Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

It's About Procrastination

February 3, 1997

I reread my Christmas letters - even the amazing details about other people's children - before I could get to this column. My sure-fire formula for stress is over commitment plus procrastination and then throw in a dose of disorganization.

Do you fail to plan ahead? Is your refrigerator always empty? Is your gas tank chronically on empty? Do you shop on December 24? Do you get extensions on taxes? Welcome to Procrastinators Anonymous. Meeting times will be arranged later.

Are you a procrastinator? Take this short quiz. If you have decided to do it later, you've already answered your question.

Do you have difficulty starting or completing a project because your own high standards haven't been met? Do you tend to do only what you enjoy doing and become resentful when there are tasks you really need to do? Do you put off doing things until a crisis develops? Do you commit yourself to so many activities that you can't find time for doing many of them? Do you think a lot about what you'd like to accomplish but rarely get projects off the ground? Do you hesitate taking action because you don't like to leave your comfort zone or don't like to deal with change?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you are probably a procrastinator. This is according to Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and author of the book, "It's About Time - the Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them," by Viking Press.

I also talked to Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University whose book, "Procrastination and Task

Avoidance: Theory, Research and Treatment," is published by Plenum, and Louis Birner, a New York City psychologist who produced, "Mastering Procrastination," an audio tape.

Procrastination means delaying or postponing actions into the future. We put off until tomorrow what we could do today. It is an unnecessary delay. By procrastinating we are really passively setting priorities or protecting ourselves.

About 70 percent of college students and 20 percent of adults are procrastinators. What may be functional in college becomes a liability when people reach their 30s. There are no differences in procrastination between men and women or differences in intelligence between the procrastinators and the non-procrastinators.

Hesitation and delay buy time to think through reactions to new situations, conflicts and possibilities for growth, according to Birner. Mature action often requires a long pause of reflection and consideration. Pauses that can lead to positive action are not usually considered procrastination.

Learning to delay gratification and restrain impulses is a sign of adult behavior. Birner states, "The ability to begin, continue and finish - that's ego strength. It is the most terrific capacity one can have."

Birner sees procrastinators as having an imbalance of work and play. With procrastination, work becomes associated with anxiety, frustration and helplessness instead of pleasure. Pleasure comes in pulling off work instead of enjoying it. Leisure is too important. They have fun until the moment of truth.

Birner sees procrastinators as not wanting to grow up. They seek out diversions and distractions to avoid their responsibilities and the hard truths they have to face. Alcoholism and procrastination often go together.

Sapadin divides procrastinators into six categories.

  • The Perfectionist: Paralyzed by unrealistically high standards.
  • The Dreamer: Fuzzy and vague with details. Too much passivity.
  • The Worrier: High fear of risk and change. These people are indecisive.
  • The Defier: Strong need to rebel - either directly or passive-aggressively.
  • The Crisis-maker: Addicted to the adrenaline rush of living on the edge. They are thrill seekers who come alive under stress.
  • The Overdoer: too compliant, unable to say no except by procrastination. Overdoers are sidetracked by other's agenda and don't know how to say no.

People can be more than one type at the sarne time. Sapadin offers clear advice on the motivations, thought processes and actions each type must take to overcome their difficulties.

Ferrari divides procrastinators into three main categories: avoidance, arousal and decisional procrastinators. I'll describe the first two types.

The avoidance types of procrastinators are perfectionists and worriers who have lots of fears. These people have a fear of failure or a fear of success. They have excessively high standards by which they judge themselves. They have low self-confidence and are self-conscious. They are often depressed and disorganized.

They often worry about their public image and make social comparisons. By not doing something they feel they will be judged less harshly than if they produce an imperfect product. By not doing something no one can evaluate them. Unfulfilled potential is greater than demonstrated failure. The illusion of feeling competent is often greater than their actually being put to the test. They would rather be judged for lack of effort than lack of ability.

The fear of success comes when if they do well, they will be expected to do it again. By procrastinating, they avoid greater conirnitnents that go with demonstrated success.

Arousal procrastinators. These people do well under pressure. They may even be addicted to a sense of urgency. They flirt with disaster. They take time off or leisure in advance, counting on their ability to save the day at the last minute. Ultimately procrastination interferes with job performance and relationships. An eleventh hour performer takes a terrible toll to themselves and to those around them.

Now I've had my weekly adrenalin rush, I can relax and get onto reading "First Things First" by Stephen R. Covey, Simon and Schuster - if I can ever get around to it.