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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Who Can Afford All This?

Poster child for the Costs of Procrastination?
In Chapter 5 of The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel brings in two of my favorite subjects--colonoscopies, and the superfluity of ABDs like me.  What's not to love?

This fifth chapter, entitled "The Personal Price of Procrastination:  What We Miss, What We Lose, and What We Suffer," begins with the cautionary tale of famous procrastinator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the relative ruination of a career, and a life, caused by his extremes of lateness.  Oh, and the little matter of "a severe drug addiction," which should probably be regarded as contributory.

Following this horrifying preamble, Dr. Steel shares the results of a survey he conducted on his website,  While few of us rise to the level of the apparently self-destructive author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Steel's survey provides a sketch of procrastination's impacts in our lives--or at least those self-selecting individuals concerned enough about procrastination to visit the site, and complete the survey.

Results of the 4000 online responses reveal fascinating patterns in procrastination difficulties across twelve "major life domains."  These domains, in descending order of average levels of procrastination (2=seldom, 3=sometimes, and 4=often) are:  Health; Career; Education; Community; Romance; Finance; Self; Friends; Family; Leisure; Spirituality; and Parenting.  Respondents also identified those domains which constituted their "top three problems."  56.8% named Career as one of their top three procrastination problems; 42.2%, Health; 35.9%, Finance; and 32.9%, Education.  In contrast, relatively few reported serious procrastination issues in relation to Family (18.9%), Leisure (11.4%), Spirituality (8.5%), or Parenting (4.1%).

Of course, I've never met a survey I didn't want to try my hand at (well, almost never).  My results would seem to fall into the category of atypical.  My "often" areas of delay were Leisure and Friends.  But the "biggies"--Career, Health, Finance and Education--all showed up in my "sometimes" group, along with Family.  My top three procrastination "hot spots"--those areas in which procrastination causes me the most trouble--are Finance, Friends and an area intriguingly left off Dr. Steel's list--I'll call it Household Operation and Maintenance.

I could not really identify among his 12 domains one which encompassed my worst postponement bugaboos--dishes; repairing all the appliances and fixtures my family keeps breaking; grocery shopping; laundry; mending; painting; amateur plumbing; straightening, purging and organizing all our stuff; mowing, and nagging others to make mowing happen; etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.  Additionally, the aspect of Finance which I find most troublesome is one I'm betting doesn't plague Dr. Steel and his fellow Canadians.  I am so frequently and grievously irked by items related to the management of my Health Insurance claims, appeals, snafus, and the like, as well as the resultant communications with providers and bill collectors, that I feel this area really deserves its own separate domain.  This is particularly so since the recent economic crisis has slowed the payment of claims to a rate that has taxed providers' patience, my short- and even long-term memory, and my filing space.

In further mining his data (minus information on Household Operation and Maintenance, and Health Insurance), Dr. Steel finds procrastination clusters, patterns which reveal groupings of domains that tend to "hang together."  Specifically, respondents' procrastination difficulties could often be categorized as falling into a "Success" cluster (Career, Education and Finance); a "Self-Development" cluster (Health, Self, Leisure and Spirituality; and Community and Romance); and/or an "Intimacy" cluster (Friends, Family and Parenting).

Again, I don't quite fit the mold.  My Success cluster hangs together pretty well, but my Self-Development and Intimacy clusters are somewhat scattered.  Like my mind, at times.

Be that as it may, I am warned, along with readers more or less typical, that
Whether your procrastination lies in the Success, Self-Development, or Intimacy cluster determines the price you pay for procrastination, as these three areas translate into three major costs:  your Wealth, Health, and Happiness. . . . Wherever your procrastination lies, the more you do it, the greater the cost.
Dr. Steel goes on to discuss, in distressing detail, some of the big ticket items related to dalliance in each of these realms.  The ABD story, so dear to my heart (See my previous posts, Any Better Designations? and Dealing with the Undead), is a feature of his picture of the costs of "financial" procrastination.  (He uses the term "financial," but I believe, judging from the scope of the discussion, that he is referring to the Success cluster, not to the more narrow Financial life domain.)  The "at least half" of PhD students who don't complete the degree waste their "immense investment of time," not to mention money, and forego, on average, the "30 percent increase in salary" that would result from finishing.  (So that's why I'm running out of money before I run out of month!)

In this section, Dr. Steel also touches on late-filing penalties on taxpayers; the compounding losses of those who fail to save early enough to take full advantage of compound interest; the financial gouging experienced by credit card balance "revolvers;" and other equally enchanting outcomes.  From his exploration of the results of dying intestate (without a will), I was motivated to clean up my testamentary act--as was Dr. Steel himself, who "completed [his] will within a few days of writing this sentence." The sentence in question referred to a statement regarding procrastination of wills in 1848, and read "In the ensuing one and a half centuries, nothing much has changed; right now, I bet your will is almost certainly either out of date of completely undone."

And as much fun as I had reading about the high price of putting off things financial, I enjoyed even more the graphic, eight-sentence, reality-TV-worthy description of a standard colonoscopy that opens the section on Medical procrastination.  Dr. Steel seems to intend that his straightforward depiction will help us miscreants to see that the procedure and its accompanying preparation and aftermath are no big deal.  Thus disabused of our exaggerated fears, we will presumably flock to the proctologist, or whatever specialist can visit this life-saving experience upon us.

We should also be enlightened to learn that,
not only are procrastinators less likely to pursue treatments but they are more likely to indulge in the very behaviors that create the need for treatments in the first place.  Procrastinators are health risks because their impulsive nature makes them susceptible to vices, attracting them to short-term pleasures despite their long-term pains.
According to Dr. Steel, us procrastinators are likely to smoke, drink to excess, overeat, drive carelessly, abuse drugs, fight, and (gasp!) neglect to floss.  (In my case, I gave up smoking long ago, and never indulged in most of the other behaviors, but I admit I seldom floss.  Mostly because I'm too impulsive not to fall on my face into bed at the end of a long exhausting day of too many damn things to do!)

Dr. Steel's consideration of religious procrastination focuses largely on how procrastination is viewed by the major religions.  He mentions another famous procrastinator, St. Augustine, whose feet-dragging approach to celibacy after his conversion to Christianity earns him a place on most lists of such postponement overachievers.  And he points out that
Procrastination is a universal theme in all these religions because we cannot predict when we will die; thus, the best time to repent, to act morally, to commit ourselves to doing good is now.
The overview was interesting, but I confess to wanting a little more help making the connections to the overall accounting of the personal costs of procrastinating, in this case spiritually.  Like not really taking time to figure out what the whole thing, this limited life we're living, means.

In the final section on what we lose by procrastinating, Dr. Steel writes about stress, quoting poignant posts on Procrastinators Anonymous and Procrastination Support forums; and regrets.
Looking back on our lives, it is common to feel that we should have gone for that degree or tried harder in class, that we should have mustered up the courage and risked rejection for that date, or made time for that phone call to Mom.   We are haunted by the ghosts of our own lost possible selves--what we might have been:  could've, should've, but didn't.
All in all, a sobering treatise.

Next week, the economic cost of procrastination to society.

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