Serial Procrastination: Managing the DNA of Delay

This article isn’t about the part time procrastinator; it’s for that small percentage of the population who are serial procrastinators. It affects all that they do or rather all that they don’t do which is pretty much everything - until they absolutely have to - like me in writing this article. I’ve been meaning to get around to this for a while because I’d been frustrated in helping those chronic procrastinators who (finally) get around to attending a time management course. Unfortunately procrastination isn’t a time management issue. Dr Joseph Ferrari, (professor of psychology DePaul University Chicago and co author of Procrastination and Task Avoidance) describes procrastination as:

 ...a "nasty, unattractive part of human behaviour”. Procrastinators are noted for their "impulsiveness," "lack of persistence," and "lack of self-control." Self-reflection "is generally not a strong point” and willpower "is a vital weak point" in their character.

A rather harsh diagnosis that almost triggered a relapse of my own unattractive behaviour, thankfully I found the willpower and knuckled down to writing this article so that you can assess yourself against the five lies "serial procrastinators" tell themselves to determine if you’re “real” procrastinator and if you are then apply the strategies help you to manage your "delay DNA” so you seize the day more often.

Are you Ready?

Defining Chronic Procrastination

Procrastination is that murky guilt ridden world between our intentions and actions. It’s driven by a low tolerance for frustration and begins with a deliberate decision to delay an activity in the delusion that “later” will be better.  And we delay because we perceive some unpleasantness in some aspect of the task.

Most of us delay some tasks some times; we’re getting things done, just not as much as we would like. The most common reason for this is task overload due to a combination of unrealistic expectations, under resourcing and tight deadlines. (My time management tip in 10 words: Resource to match expectations or realign expectations to match resources)

Then there are the serial procrastinators, the 20% of the population who turn delay into a lifestyle. They put off everything at home and at work. Chronic procrastinators spend less preparation time on tasks at which they're likely to succeed and more time on projects likely to fail. They underestimate the time required to complete a task, start tasks at the last minute and report difficulties in structuring their time. They delude themselves that somehow tomorrow, later or after or whatever will be better. 

The Two Basic Types of Procrastinators

There are action-oriented people, who move easily from task to task, and there are state-oriented people who rate tasks more negatively. These people experience greater uncertainty, boredom, frustration and guilt and are therefore most likely to procrastinate. Procrastinators are also classified into two general behavioural groups:

1. Arousal procrastinators who use the excitement and the adrenaline charge of having to finish everything under pressure to get things done e.g. “I work better under pressure”

2. Avoidance procrastinators who make their work the measure of their self-worth and are so afraid of failure they are unable to act. Not wanting to disappoint people and wanting to be well thought of they would rather others say they lacked effort than they lacked ability. 

The Five Lies of Real Procrastinators

It’s easy to tell when you're a “real” procrastinator because you tell yourself five lies:

1. You overestimate the time you have left to perform tasks.

2. You underestimate the time it takes to complete tasks.

3. You overestimate how motivated you will feel tomorrow, next week or whenever you’re putting things off to.

4. You mistakenly think that succeeding at a task requires that you feel like doing it.

5. You mistakenly believe that working when not in the mood is suboptimal. 

Procrastination by Actively Seeking Distraction

Procrastinators also actively look for distractions, especially ones that don't take a great commitment. They do this as a way of regulating their emotions. Gossiping, chatting, gaming, texting, television and checking e-mail are all tailor-made for this purpose. 

What's the Impact of Serial Procrastination?

Procrastination affects your health.

The anxiety and stress caused by chronic procrastination floods your body with stress hormones weakening your immune system, increasing wear and tear and therefore the risk of stroke and heart attack. Prolonged and sustained stress is also a leading cause of depression.  And you’re also just as likely to delay seeking treatment for medical problems, as you are to delay everything else. 

Procrastination affects your performance.

You miss deadlines or require extensions or turn in sub standard work because by the time you've got “around to it” you haven't left yourself enough time to do a good job. Procrastination can become a serious obstacle to success as you develop a reputation for being unreliable or a stress freak – hardly career enhancing. 

