Procrastination: Avoidance and Arousal

Amid her boxes and piles, Tricia Sawyer looks over some negatives and photos that she has been meaning to organize for years.
Amid her boxes and piles, Tricia Sawyer looks over some negatives and photos that she has been meaning to organize for years. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Erica Davis Bak
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crammed full of boxes containing memorabilia that date back a decade and stacked high with yet-to-be read books and magazines, Tricia Sawyer's one-bedroom Arlington apartment reflects a problem that affects us all once in a while: procrastination. But for some people, like Sawyer, the tendency to put off dealing with things is disabling, interfering with their personal and professional lives.

"I've moved them around for several years," Sawyer said of her boxes, with the aim one day of making scrapbooks from their contents. Likewise, instead of filing her tax returns next month, the freelance photographic assistant will defer them until October, as she has done in recent years.

Unappealing tasks such as filing taxes turn many people into procrastinators, but Sawyer is far from alone in electing to put off everyday chores. According to Joseph R. Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, some 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators. "That's very high," Ferrari said, adding that research reveals there are more chronic procrastinators in the United States than there are people with clinical depression.

Although the perplexing question remains why so many of us engage in such evident self-sabotage, a recent study suggests that consciously changing the way we think about things we have to do -- approaching them as concrete steps rather than abstract ideas -- may help even chronic procrastinators.

Sawyer, 38, recognizes that her inability to get things done in a timely manner has affected her career. Although she graduated from photography school in 2006, she has not created the professional portfolio or Web site that might enable her to work as a photographer. "I'm limiting my income possibilities," she says. She needs to set up and shoot sample photos to show potential clients, but somehow she can't make herself do that. So she's still working as an assistant.

"I come up with all sorts of excuses to not do it. Underneath, there's fear there that I'll fail. There's safety in assisting. You're not responsible for everything that happens," she said.

Avoidance and Arousal

Ferrari divides chronic procrastinators into two groups.

Avoidance procrastinators such as Sawyer delay out of fear, he said. They are afraid of failure, judgment, even success. They feel that they can't live up to expectations.

Arousal procrastinators wait until the last minute for the sheer thrill of it. "They will say, 'I work best under pressure.' They need that eleventh hour to get something done," Ferrari said. But "the data shows they actually don't do well under pressure."

Consequences for both range from missing social engagements to losing income.

With the Internet and e-mail, 24-7 television and cellphones at our fingertips, distractions abound to keep us from the tasks at hand. But Ferrari said people are no more likely to procrastinate now than they were when he began studying the topic 20 years ago. "People have always looked for excuses to not get things done."

Like gambling and overeating, procrastination is a self-defeating disorder: "You have to think, 'I should be acting now, but instead I'm alphabetizing the playlist on my iPod,' " said Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa who specializes in the study of procrastination. " 'And I'm bothered; I'm feeling guilt.' "

The issue, he said, is giving in to feeling good in the moment. "We're always looking after how we feel. Facing a task doesn't make us feel good."

Changing the way we think about unappealing tasks seems to make them more manageable. A study published in Psychological Science suggests that people are more likely to procrastinate if they view tasks abstractly rather than concretely.

The study asked participants either concrete or abstract questions. One set of questions addressed such mundane tasks as opening a bank account. Some participants were asked what tools were needed to open an account, like pen and identification, while others were asked what personal traits, such as responsibility, were needed. Similarly, participants were asked to analyze a famous painting, either by looking at the technique the painter used or by assessing the mood the work evoked. All received a nominal payment for completing the study in the allotted time.

In each part of the study, those who were asked concrete questions e-mailed the study back faster than those who were asked abstract questions.

That kind of thinking can be transferred to everyday life, according to Sean McCrea, an assistant professor of motivational and social psychology at the University of Konstanz in Germany, who led the study.

Someone who wants to go to the gym but is tempted to put it off, for example, should think about what he will do there, what exercises he will perform, he said. "Just getting into the concrete mind-set seems to be helpful," McCrea said.

Facing the Consequences

The severity of procrastination is often measured by its consequences, said William D. Meek, director of counseling services at Washington State University in Vancouver, dividing a mere bad habit from something more serious. Procrastination itself is not a mental disorder, but it can be linked to a variety of them, such as depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and avoidant personality disorder. Procrastination can also be part of larger unconscious processes, such as a passive-aggressive attack on someone or a way out of something difficult, he said.

Meek has worked one-on-one with procrastinators, ranging from those with minor problems to those who have difficulty completing the most basic tasks, or even following through with therapy.

For people who wait until the last minute but generally get things done on time, Meek recommends self-acceptance. "Being able to simply accept that you are a person who will occasionally rush to finish things due to procrastination can be therapeutic. I then typically help these clients build up their coping skills and have them plan ahead for the more stressful times."

He also helps build self-discipline by empowering clients to add structure to their life. Another strategy Meek advocates is a "micro-reward system," which gives a client a small reward after a specified amount of work is completed.

Rick Poulin, a lawyer in Seattle, has learned to deal with his tendency to delay doing things through self-discipline, as Meek advocates. "My primary technique is using lists of what I need to do," Poulin said.

Time blocking also helps, he added. Poulin regularly asks himself, "I've got eight or nine hours [a day] I'm going to be in work mode; how am I going to divide that up?"

Poulin says he has been a procrastinator for as long as he can remember. "Going back to the second grade -- there was some kind of oral presentation assignment, and I didn't do it," he said. "I had to concoct an excuse to leave the room before it was time to do it." The missed assignment led to a special parent-teacher conference, "the first of numerous unsuccessful attempts to get me to stop procrastinating," he said.

Poulin said he still "putters" quite a bit, shuffles papers and organizes things, or goes online to read newspapers and play chess, when he should be getting down to work.

"Most of the time, I do get things done by the deadline, and I'm fairly pleased with the work product," he said. But lawyers are paid according to their billable hours, and "I could have made more money if I started earlier."

Ultimately, though, Carleton University's Pychyl says that beating procrastination is not just about developing tactics to get individual chores done.

"The greatest grief people have on their deathbed is the things they left undone. . . . For me, procrastination is not the problem of the all-nighter and the last-minute effort," he said. "It's a problem of not getting on with life itself."

It may be hard to realize right now, but life will begin again -- after the taxes are done.

Comments: health@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company