How Do You Procrastinate?
1. Write about what you learned about your procrastinating styles from reading this excerpt.
2. The name of the book that includes this excerpt is called It’s About Time. Explain why this is a good title for a book about procrastination.
3. Write an anecdote about a time you procrastinated when you had to accomplish an important task. What did you do to avoid the work? How did this situation eventually end?
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How Do You Procrastinate?
LINDA SAPADIN WITH JACK MAGUIRE
Find yourself in this chart of the six styles of procrastination.
Psychological Need For
I should / I have to
Why should I?
Can’t say “no”
“It drives me crazy!” Andy cried. For six years, he had been an assistant manager for an insurance firm, and most of that time he had yearned for a better job. When he first consulted me for psychotherapy, he agonized over his career misfortunes: “I never seem to get a break, and I can’t understand why. It makes me furious sometimes, just thinking about it!”
Soon afterward, Andy’s company offered to send him to executive development seminars, and he was very pleased. “This could be my way out of a dead-end job!” he confided. I waited for weeks to hear more about the seminars, but he didn’t mention them. Finally, I brought up the subject myself. He shrugged and said, “Oh, them! I went for a while, but I didn’t have the time to keep up with all the reading. Then, with one thing and another, I started missing some classes. Before long, I’d fallen too far behind to go back.”
Maureen, an emergency room nurse, had only recently begun to tire of her job when she became my client. “I’m burned out,” she declared. “I want to do something different, something more stimulating for my mind and less hectic for my body.”
Following through with her idea, Maureen started researching job opportunities in medical publications. She pressed for any interview she could get and eventually spoke to every hospital administrator in the city. Time after time, her applications were rejected. “It gets to me every now and then,” she admitted to me, “but I’m going to keep on keeping on. All that counts is that first ‘yes’ and I’ve got to believe it will happen.” It took several months of steady effort, but it did happen. Today, she’s a pediatric nurse in a first-class teaching hospital, and she loves the work.
Both Andy and Maureen had the same basic goal–to get a better job–but one failed, while the other succeeded. What made the critical difference? Andy suffers from a lifelong habit of procrastination. Maureen does not.
Despite Andy’s sincere intention to improve his career, he was unable to perform accordingly. He even acted against his own best interests: giving up too soon rather than sticking with the seminars that seemed almost certain to open up new opportunities for him. It was not sheer laziness that sabotaged his dream, nor was it simply a weak will or negative thinking. Instead, it was a firmly entrenched predisposition to procrastinate, featuring its own complicated mixture of self-defeating habits and attitudes. Fortunately, Maureen doesn’t have such a chronic predisposition. In pursuing her dream of a better job, she was able to maintain a strong connection between what she wanted to do and what she actually did.
Of course, everybody procrastinates occasionally. An unusually messy closet gets cursed for months without ever being cleaned, or the task of writing an especially difficult letter is put off until the last possible minute. For many people, however, procrastination is chronic, pervasive, and deeply rooted. Because of how, as children, they were conditioned to think, speak, and behave, these individuals have a built-in tendency not only to procrastinate whenever they face a challenging situation but also to do so consistently, in the same way. They don’t understand why they do this, and as a result, they’re terribly frustrated.
So are their family members, friends, and coworkers! How serious is your procrastination problem? To get an idea, ask yourself each of the following questions, circling “yes” if you often do what’s described, and “no” if you rarely or never do it:
Do I put off taking care of important things that jeopardize my relationships, career, finances, or health? Yes No
Do I put off doing what I need to do until a crisis develops? Yes No
Do I put off doing tasks unless I can do them perfectly, or until I can find the perfect time to do them? Yes No
Do I hesitate taking action that needs to be taken because I fear change? Yes No
Do I think too much about things I’d like to do but rarely get around to doing? Yes No
Do I think I am special and don’t need to do all the things that other people need to do? Yes No
Do I commit myself to so many things that I can’t find time for many of them? Yes No
Do I tend to do only what I want to do instead of what I should do? Yes No
Do I tend to do only what I think I should do instead of what I want to do? Yes No
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have a procrastination problem. The more questions you answered affirmatively the more you will relate to several of the procrastination styles described in this book.
