Perhaps there are a few things you inevitably procrastinate about. For me, it is sending condolence letters and sorting and filing those ever-growing piles of paper that, had I tackled them when the piles were short, would have been much less forbidding. But perhaps your tendency to procrastinate is more pervasive, affecting many or all spheres of your life and keeping you from realizing your dreams and potential. You may come up with a seemingly logical excuse for delaying tasks, like “I do my best work under pressure” or “I can’t do this job until I feel like doing it.
You may even joke about it being too much to ask of a “lazy” person like you. But in your heart you know you are failing yourself and probably others as well. And in your heart you know there are some tasks you will never get around to, despite their importance and promises you have made to yourself and others. Whether you are a minor or major procrastinator, putting off what you know you should be doing can eat away at you, robbing you of a sense of confidence and mastery and filling you instead with anxiety and dread.
No matter how deep-seated your tendency to procrastinate, psychologists insist you can be cured of this all-too-common ailment. There are a host of techniques, many of which have been tested on some of the nation’s most egregious procrastinators, to help you overcome the tendency to postpone or ignore tasks you find forbidding, offensive or just plain disagreeable. Chronic procrastinators often fail to recognize or acknowledge their problem, an essential first step in overcoming it. There are at least six styles of procrastinators, says Dr. Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, N.Y. , who with Jack Maguire has written a new book, “It’s About Time” (Viking Penguin, $15. 95): PERFECTIONISTS tend to become overly preoccupied with details or fear starting or finishing a project that may not meet their high standards.
They want things done their way and so have difficulty delegating tasks. DREAMERS have grandiose ideas about what they would like to do but rarely get going on these projects. They wait for opportunities to present themselves instead of just digging in. They tend to do what they feel like doing at the moment, despite previous plans or priorities.
They expect great things from themselves that never seem to happen. WORRIERS tend to paralyze themselves before starting a project with a series of “what if’s. ” They have difficulty making decisions, avoid new or different situations, doubt their judgment or ability to tackle projects or need or seek advice, approval, assurance or assistance from others before starting. DEFIERS resist authority. They become sulky, irritable or argumentative when asked to do something they do not want to do. They sabotage tasks they do not like doing by working too slowly or ineffectively.
They feel resentful or manipulated when asked to do something unexpected and take offense when others suggest ways of being more productive. CRISIS MAKERS ignore important tasks until the last minute, then work frantically to get them done. Many are proud of living “on the edge. ” Their lives seem chaotic, their moods highly and dramatically changeable. They are easily frustrated and show it by quitting or getting angry. They tend to get very involved with a project, then quit abruptly. OVERDOERS run around doing lots of things without really accomplishing very much.
They have difficulty saying no when asked for help and often wonder how they got themselves into what they are doing. They are always complaining they have too much to do, too little time. They tend to get overinvolved in other people’s problems at the expense of their own. Dr. M. Susan Roberts, a psychologist at Fuller Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, Mass. , suggests that procrastinators who feel chronically overwhelmed need first to adopt some stress management techniques, including regular physical exercise. “Exercise energizes people and helps them think more clearly and set priorities,” she said.
She recommends establishing a weekly schedule that builds in exercise and relaxation time. She suggests breaking big projects down into smaller tasks to make them easier to start. Dr. Jane Burka, a psychologist in Berkeley, Calif. , suggests picking out one goal at a time to concentrate on and defining that goal very concretely — not a global approach like “I’ve got to get organized” but small tasks that can be completed in 15 minutes. Instead of waiting for a huge block of time to do something like cleaning out the basement, commit to one hour each weekend and take advantage of small bits of time to ship away at an unpleasant task.
Even if you do just a little bit, you’ll feel so much better,” said Dr. John Henry Reininger, a psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Don’t wait until you feel like doing it. Who feels like paying taxes? ” He also believes in rewarding yourself for every little accomplishment, even if it is just that you got started. His approach is to put one foot in front of the other: “You start by taking a little action, which provides motivation to do more and leads ultimately to a change in behavior. ” For the perfectionist, Dr. Sapadin suggests “reframing things — aiming for excellence, not perfection.
If it is not something important, she says, strive for completion. To those who put things off and then try to work under deadline pressure, Reininger says, “You can choose to be more efficient, less panicky and less anxious. ” Most experts favor making lists of things to do each day or week, assigning priorities, and crossing off each item as it is accomplished. By setting priorities, Reininger says, people can give themselves permission to procrastinate on the unimportant things.
To Dr. Neil Fiore, a psychologist in Albany, Calif. earning to ignore the inner voice that says “but I don’t want to” is empowering and removes the feeling of being a victim. he suggests that instead of thinking that something has to be done, think “I am choosing to do it,” based on real consequences int he real world. Fiore also emphasizes scheduling in “guilt-free play time” — taking a walk, playing tennis, watching television. When he worked with graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley, he discovered that those who managed to finish their dissertations in a year or less had a firm commitment to play and played more than those whose work dragged on for years.