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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Do You See Yourself in This Picture?

Chapter 1 of Dr. Piers Steel's new book, The Procrastination Equation, our featured resource on Procrastinating 101 for the next several weeks, busts a myth many of us hold to about why we procrastinate.

Considering the research on the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination, Dr. Steel finds little support for the widely held notion that our impossibly high standards make us late--in starting, in progressing, and in finishing things.  The perfectionist identity is worn as a badge by some of us, seeking to console ourselves for our perpetual dawdling.  Apparently, it is most often a sham.

Instead, we are going to have to grapple with the reality that it is poor impulse control--that scourge of the school child afflicted with ADHD, who is, in turn, the scourge of the classroom teacher--that is generally the culprit.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  And of Dr. Steel's  elegant organizational structure.

Like any good academic, Steel starts from a definition of his subject.  Procrastination, he says, is "not just any delay but an irrational one."

I especially enjoyed reading that procrastination
isn't a question of laziness, although the two are easily confused.  Unlike the truly slothful, procrastinators want to do what they need to do--and usually do get around to it, but not without a lot of struggle.
And that
dillydallying is in part hereditary, . . . we are hardwired to delay.
I also warmed to this acknowledgement that delay can be sensible in some cases, as when, for example, there is a good chance of the task being changed or preempted:
The obsessive who completes every task at the first opportunity can be just as dysfunctional as the procrastinator who leaves everything to the last moment.  Neither one is scheduling time intelligently.
And to this, identifying the need for flexibility in the face of changing circumstances and shifting priorities:
Not everything can happen at once; it is in your choice of what to do now and what to delay that procrastination happens, not in delay itself.

As an aid to our understanding, Dr. Steel rides the self-assessment wave, like so many others writing about procrastination (and other bad habits and mental missteps that send us running to the self-help aisle).  He refers us to his website for the full test, but includes in this first chapter the Reader's Digest version of the instrument he uses to measure "irrational delay." 

My score?  31--which makes me an "average procrastinator."  (Which makes me think of the line from The Fantasticks I adopted as my adolescent mantra:  "Please, God, don't let me be normal!")  Just barely, though.  One more point, and I would have made the top 10-25%.

Steel goes on to describe a typical procrastination scenario--so well, in fact, that it made me start to sweat.  He urges his readers to put the following three questions to ourselves concerning our most recent "bout of procrastination":

·       Did you know the task was going to take so long? 
·       Did you realize that the consequences of being late were so dire? 
·       Could you have expected the last-minute emergency?

According to Steel, 
The honest answers are likely yes, yup, and definitely. . .
(My most recent "bout" of procrastination involved putting off the completion of this blog post.  My honest answers?  Yes, not really, and okay, you got me.)

But, as in the ancient commercial for Clairol, it can be difficult for "the casual observer" to answer the question "Does she or doesn't she?"--in this case, referring not to dyeing one's hair, but to procrastinating.  And here it is not "her hairdresser," but "only the procrastinator" who "knows for sure."  Because it is "purposeful decision" which distinguishes a) that which we wisely postpone in favor of what matters more to us, from b) irrational, and thus procrastinating failure to get down to business.

As he winds up this first full chapter, Dr. Steel sketches in his "portrait of a procrastinator," relying on research findings.  He tells us that:

·       about 95 percent of people admit to procrastinating
·       about a quarter of these indicat[e] it is a chronic, defining characteristic
·       writers seem especially prone
·       procrastinators are more likely to be unemployed or working part-time
·       procrastinators can be of either sex, [but the male] has a slight edge
·       [procrastinators] are more likely to be single than married but also more likely to be separated than divorced
·       older people procrastinate less

His "psychological profile" of the garden-variety procrastinator, however, is where the rubber really meets the road in this chapter.  That "I'm a perfectionist, therefore I procrastinate" thing?  Busted.

Based on tens of thousands of participants--it's actually the best-researched topic in the entire procrastination field--perfectionism produces a negligible amount of procrastination.

And Dr. Steel's own research leads to the same conclusion:
neat, orderly, and efficient perfectionists don't tend to dillydally.  [the scientific term, apparently]
He says the proclivity of those perfectionists who do procrastinate to seek professional help has fed the belief that the two traits are related.  

But what's really going on, for most procrastinators, is that our inability to delay gratification makes us respond to task anxiety by procrastinating.  Us 
impulsive people find it difficult to plan work ahead of time and even after [we] start, [we] are easily distracted.  Procrastination inevitably follows.

In concluding Chapter 1, Dr. Steel outlines the rest of the book, promising hope for those of us plagued by "the overfull kitchen garbage can in the morning" and "the nearly empty tube of toothpaste at night."  

I love his ending sentence:
The advice here is evidence-based, as scientifically vetted and pharmaceutically pure as it gets; it's the good stuff from behind the counter, so don't overdo it.

Next week, Chapter 2:  "The Procrastination Equation:  The Result of Eight Hundred Studies Plus One."

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