Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Procrastinating 101--Wait Wait. . . Don't Tell Me!

In Chapter 7 of his book Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, Dr. Joseph Ferrari tackles the issue of "Why the Time of Day and the Tasks Matter."  He begins by debunking the notion that procrastinators can't get things done because we "don't have enough time," as some of us claim--and, I would argue, experience.  Dr. Ferrari points out, and cites scholars who agree with him, that procrastinators "have the same amount of time as everyone else."  

But do we?  He seems not to have inquired into whether or not some of us in fact have more claims on our time--and thus, perhaps, real time deficits.

He adds his voice to those who rail against meetings as "one of the largest time suckers that exists in business settings."  I am inclined to agree with him (see my post from last year, Let's Schedule a Meeting About All These *(&*$@%~ Meetings), though we part company over what to do about it, Ferrari recommending fining people for being late.  The way my schedule has been lately, I cannot afford this solution, or the alternative, which is investment in some sort of teleporter.

Ferrari goes on to consider waiting--and argues that we should not confuse procrastination with waiting, or with delaying.  Both waiting and delaying can be productive, he says, if we use the time to prepare or to gather more information.  The problem--where procrastination comes in--is in "not starting or not finishing when it makes sense to finish."

I found interesting Ferrari's report of research he conducted with various students and colleagues, showing that:
  • procrastinators are more likely to ruminate on negative events than to savor positive events
  • procrastinators do not focus on the future--and aren't so great at dealing with the present either.  They are more apt to be stuck in reruns of past occurrences.
  • procrastinators can either hold a hopeless perspective on the future, or if focused on the present, approach it from a hedonistic and risk-taking approach
  • procrastinators tend to be "night people"  
We asked procrastinators to record in a daily diary all of the activities they worked on--including the time of day--during a six-day period. . . . We recorded hundreds of tasks, but there was no significant difference between procrastinators and nonprocrastinators in the number or the quality of the tasks.  Procrastinators, however (even those in international samples), were more likely to list their tasks as started or completed at night. . . . Procrastinators started at the last minute (at night) and reported failing to complete many of their tasks. 
Additionally, Ferrari discusses research finding that procrastinators preferred easy tasks that did not reveal their skill level, when given a choice between such tasks and three other task conditions:  easy, but indicative of a person's skills; difficult, but not indicative of skill level; and difficult, and indicative of skill level.  This was especially true when these research participants were told they would receive feedback upon completing the task.  
Another study of visitors showed that people were more likely to delay difficult undertakings such as weight loss, exercise programs, and planning for retirement.  Ferrari concludes that procrastinators "prefer to avoid knowing where [we] stand in life.  This avoidance prevents [us] from confirming [our] knowledge about [our] skills."

This finding was reinforced by another of his own studies which found that procrastinators, but not nonprocrastinators, were more likely to choose tasks related to their social skills over those supposedly revealing something about their cognitive abilities.  Ferrari interprets this finding in this way:  "In short, as a procrastinator you don't want feedback about your thinking (cognitive) abilities."  He advises those of us who struggle with procrastination to move beyond this reluctance, beyond the concern with "deficits."  Rather, he says, we should think of negative feedback "as a way that you can increase and strengthen the skills you do have.  Build on the positives instead of focusing on the negatives."

I was intrigued with Ferrari's discovery that procrastinators do not seem to have particular patterns with regard to the types of tasks they choose to delay--delaying "many tasks in every area of their lives."  But "the tasks that procrastinators prefer to delay reveal that they want to avoid knowing what their weaknesses and strengths are."  Procrastinators 
more often described past tasks they'd delayed as difficult, requiring effort, and unpleasant--even when the completion of the tasks would have had a positive impact on the situation at the time. 
And elaborating further:
What we see is avoidance--of the self.  Procrastinators don't want to learn that they are not as capable as they think they are; they don't want others to learn that they lack certain abilities. 
I can't say I was elated to confront this view of my behavior (typical, given my procrastinator status), but this description resonates with my experience.  And this knowledge is more valuable than Ferrari's fairly standard list of suggestions for dealing with the problem. 

This exhortation is useful as well:
Although it is understandable that you may not want to know your limits, not knowing your strengths will negatively affect your self-perception.  If you know where you are, you can see where you need to go.
And on that note, I can see that I need to go to bed. . . .

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