Fortunately, you can solve your problem, no matter how long you’ve suffered from it or how hopelessly trapped you may feel.
THE SIX STYLES OF PROCRASTINATION
The first step toward positive change is to develop a better understanding of procrastination as a complex pattern of living, rather than just a collection of bad habits. Essentially, procrastination is caused by an internal conflict: You feel a want or a need to do something, but you also feel resistant toward doing it. Usually, the two feelings are so evenly matched that you experience a halt in your natural flow of energy until, eventually, the conflict is somehow resolved–often in a way that’s not at all satisfying.
In effect, this blockage of energy functions as an approach-avoidance conflict: Like a Hamlet in the world of action, you’re torn between two impulses –“to do” or “not to do.” Temporarily, at least, you’re torn by ambivalence, incapable of making a clear choice or commitment one way or the other. Maybe you actually start doing what you want or need to do, even though your lingering resistance makes you waste a lot of time and energy as you go along. Or maybe you stay stuck in your conflict until the last possible moment, when you finally plunge into doing what you want or need to do (probably with a strong push from someone–or something–else). If so, the task may not get done on time, and if it is, most likely it won’t be done nearly as well as it could have been with an earlier start. Or maybe you won’t do it at all. You’ll stay halted at your sticking point: your flow of energy dammed and, ultimately, damning you to yet another failure.
Far from being lazy, as the stereotype would have it, chronic procrastinators generally have sufficient energy–it just doesn’t flow smoothly from mental preparation to physical execution. Instead, it remains mostly mental. Some procrastinators simply can’t get beyond the planning stage of a project. They keep elaborating or revising their plans, or generating alternative plans, far beyond the real need to do so. Others preoccupy themselves with wishful thinking: “If only [fill in the blank] happens, I won’t have to worry about [fill in the blank].” All get caught up to some degree in the rationalize-regret-and-obsess syndrome we’ve already observed.
What each chronic procrastinator needs to cultivate is a more natural, more fluid transition from mental activity to physical activity, so that an appropriate amount of time and energy gets allotted to each phase. To do this, the procrastinator first needs to understand the inner conflicts that produced the procrastination pattern. Without that knowledge, the predisposition to procrastinate will sabotage any efforts the individual makes to change, no matter how earnest those efforts may be. It’s a situation familiar to that faced by many people who try to diet and lose weight without really understanding the inner conflicts that lead them to overeat: Until they learn more about the origins of their eating pattern, their problem will not go away.
I call the sticking point in this kind of internal conflict the BUT factor, because the chronic procrastinators I’ve counseled frequently use the word “but” in describing their action:
“I’d like to finish what I’m doing, BUT I want it to be perfect!”
“I’d like to start doing it, BUT I hate all those bothersome details!”
“I could do it, BUT I’m afraid to change!”
“I could do it, BUT why should I have to do it?”
“I’d do it now, BUT I only get motivated at the last minute!”
“I’d do it now, BUT I have so much to do!”
In my thirty years as a psychologist in schools and in private practice, I have helped hundreds of people from all walks of life overcome their chronic procrastination. Based upon my experiences as a clinician, I have identified six fundamental procrastination styles, which relate to the six major BUT factors:
1. The Perfectionist: “. . . BUT I want it to be perfect!” Perfectionists can be reluctant to start–or finish–a task because they don’t want to do anything less than a perfect job. Although their primary concern is not to fall short of their own lofty standards, they also worry about failing the high expectations that they believe (rightly or wrongly) other people have of them. Unfortunately, once they’ve begun a task, they often can’t resist spending far more time and energy on it than is required–a commonly unacknowledged or misunderstood form of procrastination that involves delaying the completion of a task by over-working.
2. The Dreamer: “. . . BUT I hate all those bothersome details!” The dreamer wants life to be easy and pleasant. Difficult challenges that confront the dreamer can automatically provoke resistance: “That might be hard to do” gets translated into “I can’t do it.” Dreamers are very skillful in developing–and, usually, promoting–grandiose ideas, but they seem incapable of turning their sketchy ideas into full-blown realities: a pattern that frustrates themselves as well as the people around them. Uncomfortable with the practical world, they tend to retreat into fantasies: “Maybe I’ll get a lucky break,” or “I’m a special person–I don’t have to do things the typical [i.e., hardworking] way.”
