Dysfunctional Procrastination

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The problem of procrastination was recently brought to my attention by some people I know who told me that they had failed to file their income taxes for several years. They live in deadly fear that they owe the IRS a lot of money in back taxes and interest charges and penalties for not having filed. In at least one case the individual did so poorly in his business over the last few years that if he did file he would have been (and still could be) entitled to a hefty refund. It is not that these people did not pay taxes but that they did not file with the IRS.

Most people occasionally procrastinate but not enough to interfere with their functioning at home or school or work. However, for some people procrastination becomes a major impediment to their success in school and to their ability to earn a living. For these people life is fraught with the fear of being fired from work or of failing out of school.


Why do people procrastinate even in the face of huge anxiety and fear? That is the topic of this log entry. First, some famous quotations about this topic that reveal what a universal problem this is:

1. "I'm going to stop putting things off.....starting tomorrow!"
Sam Levenson

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Sam Levenson was a school teacher who became a famous standup comedian during the 1940's and fifties. He was not one of my teachers but he could have been. He had a unique way of capturing what our classroom experiences were like at the time and, consequently, made us laugh. One of his topics was procrastination as exemplified in the subtitle to this article. There are other famous quotes about procrastination. For example:

2. Many years ago there was a musical comedy in New York City that appeared "Off Broadway." It was based on Charles Shulz's delightful comic strip named Peanuts. The name of the play was "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown." In one unforgettable scene the cast sings about doing homework. Each character sang about their way of handling the assignment. When it was his turn to sing about the homework assignment Charlie Brown, the main character of the show, succinctly summarized his approach to all homework:

Charlie Brown sings:

"I work best under pressure, and...if I wait until tomorrow.....there will be lots of pressure."

How many times did I tell myself this very thing during High School and College?

Mark Twain captured the essence of procrastination in his famous quote:

"Never put off until tomorrow.....what you can do the day after tomorrow."

3. I like Gloria Pitzer's quote because it encompasses some of the problems about procrastination:

"Procrastination is my sin.

It brings me naught but sorrow.

I know that I should stop it.

In fact, I will---Tomorrow!"

People may joke about this topic but it really does cause sorrow the very next day.

Why do people procrastinate?

I remember many of Sam Levenson's jokes about the school children who failed to submit their homework but did not fail to have thousand of excuses. Among some of the most famous were things like, "the dog ate may home work," or "it got flushed down the toilet," or "there was a death in the family." Whatever the excused the failure to get assignments done in a timely manner plagues children, adolescents and adults. It is a plague because it causes huge amounts of worry, stress and anxiety. In the case of adults it can result in the loss of a job and for people in school it can result in poor grades and failure.

While it might seem like the solution is to simply get the work completed, there are many of us who feel compelled to put it off. One of the reasons for the need to delay is the fearful thought that the work is beyond our capabilities. There is no worse feeling than that of being overwhelmed and overburdened with more than we are capable of handling. The belief that someone is not capable of getting something done may stem from the fear that they are not smart or skilled enough to accomplish certain tasks. For instance, a school child who cannot read or whose reading comprehension is very poor will avoid homework out of the knowledge that they cannot do it.

Fearing that a task is above one's ability is something that often annoys adults and children with ADHD. I have seen many cases where someone with ADHD is excellent at work until they get a promotion. In these cases, if the promotion calls for paying attention to many details, remaining organized and keeping appointments, they can quickly fall apart, feel overwhelmed and stop performing even thought it means the loss of the job. Needless to say, this is very humiliating.

However, a person does not have to have ADHD in order to procrastinate out of the fear that they are not able to do a job.

Those who are perfectionists in everything they do will often delay getting to a task because they fear that if they do the job, the result will be far less than perfect. Hoping to avoid both criticisms from others as well as disappointment in themselves, they delay and delay until their anxiety becomes intolerable. Even greater than the fear of imperfection is the fear of failure and this is what really causes the perfectionist to delay the task.

Sometimes people procrastinate because they find a task extremely distasteful or aversive. This is probably one of the reasons why so many people in the United States file their taxes at the very last minute. Overwhelmed with all of the details that must be collected to file a tax return, many people keep delaying getting to the task. Other people find the tax codes so confusing that they avoid the task because they do not like feeling "stupid." Still others fear that they will owe a lot of money and keep delaying having to face what they view as an inevitable disaster.

Difficulty focusing attention and feeling easily distracted are factors that contribute to procrastination. In other words, once having started a task the individual who is easily distracted loses focus and begins doing something else. I remember that, as a college student, there were too many times when I was distracted by the thought that I wanted to speak to a buddy or a girl friend of mine. Then, there were those times when I was distracted by something I wanted to watch on television. All too often, what would happen was that the evening would rush by without my having completed an adequate amount of reading or writing that needed to be done.

Motivation is another important factor that can influence procrastination. "Motivation is defined as a need or desire that energizes and directs behavior." This definition is quoted from several undergraduate psychology text books. There are many types of motivation, including 1. Intrinsic Motivation: The desire to perform a task out of the wish to feel effective or capable or just for the sake if getting it done. 2. Extrinsic Motivation: The desire to perform a task in order to gain a promised reward or to avoid a punishment. If any of the factors discussed in the web log are more powerful than either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation the likelihood of procrastination increases.

What Can Be Done About Procrastination?

There are several methods that procrastinators can learn to help them get to and succeed at their tasks:

1. Divide tasks into sub tasks and approach each part of what needs to be done one at a time. Like the proverbial football receiver, if you keep your eye on the end zone you are likely to drop the ball. It is important to focus on each down, and on completing ten yards at a time. By dividing tasks into units they become much less daunting.

2. Make a schedule for when each sub task needs to be completed and work towards to completion of each sub task.

3. Make a list of priorities so that the most important things to be done in a day are listed first and attended to first. Keep focused on the priority list and do not allow yourself to become distracted. I have had people tell me that, at work, they become distracted from completing tasks by telephone calls or by people entering their office to talk. Voice mail can take messages while you are working on a project and people wishing to see you can be told you are not to be disturbed until some later time when you will be available.

4. Be an information seeker if you do not know how to get a particular task done. Too many people falsely believe that they are supposed to know how to do anything and should not need to ask. We all need help and it is important that we seek information and know-how.

5. Use your "will power" to control your impulses to do something else and force your self to complete the task.

6. As you begin to succeed at getting things done the tendency towards procrastination will decrease as self confidence grows.

In the end, if none of these things work then it might be time to consider psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help in learning the skill necessary to getting things done and toward overcoming the depression that could be holding someone back.

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