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Winifred Lender: Breaking the Cycle of Procrastination

Procrastination. It is a word that conjures up all kinds of negative associations, such as lazy, weak and disorganized. At least 20 percent of adults identify themselves as chronic procrastinators, and up to 70 percent of college students admit to consistently procrastinating. Given the negative connotation procrastination has in our society, it is surprising that so many identify with this label.

Procrastination is a problem of self-regulation. It is not a time management issue, although procrastinators are more likely than others to underestimate the amount of time it will take to accomplish a task and overestimate the amount of time they have to complete tasks in a given day. Procrastinators often appear busy as they rush around to complete tasks that are inconsequential but avoid doing important activities.

While each procrastinator has his or her own unique profile, there are some general categories that most procrastinators fall in:

» Decisional procrastinators avoid making any decision, thereby feeling as though they are not responsible for the outcome of any decision.

» Arousal-type procrastinators wait to the last minute to make a decision, mistakenly believing that they function best under times of high stress.

» Avoidant procrastinators are very concerned with what others think of them and the potential for failure and thus avoid attempting anything; they would rather be thought of as lacking effort than ability.

Procrastination can develop through modeling, as a child observes how his or her parents behave. It is also possible that procrastination can be a response to an authoritative parent who is always pushing the child, or a helicopter parent who will always do what the child fails to do.

Procrastination has been shown to be bad for your health. Chronic procrastination can lead to stress, a compromised immune system, increased alcohol consumption and sleep problems. Procrastination can also lead to financial problems and medical issues if the procrastinator avoids paying bills or fails to go for medical checkups. Friendships and work relationships also suffer as a result of procrastination, and people resent procrastinators.

Many procrastinators will tell you that they were born that way, but research has shown that procrastination is a learned behavior. While some people have more difficulty self-regulating than others, people learn to put off things that they don’t like or want to do. Initially avoiding the activity leads to a decrease in anxiety, but eventually putting off something that must be done leads to a chronic sense of unease. The behavior is maintained as it becomes a pattern of interacting and thinking about the world and others support the behavior by expecting it.

As a society we often reinforce procrastination. Instead of telling someone who did not reply for a party that it makes it hard to plan the event not knowing if family is attending, we often couch our inquiry in kind terms by indicating their invitation must have gotten lost or we are “sorry to bother them” but need to ask if they will attend. We see procrastinators as victims and often refer to them as “nice but disorganized” or “well meaning but always putting things off.” We often do not hold the procrastinator accountable for his or her behavior and reinforce the notion that it is normal or acceptable to put off things, even if it impacts negatively on others.

Our culture further reinforces procrastination through myriad activities, many of them digital, that people can engage in to distract themselves from important tasks at hand.

Because procrastination is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. Unlearning the behavior involves changing the cognitions and behaviors that underlie it. Change includes acknowledging that the behavior is maladaptive and has negative consequences for the procrastinator and those around him or her.

In addition, change involves measured steps to move away from a pattern of thinking and interacting in the world that has become very ingrained to a new pattern that will initially cause anxiety. Family and friends of the procrastinator need to change the way they interact with the procrastinator to support the emerging new behaviors and not sabotage them.

Specific recommendations for attacking procrastination and developing a new and more productive means of thinking and interacting follow.

Wishing you a productive day!

» Evaluate if you are a procrastinator.

» Consider which category of procrastinator you may be.

» Write a list of the negative consequences procrastination causes for you personally.

» List the benefits that being procrastination free could yield. Post this list in a highly visible place (near the computer or on the refrigerator door).

» Make a list of activities you need to accomplish. Organize the list into two columns, with one being daily chores (do the laundry, go to the supermarket) and the other longer-term goals (plan for a vacation, save money for a new car).

» Prioritize the daily list by assigning numbers to the tasks and a time estimate. Look at the time estimate and see if it is reasonable to complete all these tasks. Ask a friend or family member to review with you to ensure you are underestimating the time the tasks will take. If it is not reasonable to complete all tasks, eliminate some.

» Develop the daily tasks list prioritized with the most important items at the top and the time estimates next to them. Time yourself as you go about he tasks and write down how long it actually takes you to complete the tasks.

» Maximize your most productive time of the day by tackling the important tasks at this time.

» For long-term goals, work to break them down into smaller tasks that you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time each week.

» Schedule in some down time in your schedule at your least productive time and ensure you stick to your time limit for this activity.

» At the end of each day, assess your progress in tackling the items on your list. Move uncompleted items to the next day’s list or a trash pile, depending on their importance.

» Reinforce yourself for accomplishing tasks and engage others to help you celebrate your successes.

» Remember that moving away from procrastination is a process that requires significant behavioral and cognitive changes as well as support of family and friends. This process will take time.

» If you continue to struggle with procrastination, consider seeking support from a professional who can assist you in developing a plan tailored to your specific needs.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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