3. The Worrier: “. . . BUT I’m afraid to change!” Worrier procrastinators have an excessive need for security, which causes them to fear risk. They proceed too timidly through life, worrying incessantly about the “what ifs.” Faced with a new situation or demand, they become especially anxious, because anything new involves change and, therefore, unknown and potentially undesirable consequences. Thus, they tend to put off making decisions, or following through on decisions, as long as they can. Once they start working on a project, they’re likely to drag it out in an effort to help “soften the blow.” Many times, consciously or unconsciously, they avoid finishing projects altogether, so that they never have to leave the “comfort zone” of the familiar and move on to new territory. Much to their own dismay and frustration, they resist change even when they know, intellectually, that the change is almost certain to improve their life situation.
4. The Defier: “. . . BUT why should I have to do it?” The defier is a rebel, seeking to buck the rules. Some defiers are openly proud of their tendency to procrastinate, precisely because it goes against the “normal” or “logical” way to do things. By procrastinating, they are setting their own schedule–one that nobody else can predict or control. In other words, they are establishing their individuality, against the expectations of others. Other defiers are more subtle, perhaps because they are less consciously aware of what they are doing. They don’t flaunt their opposition toward doing something. They simply don’t take on the responsibility to do it in a timely manner. This more subtle type of defiance is called “passive-aggressive” behaviour. Both kinds of defier procrastinators are inclined to see relatively simple tasks–like doing the laundry, paying the bills, or maintaining the car–as big impositions on their time and energy, rather than as things they should take in stride as mature adults.
5. The Crisis-Maker: “. . . BUT I only get motivated at the last minute!” The crisis-maker needs to live on the edge. Addicted to the adrenaline rush of intense emotion, constant challenge, and emergency action, crisis-makers delight in pulling things off at the last minute. To them, procrastination is a form of adventure. Adventures, however, are by nature risky, and the crisis-maker procrastinator is often a loser. Despite the heroic, last-minute run, the train is missed. Despite working day and night all weekend, the status report doesn’t get completed by Monday. Despite a year-long intention to spend July in Europe, the flight isn’t booked on time and the deadline for a reduced fare passes quietly by, too quietly for the crisis-maker to notice.
6. The Overdoer: “. . . BUT I have so much to do!” Overdoer procrastinators say “yes” to too much because they are unable–or unwilling–to make choices and establish priorities. In other words, they haven’t really mastered the art of decision-making. Because of this liability, they tend to be inefficient in managing time, organizing resources, and resolving conflicts. The result is that they try to do too much and, inevitably, fail. Overdoers are often hard workers, and many of them do accomplish some things very well; however, other things never get done at all, or else get done poorly or late. With so much to do and so little time to do it in, overdoers are prime candidates for early burnout.
Each of these six procrastination styles–the perfectionist, the dreamer, the worrier, the defier, the crisis-maker, and the overdoer–involves a distinctly different pattern of impeding the productive flow of energy. But rarely does a flesh-and-blood procrastinator display only one of these styles. Instead, each person employs a distinctive mix of styles: perhaps two or three styles that are most operative–the major styles– along with two or three that are displayed less often but are still reasonably active–the minor styles.
For example, a person initially identified as a perfectionist procrastinator may also have a dreamer inside, who, among other activities, delights in imagining “perfect” life situations. As a result, sometimes the person’s procrastination style is recognizably that of a perfectionist; other times, that of a dreamer. Within this same person, there may also be a bit of the crisis-maker, who performs best under pressure.
In fact, chronic procrastinators tend to harbor several–or even all–of the six procrastination styles to some degree, with different kinds of life situations triggering different kinds of styles. For example, a woman may identify herself as primarily a crisis-maker procrastinator–especially at work, where she has plenty of opportunities to find, or engineer, emergency situations. Nevertheless, with a little more self-analysis, she may realize that she procrastinates somewhat differently in other areas of her life. When it comes to fulfilling her innermost desires, she may function more like a dreamer procrastinator. And with her husband, the strongest relationship in her life, she may adopt a defier style.