Getting Out From Under

Don't wait for your workload to overwhelm you. Waiting until the last minute can do you in.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published March 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Say the word procrastination and heads snap to attention. Procrastination is the one personal flaw that every student and adult in our time-pressured culture openly admits to. Misery has oodles of company.

But as with online seduction and garbage disposal, not all is always what it seems. Sometimes what we perceive as needless delay is really task overload or midstream deployment to higher-priority goals. Only about 20 percent of us can lay valid-if-self-punishing claim to the title of procrastinator.

Those are the people who turn delay into a lifestyle, such an invasive, deeply ingrained habit that it undermines achievement and feels ineradicable. Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, finds that procrastinators put off everything, at home, at work and in their social life, bringing on a great deal of anxiety and depression. The rest of us merely delay some tasks sometimes.

There's considerable misunderstanding about procrastination. For one thing, it's not laziness. Settling into the fertile psychological ground between our intentions and our actions, procrastination is an active mental process of diverting yourself from doing high-priority things in the delusion that tomorrow will be better—because you'll know more, you'll have more time or the sun will shine differently. "It's a misguided sense of activity," says William J. Knaus, a clinical psychologist and professor at International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Perfectionism Is a Player

Peter K. is a longtime partner in a Minneapolis law firm whose delays in filing performance reviews of the associates and in preparing for court resulted, not for the first time, in 90 days notice to "clean up his act." Not wanting to disappoint people, and wanting to be well thought of, Peter typically would commit himself to many projects—and then get overwhelmed with too much to do.

For Peter as for many others, procrastination was an almost natural outgrowth of perfectionism; procrastinators would rather that others say they lacked effort than that they lacked ability. The desire to preserve a sense of self-worth that hinges on the expectations of others can lead to such contortions of delay that the stress and guilt of perpetual postponement are themselves incapacitating.

Forced by a therapist to map out the sequence of steps he took to avoid a particular assignment, Peter found he consumed five hours in diversionary activities to avoid a five-minute task. "I can't believe I took that many hours to avoid a few minutes' effort," he said.

Procrastination has been around since the beginning of time, although it took a great leap forward with the industrial revolution. What distinguishes procrastination in the 21st century is the sheer variety and accessibility of distractions and diversions: Think X-box and Internet. The greatest boon to procrastination is the online chat room, Knaus observes.

Your Real Problem

Procrastination begins with a decision to delay a pressing activity and is accompanied by a promissory note to do it in the future. At bottom is always the same problem—a low tolerance for frustration. You perceive negativity or unpleasantness in some aspect of the task and you dodge the discomfort through diversion.

But frustration is a fact of life. At some point, a procrastinator needs to learn frustration-tolerance skills and acknowledge the unpleasantness. It's also helpful to put the brakes on self-talk that exaggerates the negativity of a task. If you put off doing something because, you tell yourself, it's "too tough," stop the conversation. Then identify even a small part of the activity that's manageable and start there.

Agony vs. Action

Some people are just not built for action, says Timothy A. Pychyl, professor of psychology at Ottawa's Carleton University, where he runs the Procrastination Research Group. His studies of purposive behavior suggest that there are two basic ways of functioning in the world. There are the action-oriented people, who move easily from task to task, and there are the state-oriented souls, who have a lot of inertia—and are most likely to procrastinate. State-oriented people rate tasks more negatively; they experience greater uncertainty, boredom, frustration and guilt than do their action-oriented peers.

What helps them, Pychyl finds, is to prime the pump of shifting from one action to the next. "Make a deal with yourself," he urges. And follow the 10-minute rule. Acknowledge, "I don't feel like doing that," but do it for 10 minutes anyway. That gets you over the hard work of initiation. After being involved in the activity for 10 minutes, then decide whether to continue. Once you're involved, it's easier to stay with a task. Succeeding at a task does not require that you like doing it.

Pychyl also urges that you enact "implementation intentions." It's easy to procrastinate when goals are large and the path to them is long and fuzzy. So lay out a specific plan of when and where to enact behavior: In situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve goal Z. Limit competing goals.

The Toll on Others

Procrastinators tend to be so wrapped up in their own mental gymnastics that they are unaware of a significant fact: Their behavior has a huge impact on others. Ferrari finds that procrastinators infuriate coworkers. And a procrastinator with a boss who is also a procrastinator can't count on sympathy; in fact, the situation leads to especially harsh performance evaluations. Although procrastination may begin in childhood as rebellion against a demanding parent, it may help some procrastinators to recognize that their delaying actions have huge social consequences.

Procrastination is not a problem of time management; time-management skills won't cure it. But procrastinators do underestimate how long it takes to complete tasks. So cut yourself some slack and build in to your schedule 20 extra minutes between tasks. You'll get more done; you'll like yourself better—and so will everyone around you.