THE HUMAN CONDITION WHY WE PROCRASTINATE : Tomorrow Is Soon Enough

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Day 1: It might be scheduling your oft-postponed dentist's visit . . .

Day 9: It might be scheduling your oft-postponed dentist's visit or answering that stack of unanswered letters . . .

Day 10: It might be scheduling your oft-postponed dentist's visit or answering that stack of unanswered letters stashed in your desk. Then again. . . .

Day 11: It might be scheduling your oft-postponed dentist's visit or answering that stack of unanswered letters stashed in your desk. Then again, it could be getting around to having that last will and testament drawn up. Or finally, after 11 days and three false starts, finishing an article for The Los Angeles Times.

Whatever it is, you're one of us. A procrastinator.

Somewhere in your life, at home or on the job, you've been putting off doing something. The task itself might not be all that important, but it's something you think you ought to do, and that persistent inner voice won't quit until it's done.

Procrastination is a nearly universal human trait. It keeps several businesses humming along: Without it, Federal Express, greeting cards bearing belated birthday wishes and income tax filing extensions would be unnecessary.

And although a little foot-dragging now and then doesn't mean certain disaster, for some people--a relative few--procrastination brings serious consequences. They lose jobs or relationships because of their apparent inability to complete projects on time or follow through on commitments. The tendency to procrastinate also undermines their self-confidence, convincing them that they are lazy or worthless.

What is it in human nature that makes us delay doing certain things until the last minute--or forever?

Procrastination traditionally has been chalked up to moral lapse or character deficit, as Lord Chesterfield apparently believed when he advised, "No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today."

But what seemed self-evident in 1749 is no longer so obvious today. The concept of laziness as a personality trait doesn't do much for psychologists, who note that people seldom procrastinate in every area of their lives.

Robert Mayer, a Santa Fe, N.M., novelist who practically never suffers from writer's block (an especially ugly form of procrastination), reports that he puts off dental visits for as long as he can.

"If a tooth starts acting up, I'll worry for three months that I've got a cavity and finally decide I should go and get it checked out," he says. The last time this happened, it turned out to be a minor crack in a tooth, so Mayer's months of worry were wasted.

As the owner of a Montessori preschool and kindergarten in Albuquerque, Susan Erickson makes the job of keeping track of dozens of children while meeting state regulations and tending to business duties look easy. But she, too, is a selective procrastinator.

Although she completes work-related tasks like paying withholding taxes on time or even early, Erickson says she puts off things she has resolved to do for herself, like exercising more or keeping a journal. "I feel totally guilty all of the time about procrastination of my personal goals," she says.

Psychologists Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen say procrastination is a symptom of a hidden fear or conflict, a buffer that protects people from taking actions that may force them to confront painful feelings and unresolved issues.

The two, who maintain private practices in Berkeley and Palo Alto, respectively, wrote a 1983 book called, "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It." With more than 100,000 copies in print, the recently reissued book explores the roots of the procrastination habit and offers a variety of strategies to to help people get unstuck.

They suggest, for example, that instead of setting vague, general goals, procrastinators pursue concrete behaviors that, pursued step by step, will lead to a goal. They also point out that it doesn't work to wait to start a project until you feel like it or have enough time to do it all at once. Better to get started and use small bits of time--15 minutes here or there--to make continual progress toward your goal.

Both authors claim to have been top-notch procrastinators themselves, having encountered problems in completing their doctoral dissertations. They refined their understanding of the issue while running a counseling group for students at the UC Berkeley.

"Most people at one point or another do put things off," Yuen says. "There are many people for whom it's not a terribly big deal, and there's certainly nothing wrong with procrastination in and of itself. But when you're run by it, it can really ruin your quality of life."

Yuen says she's had clients whose careers were affected by their chronic tardiness in getting things done, including a lawyer who was disbarred for missing filing deadlines.

Burka adds that what might be regarded as procrastination in a fast-paced, clock-driven society like ours might be ordinary behavior in some other cultures. "The more competitive a culture, the more procrastination is regarded as a problem," she says.

