The Perils of Procrastination

When I posted on Facebook looking for procrastinators to interview for this article, two women I’ve worked with responded immediately. They both joked about how, why, at that very moment, they just so happened to be procrastinating on Facebook instead of knocking out assignments. In fact, they couldn’t think of a better way to put off their work than chatting with me about precisely how they put off their work! One boasted of her advanced slacker skills: She was on Facebook, playing Words with Friends on her phone, and finishing a box of Wheat Thins instead of wrapping up the budget that was due at the end of the day. “I hit the procrastination trifecta!” she said.

Thing is, I know both women as highly productive, jump-right-in types who may hustle to meet their deadlines, but usually because they take on too much, not because they dawdle. Most of us have too much to do these days. I, for one, would have to work (and housekeep and parent) like a machine to get it all done. When I rebel against myself and blob out in front of a Law & Order marathon with a heap of receipts for an overdue expense report left untallied, I call myself a procrastinator.

But that’s not standard operating procedure for me—or even for most of us. The word procrastination, I’ve learned in researching this story, is overused—or rather, used imprecisely. Foot-dragging, leaving unpleasant tasks until the last minute, avoiding work you find tedious or difficult and getting sucked into cat videos on YouTube when you’ve got a to-do list as long as the grass on your lawn (which you’ve been putting off because organizing your email is so much more rewarding) doesn’t necessarily make you a procrastinator. Procrastinators certainly do all those things, but most people who do them are not members of the fraternity.

The Real Deal

"True, honest-to-goodness procrastinators are people—around 20 percent of adults—who daily face a vast chasm between what they fully intend to do and doing it, in all facets of their lives: at work, in relationships, even activities they love," says Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of The Procrastinator’s Digest. Chronic procrastinators are often deeply troubled by the problem, even as they pretend they’ve got it all under control, telling worried team members to relax, that mañana it’ll surely be done. You can recognize folks who work with procrastinators by the smoke coming out of their ears.

But while most of us who dawdle don’t have a problem, the 20 percent who do is “higher than depression and substance abuse,” points out Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. Within this 20 percent (roughly equal numbers of men and women) are people who find it harder than others to function. Ferrari calls severe procrastination “a pathology. People need to do something about it.”

If you are one of the 20 percent, or work with or manage someone in this group, you no doubt agree. Sara Collins*, 36, a journalist for a trade magazine, is a lifelong procrastinator, the kid who did her homework projects at midnight the day before they were due. Her pattern, she says, is to spend way too long formulating an “exact attack plan” before actually starting her story superclose to the deadline, and then being “overly optimistic” about how quickly she can put words on the page.

“I try to play these tricks with myself—if I think it’ll take X amount of time, I leave myself twice as much,” she says. Of course, the catch is that Collins is aware she’s padding her schedule. “It’s like when you set your alarm a little ahead, when it goes off, you think, ‘I still have five extra minutes.’ ” Collins says she performs well and has never failed to complete an assignment that had a stated deadline, but she’s constantly finagling an extra day or two. “I feel guilty. I don’t want to put my editor through stress like that.”

Collins has thought long and hard about why she procrastinates but has no answer. “I even bought two different magazines, over a year ago, because they featured stories about overcoming procrastination. They’re sitting in a drawer in my nightstand, at the ready for whenever I actually get around to them. It sounds like the punch line to a joke, but it’s entirely accurate.” She dismisses fear of success and perfectionism, common theories for the phenomenon. “People have speculated that I like the adrenaline rush of leaving things to the last minute, but I don’t. I don’t find it exciting at all. I find it aggravating and stressful to be up at five in the morning finishing my work.”

Her managers have begun checking in with her about how she’s coming along with projects, which helps a little, Collins says. Her best weapon, she says, is ratcheting up her own stress level, which forces her to act: “I think of the deadline as an airplane taking off, and it’s the last one out of the communist country before the curtain comes down. There’s no time for relaxing.”

Collins could be considered a functional procrastinator: She gets her work done, albeit at an emotional cost to herself and her managers. But for some, the habit can be ruinous. Pychyl runs a website about procrastination (http-server.carleton.ca/~tpychyl/). “I get emails from people all over the world who tell me how they suffer because of their procrastination,” he says. “Sure, lots of people pull [their work] off at the last minute, but some don’t. They lose their jobs, relationships, self-respect. It can be terribly debilitating.”

Business Breakdown

And not just to the individual: A procrastinator on your team can affect your business in multiple ways. While it’s hard to measure productivity in the kinds of white-collar corporate jobs in which procrastinators are more prevalent, studies on procrastination and performance have shown that the more a person procrastinates, the worse job he or she does, Pychyl says.

