If you’re a procrastinator, you might want to leave this column till later. You wouldn’t be the only one. When researchers asked people about procrastination in 1972, 15% said they procrastinated from time to time and 1% admitted to being chronic procrastinators. By 2002, those percentages had increased to 60% and 6% respectively.
Even if you didn’t know the meaning of the word “procrastinator”, you’d get a sense that it was not a good label. It sounds harsh and legalistic: “The person hereafter referred to as the Procrastinator did on the 19th day of September and on 27 other occasions fail to …” It’s as if the guys who were supposed to coin the word kept putting it off until all the snappy Anglo-Saxon tags had been used and there were only clunky Latinisms left to choose from.
In fact, procrastination (from pro forward + crastinus of tomorrow) entered the English language late – in 1588. And it was only with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century that it really started to get a bad name. Before that, presumably, everybody got things done pronto – or didn’t care either way. And some could even see an upside to procrastination: “Lord, make me pure, but not just yet” was St Augustine’s prayer.
Like most personality traits these days, procrastination has acquired the stigma of a psychological disability. You don’t just keep putting things off, you’re guilty of “task aversion”, a problem that can become a “habitual self-destructive pattern”. In a computer-driven society, where workers are expected to be hyper-efficient and multi-taskers, procrastination is attracting serious study. A Canadian university-based Procrastination Research Group collaborates with procrastination researchers worldwide. At international conferences and symposiums on the subject, academics wrestle with such topics as gender differences and the predictability of procrastination in adolescence.
Procrastinators often rationalise their habit by claiming that they work better under pressure, but the evidence does not support that. Studies with university students have shown that procrastinators who turn in their papers later get lower grades. Physical health can also be affected. Students who procrastinated had higher levels of drinking, smoking, insomnia, stomach problems, colds and flu. Put off going to the doctor and serious illness may go untreated.
It’s not just laziness, though: psychologists have identified a variety of reasons why we don’t get on with it. One of the main ones is fear of failure. It’s better, we believe, to be seen as lacking in effort than ability. Some procrastinators are perfectionists who can’t bear the thought that others might see their efforts as second-rate. Impulsive people can also be procrastinators because they find it hard to set priorities and they get distracted by less important tasks. Others are hooked on the adrenalin rush of getting things done at the last minute.
In some cases, psychologists say, over-demanding parenting is to blame: when children are frequently criticised for their efforts, they may rebel by procrastinating.
“It’s not about time management,” says Joseph Ferarri, co-editor of the book Procrastination and Task Avoidance. “To tell a chronic procrastinator to ‘just do it’ is like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up.”
The good news for procrastinators is that they can beat their problem – when they get round to it. Hard work and success is a virtuous circle; one reinforces the other and makes the other more likely. The trick is switching from the vicious circle of task aversion and failure to the virtuous one.
The longer we put something off, the bigger it looms in our mind and the greater the anxiety it causes. Most reformed procrastinators believe that the answer is to start small. Merlin Mann, who runs the personal productivity website 43 Folders, suggests a time-based or unit-based dash – working on the project or hated task for only 10 minutes or on a tiny segment, say, 100 words, of a report.
As Mann says, “Once you’ve made any progress on something you’ve been procrastinating – even the ridiculously minor amounts of progress you make in your dash – you might find it irresistible to keep working at it.”
Another desperate ploy is to allow yourself to watch TV on the condition that you work during the ad breaks. With a four-minute ad break every 10 minutes, you’ll have your thesis finished in no time.
A major distraction with computer-based work is the internet being just a mouse-click away. To nip that kind of procrastination in the bud, musician and writer Mark Taw has created a Get Back to Work site, where you can enter a goal and the time it will take, and the page will keep a record of your successes and failures. There are also free programs like Temptation Blocker, which stops you from checking your email, playing games or surfing for as many minutes or hours that it takes to complete your task. At Flylady.net, people who never get around to cleaning the house can learn such techniques as decluttering, crisis cleaning and “five-minute room rescue”. You can sign up to receive reminder emails that encourage you to get on with it.
Work, like slacking, is often pure conditioning. Ivan Pavlov taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, but when the lab was flooded after a bad storm, and the dogs nearly drowned, some of them lost their conditioning. It took eight months of retraining before they were once again responding to the bell. Once you get out of the habit of doing something, it becomes more difficult. Taw conditioned himself to do things by associating them with music.
“The key thing,” he explains, “is to only use this thing when you’re actually doing work. You don’t need to do it every time you work, but you should use it only when you’re working … the next time you want to work, you simply turn this on, and it will turn you on.”
You can also create an association with work by using an aromatherapy scent or a little ritual such as sitting in a particular chair or holding a stuffed animal.
The fact that procrastination can be cured is a tremendous comfort to addicts like me. As soon as I find the right piece of music to kickstart my productivity, there’ll be no stopping me.