Procrastination affects your relationships

You transfer your stress by surrounding the people in your lives with the drama of delay and your adrenaline charged last minute efforts to hit deadlines. When you do fail to deliver, others have to rush to your resuce and salvage the situation. 

Four Steps to Tackling Procrastination

1: Become aware of your procrastination

2: Develop goal-directed behaviour to carry out the tasks on which your currently procrastinating

3: Make a commitment to tolerate short-term discomfort to achieve the longer-term goal

4: Persist with the anti-procrastinating outlook or approach 

Practical Strategies to Implement the Steps

Beware the Red Flag

When you hear yourself thinking, “I don’t feel like doing this now, I’ll do it tomorrow,” that’s the red flag warning. You're about to needlessly delay a task. Awareness is the first step but it's seldom sufficient by itself, we need to act on our insight.

Take Control of the Present Audit, List and Edit

Take a thorough audit of your personal and professional worlds then make a master list of everything you have to do. Scrutinise the list and then edit by eliminating tasks you will never do. Be honest and ruthless. Delete the tasks that you constantly shift from one month or year to the next. Prioritise the tasks that will make the greatest difference to your job, your business, your customers and your personal life. 

Set Implementation Intentions

Set goals, keep them realistic and limit competing goals. Construct a concrete, specific statement of what you can do in the present to achieve longer-term goals. It's easy to procrastinate with big goals so break down each goal down into a series of specific tasks. It’s not enough to make a "to do" list though, form a specific implementation intention about what you will actually do, how, when and where. 

Indulge in the Pleasure of Success

The faulty self-control mechanisms (procrastination and indulging in distraction) are related to the same problem, we tend to put too much weight on the immediate present when evaluating the costs and benefits of action or inaction. Manage this by visualizing the end result – the sense of relief, happiness, pride and satisfaction that will come from a job well done. Increase the promise of pleasure by rewarding yourself when you’ve completed your task. The opposite approach can work in other situations; visualize the stress and negative consequences of continued delay (don't overdo this though or it could activate avoidance).

Talk it Up not Down

It's also helpful to switch off the self-talk that exaggerates the negativity of a task. If you’re delaying something because, you'r telling yourself it’s "too hard” drown the self-defeating chatter with your positive vision 

Add 20 Minute Slack

Procrastinators often underestimate how long it will take to complete a task so estimate the amount of time you think it will take to complete each task then increase the amount by 100%. Instead of cramming your schedule build in some slack by adding an extra 20 minutes between tasks.

Apply the 10 Minute Rule

Succeeding at a task does not require that you like doing it so build your frustration tolerance by acknowledging the unpleasantness of the task, then find a small part of the activity and do it for 10 minutes. This first step gets you past the barrier of initiating. After performing the task for 10 minutes, decide whether to continue. It's usually much easier to stay with a task once you're involved. Even you don’t finish the task at least you’ve done something, and research shows that when we approach the task again we feel more optmistic and in control.

Make a Commitment

Remember that procrastination is a learned response which can be unlearned however it takes a lot of energy and commitment as Richard Neenan states, 

“To change a behaviour like procrastination requires work, and typically lots of it. Ironic as it may seem, the problem of avoiding work can only be solved by doing more work' (2)

Patience and perseverance are required and even though you won't necessarily feel transformed you will feel less stressed, you'll like yourself better and you’ll get more done. 


(1) Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment (The Springer Series in Social/Clinical Psychology) (Hardcover) Joseph R. Ferrari, Judith L. Johnson, William G. McCown, Springer; 1 edition (January 31, 1995)
(2) Life Coaching: A Cognitive Behavioural Approach, Michael Neenan, Windy Dryden, Psychology Press 2002
(3) Frequent Behavioral Delay Tendencies by Adults, Joseph R. Ferrari, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Vol. 38, No. 4, 458-464 (2007


Posted: Friday 24 May 2013

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