziness. It's about feeling paralyzed and guilty as you channel surf, knowing you should be cracking the books or reconfiguring your investment strategy. Why the gap between incentive and action? Psychologists now believe it is a combination of anxiety and false beliefs about productivity.
Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tracked students with procrastination problems in the final week before a project was due. Students first reported anxiety and guilt because they had not started their projects. "They were telling themselves 'I work better under pressure' or 'this isn't important,'" says Pychyl. But once they began to work, they reported more positive emotions; they no longer lamented wasted time, nor claimed that pressure helped. The results of this study will be presented at the Third International Conference on Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings in August. Psychologists have focused on procrastination among students because the problem is rampant in academic settings; some 70 percent of college students report problems with overdue papers and delayed studying, according to Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at Chicago's DePaul University.
So why can't people just buckle down and get the job done?
Many procrastinators are convinced that they work better under pressure, or they'll feel better about tackling the work later. But tomorrow never comes and last-minute work is often low quality. In spite of what they may believe, "Procrastinators generally don't do well under pressure," says Ferrari. The idea that time pressure improves performance is perhaps the most common myth among procrastinators.
"The main reason people procrastinate is fear," says Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of The Now Habit. Procrastinators fear they'll fall short because they don't have the requisite talent or skills. "They get overwhelmed and they're afraid they'll look stupid." According to Ferrari, "Procrastinators would rather be seen as lacking in effort than lacking in ability." If you flunk a calculus exam, better to loudly blame it on the half-hour study blitz, than admit to yourself that you could have used a tutor the entire semester.
Procrastinators tend to be perfectionists—and they're in overdrive because they're insecure. People who do their best because they want to win don't procrastinate; but those who feel they must be perfect to please others often put things off. These people fret that "No one will love me if everything I do isn't utter genius." Such perfectionism is at the heart of many an unfinished novel.
Impulsivity may seem diametrically opposed to procrastination, but both can be part of a larger problem: self-control. People who are impulsive may not be able to prioritize intentions, says Pychyl. So, while writing a term paper you break for a snack and see a spill in the refrigerator, which leads to cleaning the entire kitchen.
Children of authoritarian parents are prone to procrastinate. Pychyl speculates that children with such parents postpone choices because their decisions are so frequently criticized—or made for them. Alternatively, the child may procrastinate as a form of rebellion. Refusing to study can be an angry—if self-defeating—message to Mom and Dad.
Some procrastinators enjoy the adrenaline "rush." These people find perverse satisfaction when they finish their taxes minutes before midnight on April 15 and dash to the post office just before it closes.
Procrastination can be associated with specific situations. "Humans avoid the difficult and boring," says Fiore. Even the least procrastination-prone individuals put off taxes and visits to the dentist.
Ambiguous directions and vague priorities increase procrastination. The boss who asserts that everything is high priority and due yesterday is more likely to be kept waiting. Supervisors who insist on "prioritizing the Jones project and using the Smith plan as a model" see greater productivity.
The blues can lead to or exacerbate procrastination—and vice versa. Several symptoms of depression feed procrastination. Decision-making is another problem. Because depressed people can't feel much pleasure, all options seem equally bleak, which makes getting started difficult and pointless.