Both authors also point out that procrastination is often simply a clue that we've agreed to do something we're not crazy about--useful information for people who aren't always in touch with their negative feelings.

The two argue in their book that problem procrastinators use their delaying tactics as strategy to protect themselves from five situations: the fear of failure, fear of success, fear of losing a battle, fear of separation or fear of attachment.

Procrastinators tend to be perfectionists, with unrealistic expectations of themselves, Burka and Yuen write. By procrastinating and doing a less-than-stellar job, they can console themselves that they didn't do as well as they could have had they tapped their full potential. This allows them to avoid mounting an all-out effort and failing.

Others procrastinate because they fear succeeding. They believe others may not like them if they are too "perfect." They may also think they don't deserve success or that their success might hurt others.

People sometimes procrastinate as a "passive-aggressive" strategy instead of openly refusing to do something. Fearing conflict, they are polite and compliant on the surface but seething within.

"People hold on to procrastination," Burka observes. "It's not an easy symptom to give up."

Tell that to Lois Stouffer, a certified financial planner living in Santa Fe, who says of her own procrastinating ways, "I've never not gotten things done. I've just not done them in the most efficient order."

Stouffer sometimes puts off big projects that demand a lot of concentration until the last minute, when she does the work in a burst of energy. She calls it "the emergency method" for finishing a task, explaining, "That way, you don't have a choice."

Her perfectionism causes her to feel "overwhelmed" when contemplating a complex project on which she knows she is capable of excelling, Stouffer says. "Sometimes it keeps me from doing it, because I know the amount of work it requires," she says.

It helps to remember that clients usually aren't looking for as much detail as her own inner taskmaster demands, Stouffer says. "If I can keep in mind what the client wants, then I can get things done much more easily."

Not everyone takes procrastination seriously, least of all Les Waas, who for the last 36 years has headed the Procrastinator's Club of America.

"I was elected when the club was founded in 1956," says Waas, who works for a Philadelphia advertising agency. "We've had nominees for new officers, but we haven't gotten around to having the election."

The club, which celebrates New Year's in October, occasionally has get-togethers that are well-attended, even though the invitations are mailed late.

The organization's 10,000 members "like to stop and smell the flowers," Waas says, but keeping track of them all could be difficult. An attempt several years ago to get the membership list computerized failed, he says, when the member who volunteered to do handle the task failed to get around to it.

So now that you've read this far, you've decided it's time to do something about your dilatory ways. You're determined to be the captain of your ship, the master of your destiny. But before getting started, you ask yourself: Is there life after procrastination?

We'll get back to you on that.

Who Procrastinates Too Much?

STUDENTS

"Under the constant pressure of grades and other evaluations, a student puts off writing papers and studying for exams, only to cram for days when time has finally run out."

THE SELF-EMPLOYED

"(They) have only themselves to rely on to do what's necessary to stay in business--yet many find it's easy to delay when no one is watching to make sure they follow through."

THE EMPLOYED BY OTHERS

"In a competitive office setting, some people slow down instead of trying to keep up with the fast pace. Those irritated by bureaucratic red tape may file things under 'pending,' rather than complete the requisite (boring) busywork."

HOLIDAY SHOPPERS

"Some classic last-minute rush situations have even been commercialized. Merchants remind us in October to shop for Christmas, but everyone knows the stores will be open on Dec. 24 for those that insist on taking it down to the wire. Stores are only too happy to provide pre-wrapped face-saving gifts for Mother's Day, Father's Day or Valentine's Day, which, according to retailers, is the most 'last-minute' of all holidays: about ten million people buy their gifts on Feb. 14."

AND FINALLY . . .

"Every year, local TV stations send their reporters to the main post office to do stories on the hordes of people lined up in their cars, all trying to mail their tax returns before midnight on April 15."

Who Procrastinates Too Much?: From "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It," by Jane B. Burka, Ph.D. and Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D., Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

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