Procrastination serves psychological purposes


We all know somebody who just can't start a project until a deadline threatens like an approaching tornado. Then they go to work at the eleventh hour with the intensity of a summer storm.

They are people who procrastinate, and contrary to stereotype, they are not low achievers or lazy.

"In fact, a lot of people who procrastinate are very bright and accomplished people," says Lenora M. Yuen, a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, Calif., who specializes in working with procrastinators. They're people who are trying to avoid the pain of dealing with some personal issue that causes them great anxiety.

Unfortunately, the procrastination just adds to their discomfort.

"Lots of these people make themselves crazy," says Ms. Yuen, who is one of the authors of "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It" and also gives workshops on procrastination with her colleague, Jane Burka.

She's using the word "crazy" in a vernacular sense, of course. But she's serious when she says those who put off until the last minute what could have been done in doses over a span of time are using that behavior to assuage some internal bugaboos.

* Perfectionism: The person dealing with this problem plans to paint the basement walls, take the dog to the vet, stop at a friend's house on the way home and make a cake for a dinner party that night -- between noon and 4:30 p.m. President Bill Clinton is an example of this type of procrastinator, says Ms. Yuen.

"He tries to do too much and gets caught up with people and lets time pass by." She says these people tend to think they can do everything in five minutes and judge time with a childlike sense.

* Fear of failure: This is the one everybody thinks of first when looking for an explanation for procrastination. It's fairly straightforward. If you don't do something, you can't fail at it.

But there's a bit more to it. Most adults eventually will have to perform the task they're putting off, but if they do it at the last minute, they've built in an excuse for less-than-perfect work (elements of each issue cross over into others): "If I'd had more time to work on this report, I could have done a better job."

A subset of this condition are those whose work style is to create artificial risks by postponing getting started on something until the last minute; then they pride themselves on pulling it off. The accomplishment of their Herculean task inflates their sense of self. Ms. Yuen says they feel that if they started earlier they xTC would be too ordinary. Beating the clock makes them feel extraordinary.

And the truth is, if they'd given themselves more time, they probably would have done a better job, says Ms. Yuen. Or maybe they fear they would do only a slightly better job with more time.

* Fear of being exposed as a fraud: A large group of procrastinators are very accomplished people who put things off in fear that they won't do excellent work and others will "discover" they aren't as perfect as everybody thinks, says Ms. Yuen. They torment themselves constantly with this fear, and wouldn't dream of disclosing their discomfort and its cause.

But those who procrastinate -- even those who are in crisis because their behavior has led to serious problems in their lives -- can take heart and even action. Ms. Yuen suggests some healthy coping techniques for overcoming or at least ameliorating that behavior.

* Set realistic rather than ideal goals. This helps to moderate perfectionism. Rather than contemplate a project globally, break down into units and then tackle only the first step. When that's done, move successively through the steps.

* Anticipate the first obstacle. "When procrastinators get themselves to take action, they expect everything to go smoothly," says Ms. Yuen. "It rarely does." So, she says, expect some delays so that frustration doesn't defeat the effort at the first step.

* Enlist support from another person. Tell somebody else the goal to get a reading on whether it's realistic and so somebody will follow up by asking "How'd you do?" after the deadline. If the procrastinator didn't meet the goal, the ideal support person would simply ask what went wrong and what you learned that would help you meet the goal another time.


Have you developed a time-saving technique you think could help others? We'd like to hear about it. Next month, we'll begin a series of periodic Time Saver columns that will share reader tips so we can offer some solutions to your professional, home or leisure time-management problems. Please leave your name, city residence and daytime phone number when you call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6220 after you hear the greeting.

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