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Field Guide to the Flake

Spontaneity is all you can count on from these careless types. Here's how to shape them up.

Earth to flake! Come in, flake! That space cadet, sweet though she may be, is always losing her wallet, showing up late, canceling plans, forgetting Mom's birthday, generally shirking her duties, and driving those in her orbit crazy. Is she selfish, or just a free spirit who needs a little leeway?

According to Brent Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Champaign, scatterbrains are also lacking in conscientiousness—a fundamental personality trait that is equal parts industriousness, impulse control, organization, interpersonal responsibility, and conventionality.

Highly conscientiousness people, by way of contrast, do very well for themselves. They get better grades, are seen as more honest, do better in their jobs, and are less likely to get divorced than the average person. They even tend to live longer, since they ward off the most preventable causes of death by not smoking, drinking, engaging in risky sexual behavior, or eating bad food as often as the rest of us. (Women tend to be more conscientious than men.)

When you're in the mood for fun, however, the space cadet is simply more enjoyable to be around, since he's prone to spontaneity. But contrary to myth, he is no more creative than average. Roberts points to classic research showing that successful creative people are not just unconventional, but also focused and hard-working.

Most flakes improve with time. "The way our society is structured is a path toward responsibility. Bad things happen to you if you don't increase your conscientiousness level," says Roberts. Specifically, impulse control starts to rise in the 20s and continues to increase through middle age. (The only exceptions in Roberts' data set were women who regularly smoked marijuana.) Roberts theorizes that the general upsurge in conscientiousness is caused by increased social investment in one's own family and in a community. "These investments call for people to be more responsible, and they respond to it." The longer one is married, for example, the more conscientious he or she becomes.

Flakes should not attempt to shape up by throwing themselves into extremely demanding environments. It takes a lot of self-regulation to fit in to a buttoned-up office. In this taxing state, a flake may lash out at superiors or self-sabotage in other ways. Roberts recommends challenging oneself within a more comfortable niche instead. "Take academia. I don't have someone looking over my shoulder. It allows me to be flaky," says Roberts, a slow e-mail responder who thinks the trait must have as-yet-undiscovered benefits. "This resonates with me and a lot of other psychologists, but it's hard to show it empirically. I'm just afraid that life would be boring if everyone were highly conscientious."

A Put-It-Off Personality

The root of flakiness is a penchant for procrastination.

We all drag our feet from time to time. But about 20 percent of people qualify as chronic procrastinators, says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. It's safe to count scatterbrains among them. "You can call them free spirits if you like, but these people are really irresponsible!" says Ferrari. "They think that if they don't do it, someone else will. Procrastinators would always rather be known for a lack of effort than a lack of ability." Furthermore, our culture doesn't punish irresponsible behavior strictly enough, he believes. "We need to go back to the early bird gets the worm, instead of everyone gets the worm."

On a more individual level, Timothy Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, says those who never endured a youthful identity crisis—and as a result never fully committed to what they want in life—are likely to be chronic procrastinators. If you are not sure who you are, after all, it's difficult to prioritize what you want to do.

Chronic procrastinators tend to be highly impulsive, Pychyl says. They are also more fantasy-prone. Their daydreams may be of irrational scenarios; they imagine obligations will disappear, or that they will be in more of a mood for them later—just like the flighty Scarlett O'Hara, whose favorite line was, "I'll think about that tomorrow."

The Flake In The House

How to live with the one you can't depend on.

Once you've ruled out Attention Deficit Disorder (some experts claim that only one in 10 adults with ADD is receiving treatment) or deeper relationship troubles (flakiness could be a passive-aggressive tactic best examined by a couples therapist), consider how to cope with a partner's chronic carelessness:

  • Pick Your Battles. Each of us is a package deal. Your girlfriend's flakiness is likely a complement to what attracted you in the first place—her laid-back attitude and delightful unpredictability, says therapist Michelle Weiner-Davis, founder of Ask yourself whether you are demanding perfection.
  • Get Specific. If you must confront your beloved blunderer, make a clear request and not a general complaint such as "Get it together!" Instead, say something like, "It would be great if you could do the laundry on Tuesdays."
  • Don't Compensate. Relationships are like seesaws, says Weiner-Davis. Flakes tend to marry organized types, and even people who are not so different to begin with tend to polarize over time. If you always pick up the dirty towels, the task is your sole provenance. But if you resign from your role, the towels may pile up, and your partner may start pulling his weight.
  • Clap for Conscientiousness. The best way to modify someone's behavior is to catch her in the act of getting it right and give her a lot of positive reinforcement. "And it builds up good will," says Weiner-Davis, "which is a great backdrop for change."

De-Flake Yourself

How to get it together, according to Michael Edelstein, clinical psychologist and author of Three-Minute Therapy.

  • Get to the Real Problem First

    Identify the false beliefs that swirl through the procrastinator's emotional undercurrents. If you are forever tardy, you may believe, "I must finish this task before I leave," or, "I shouldn't have to push myself to be on time."

  • Snap out of the Present

    Think about how you will feel tomorrow if you skip out on an obligation today. Putting yourself at a distance from your current perspective can tune you in to future regrets and get you moving now.

  • Be Responsible for Three Minutes

    Tell yourself you will work on a task for three minutes. When the time is up, you can evaluate if you want to continue or not—but momentum will likely kick in and you will finish up.

  • Set up a Penalty System

    Making life harder for yourself in the long run doesn't mean you'll gladly suffer discomfort, Edelstein says. Try paying a dollar to a cause you oppose for every minute you are late.