And while many who procrastinate believe it’s a personal problem, “there are secondhand effects of procrastination,” Pychyl says. “You’re bringing down team members, creating stress for them, and poisoning the work atmosphere.” If you’re a manager who procrastinates, you may see greater turnover.

Gary Jones*, 48, is a field service manager for a biotech company in Cincinnati, and is a soup-to-nuts procrastinator, putting off tasks he enjoys doing and, even more frequently, the chores he dreads. “It definitely affects my work life,” Jones says. “I think I could be better in my boss’s eyes had I not procrastinated to the degree that I have, and I’d have better relationships with my direct reports.” The bane of Jones’ existence is performance reviews, so he puts them off until the last minute, ultimately rushing and not spending enough time on them—despite being aware he’s letting his crew down and possibly affecting his whole division by skimping on feedback that would help them do a better job.

Like many procrastinators, Jones isn’t lazy, but he is stuck. He tries to push through the problem by setting many deadline alerts for himself on his BlackBerry, using a handwritten planner to plot out mini due dates for projects so they feel more manageable, and talking to his church pastor about what he’s up to so there’s some accountability. “Knowing someone is wondering about it makes you try to do better, but you really have to find that part of you that says, ‘I’m gonna get this done.’ ”

Locating that internal motivator is the biggest hurdle for chronic procrastinators.

Some psychologists say a similar urge drives substance abuse and gambling addiction—all three negative behaviors are attempts to repair your mood in the short term, even though the long-term consequences for you and those you work with are dreadful. Postponing a task that makes you anxious relieves stress in the moment, and the fact that doing so creates compounded problems later simply isn’t as compelling as feeling better now.

And in a world where lots of things seem urgent (a work deadline, an email waiting for an answer) but are not truly necessary to survival, it becomes even easier to postpone seemingly soft cutoffs. “We have these Stone Age brains running around in a modern world,” Pychyl says. A bird in the hand (immediate gratification) used to be worth more than two in the bush (future gratification), he says. Not anymore.

Today, for example, buying an airline ticket for a conference six months in advance is not only possible, but also wise, because it saves your company money. For procrastinators, though, there’s no immediate reason to take care of it (and perhaps the prospect of the conference is nerve-racking), so they don’t. “Our brains are made for short-term rewards, and procrastinators take that reward by task avoidance,” Pychyl explains.

If You Can’t Beat It

There are lots of strategies to overcome procrastination, and these can be helpful, depending on your procrastination patterns and what’s keeping you from getting in gear [see related article “How to Undo the Dawdler” on page 56]. If you can’t pull yourself out of it, Ferrari says cognitive behavioral therapy can help in figuring out what motivates you to procrastinate and that can lead to ways to break the habit. Depression, too, often underlies procrastination, so it’s important to rule that out.

But there’s also a strategy—a kind of procrastination workaround—for people who have tried all the tricks. John Perry, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Stanford and author of The Art of Procrastination, calls it “structured procrastination.” Perry noticed that even though he loves his job, he had a heck of a time getting his pressing work done. Yet Perry was highly productive when it came to other work. “Some people just have a psychological setup where they find it very easy to work hard on something as long as it’s not something they have to be doing,” he says.

His advice is to trick yourself into believing that something else on your list is more pressing and get that done in lieu of watching those YouTube kitty videos. “You need to have good self-deception skills, which many procrastinators do,” Perry says. Doing this other worthwhile work renders you a productive, effective person, if not exactly efficient. In the end, you get a lot done—and may even finish the priority stuff, too.

Here’s how Perry’s self-trickery works: Let’s say you have to prepare some notes for an important call tomorrow, and you find yourself dawdling by doing next week’s PowerPoint presentation. You’re getting worthwhile work done, and if all goes well, you will either hunker down and do your notes for tomorrow’s call when you’ve reached the eleventh hour, or an even more important task will crop up between now and your call, bumping your call down the list. Tah-dah! Making your notes for tomorrow’s call becomes relatively less important, and hence easier for you to tackle (while you blow off the more important thing). Plus, you’ll have a jump on the PowerPoint presentation.

Perry admits this bit of mental gymnastics may not work for everyone, but it’s better than the alternative, which is doing nothing productive. “I’m not saying procrastination is not a flaw, and it’s definitely a flaw that annoys other people. But structured procrastination can cut down the cost of procrastination and make you less annoying.”

 Think of it this way, Perry says: “If you’re an entrepreneur, most ideas don’t come when you schedule time in your day to think about starting a business—it might come when you’re cleaning out your files or paying your taxes. Who knows? Maybe Thomas Edison was supposed to be cleaning out his garage but instead wasted all this time inventing the light bulb.” 

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