Procrastination means putting off issues of importance or urgency for less important or even trivial activities.  20% of adults (85% of college students) report this as a significant problem.  Procrastination can threaten health (delaying medical check-ups, dental-care maintenance, etc.), harm relationships, and even end employment.  40% of taxpayers have experienced financial penalties from delaying their tax preparation to the point that they miss deductions, make errors or have to pay late penalties. Procrastination seems to be self-harming – so why do so many people do it?

There is some research to suggest that doing pleasant things early may be in our genes.  Thinking back to the unpredictable lives of our long-ago ancestors who could be dinner tonight for something larger than they, we may come from a long line of people who ate dessert first.

But plenty of modern people delay working on necessary projects despite their clear understanding that this pattern can put them in jeopardy.  What’s with that?

There seem to be different kinds of procrastinators – a bouquet of delay:

Time Management Procrastinators:  Many people really don’t know how long their tasks take.  They tend to believe that if the to-do list will fit on one slip of paper, they can get everything done in a short amount of time.  So a first step is to keep a log for at least a week of how much time you take for each of your activities, including ‘visiting.’  During a day, how long are you on the phone?  How long do you help others with their problems?  Or studying?  Or writing on a project (that you’ve been putting off)?  When you have a realistic idea of how much time the common activities of your life really take, you can see whether you will need extra (i.e., weekend) time to complete that big project.  In other words, time isn’t just going to ‘open up.’

Perfectionistic Procrastinators:  Some people put off projects because they are sure the end product won’t be good enough.  In this case, it might help to think of your work as a clay sculpture.  The artist first forms the statue into a series of globs and then starts refining.  Glob first, then polish.  Every masterpiece came from someone just getting started.

Under Stimulated Procrastinators:  For some reason, people often write or read in very boring settings.  Before long, they hop up and are off looking for something more interesting.  Try introducing some additional stimulation into your environment:  play movie themes (without words) that are exciting, try aromatherapy, turn on the TV with the sound off and sit on the floor. You may find yourself sticking to your project longer.

Distracted Procrastinators:  These delay experts have so much going on that they can’t decide which projects “rise above the noise level.”  Carry several small scraps in your pocket for a week and write down everything that comes to mind that you need to do.  Then lay your scraps on your desk and arrange them in order of importance and time-line.  This can bring some order out of the blizzard.

Radar-Screen Procrastinators:  This pattern is related to ‘distracted.’  This person doesn’t have a focused to-do list and only chooses a target when time pressures or an agitated supervisor orient the individual to what needs to be done.  It’s much more skillful to use the ‘scrap’ approach, described above, to produce your own self guidance 

Panic-Button Procrastinators:  Some people insist that they focus and work best when deadline anxiety is snapping at their heels.  But research suggests that most procrastinators are too self conscious to have many ‘flow’ experiences, and excess anxiety leads to inefficiency and errors.

So how do you spell relief?  There are three basic types of emotional rewards:  mood change, relief, or escape.  Most procrastinators experience their avoidance as mood change (“I don’t have to do right now what I don’t want to do”) or escape (“I don’t have to do that at all.”)  People who highly value relief as a re-enforcer tend to do jobs promptly because they are relieved to have accomplished them and value the peace of mind.

Okay, so what to do if you find yourself chronically behind the accomplishment 8-ball?

First, it may be helpful to realize that procrastination makes sense.  Why would someone want to do something right now that isn’t very appealing if there is a more pleasing option?  Maybe procrastination needs a new definition.  Maybe instead of the avoidance of something you should do but don’t like, procrastination should be about avoiding something awful in the interest of the current project that, by comparison, isn’t so bad!

  1. Think of something you REALLY don’t want to do – like clean out the attic or sending a $100 contribution to a political party you dislike.  Then think of the task you’re putting off, like writing that report.  The report doesn’t feel so bad by comparison, right?
  2.      Now for the timing.  State to another person that if you do not complete the report within 48 hours, you will spend this weekend cleaning out the attic or you will put that envelope with the $100 check in the mail and enjoy the ton of junk mail you receive from the political party you’re now ‘supporting.’  Tell your person that you will report back about which of the activities you chose:  report, attic, or contribution.

Then enjoy your accomplishments!