Several months ago I decided to write an article on procrastination -- but I kept putting it off. This tendency, psychologists claim, to put off until tomorrow what you can do today is a universal human frailty.
But if procrastination is human, getting the job done is divine. January's promise as a month of resolutions and fresh starts makes it an appropriate time (maybe) to tackle the subject.
"More plans go astray, more dreams go unfulfilled and more time is wasted by procrastination than any other single thing," says Merrill E. Douglass, director of the Time Management Center in Michigan.
"For many, procrastination becomes an insidious habit that can ruin their careers, destroy their happiness and even shorten their lives."
Procrastination, says Douglass, is performing a low-priority task rather than a high-priority one -- such as straightening your desk when you should be working on a report, or watching TV when you should be exercising. s
People tend to procrastinate most when tasks are overwhelming or unpleasant, time-management guru Alan Lakein writes in his best-seller "how to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life."
"People tend to put off doing an overwhelming (task) because it seems too complex or too time-consuming -- such as preparing your tax return when you claim a lot of deductions, planning a trip around the world, or redecorating the house.
"An unpleasant (task), on the other hand, is manageable, all right, but you're eager to avoid it because of some odious association, which is usually emotional -- disciplining an employe, admitting an awkward mistake to your boss, telling your boss he made a mistake."
Fear of failure also can lead to procrastination, says pyschologist Joyce Brothers. "People are afraid they won't be successful, so they put something off," she says. "Sometimes this works and it goes away, but procrastination usually makes something get worse."
People may also procrastinate if they fear success, she notes. A person who puts off seeking a promotion may be afraid that landing the job might make former co-workers jealous or hostile.
"One of the big reasons people procrastinate is that they set too high a standard," says Barbara Hemphill, an organizing consultant from Burke, Va. "For example, if you haven't written someone in a long time you figure you've got to write a perfect three-page letter -- but you don't have time for that so you put it off.
"Then it's been such a long time that you've got to write at least six pages -- but that takes too long. So you put it off indefinitely, when you could have settled for a 10-minute note, nine months ago."
And procrastination breeds procrastination, says psychologist Lawrence Wrightsman. "The longer you put something off, the harder it is to do."
In addition to not getting things done, chronic procrastinators may develop a poor self-image, says District psychiatrist Dr. Zigmund Lebensohn.
"It's a matter of degree. All of us have little pockets of infantile regression when we say 'I want what I want when I want it' -- that's harmless.
"But (procrastination) can become a disabling symptom. When it gets to the point of interfering seriously with a person's life, income or legal status . . . they should get professional help. And here again is a marvelous opportunity for procrastination."
Eliminating procrastination requires a "basic change in attitude," says minister and author Norman Vincent Peale, who calls his decision to stop procrastinating "the most rewarding New Year's resolution that I ever managed to keep.
"I finally realized," he wrote in Reader's Degest, "that the rewards of achievement are far sweeter than the rewards of self-indulgence."
Time-management techniques, such as setting daily goals, can help eliminate procrastination, management consultant R. Alec Mackenzie writes in "The Time Trap."
"Each afternoon before leaving work, list the principal items to be accomplished the following day and arrange them in order of importance," he suggests. The next morning start by tackling your top-priority task, "Do one thing at a time -- and finish it."
Remember that procrastination wastes time , Mackenzie says. "Time is a unique resource," he writes. "Each of us already has all the time there is. aIt cannot be accumlated like money or stockpiled like raw materials. We are forced to spend it, whether we choose to or not, and at a fixed rate of 60 seconds every minute."
Procrastination-prone persons might try to:
Break the task into manageable segments, says psychologist Brothers. If the idea of losing weight seems too overwhelming, try losing five pounds. Give yourself a non-food reward -- new shoes, theater tickets -- when you succeed. Then try for five more pounds.
Handle unpleasant tasks first, says time expert Douglass. Get the distasteful chores behind you. Try setting a deadline for the task and tell other people your schedule for finishing it.
Find a leading task, Douglass says. Rolling paper into the typewriter can lead to typing a letter; buying a paint brush can lead to resuming art lessons.
Impose procrastination penalties, Albert Ellis and William Knaus advice in "Overcoming Procrastination." Promise yourself a reward if you perform the task and decide on a punishment if you fail to do it. Send $50 to a cause you hate, give your favorite records to charity or eat a hated food every day for a week.
Modify your environment, say Ellis and Kanus. If distractions in your bedroom make procrastinating too easy, study in the den or a library.
Set a time limit for a hated project, says Nancy Derr, who teaches a "Work Inhibition" course for Open University. To conquer her doctoral thesis, Derr forced herself to work on it for 10 minutes out of every half hour -- a technique that helped her get started, stay interested and finally finish the thesis.
"Introduce little goodies that will get you going," suggests H. P. Parsons of the Institute for Behavioral Research. Those who procrastinate getting out of bed might put a bathrobe and slippers in arm's reach and have a coffee pot nearby ready to be plugged in.
Do nothing, says time-consultant Lakein. "If you sit doing nothing for 15 minutes (don't cheat -- you must do absolutely nothing)," he says, "you should become very uneasy. That (task) is staring you right in the face. After 10 minutes I'm off and running."
Break an overwhelming task down into "baby steps," says Stephanie Winston in "Getting Organized." If you've been putting off organizing your workroom, "lift one tool from the shelf, decide how to handle it, then lift another tool. If baby steps don't get you started, try again tomorrow."
"Drop it," says Winston, if the resistance is overpowering. Can you hire someone else to do it, delegate it or exchange it for a service to someone else? "If you drop the job, really drop it. Don't let it clutter your mind or your overwrought guilt mechanism."