Not Worth the Wait

Procrastinators need a positive strategy to leave the delays behind

Everyone has heard a procrastination joke at one time or another. Like how procrastinators have more fun because they always have something to look forward to. Or how if not for the last minute, procrastinators would never get anything done. Or the one about the procrastinator who bought a book about procrastination, but never got around to reading it. Cue the rim shot.

Dr. Joe Ferrari, one of the world’s leading experts on procrastination, has heard just about all of them. He’s even been on the receiving end himself, noting that several times when he’s been invited to talk about procrastination at seminars, he’s been scheduled as one of the last speakers. Ba-dum-bum.

But to the DePaul University psychology professor, procrastination is no joke. In fact, he says that studies indicate that procrastinators cost American businesses billions of dollars a year.

“That’s why this isn’t very funny,” says Ferrari, who’s studied procrastination for more than 20 years and is the author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done ( Cd-0470611588.html).


A widespread problem

Ferrari says studies show that about 20 percent of the population suffers from chronic procrastination. That’s more widespread than depression, substance abuse, phobias and many other kinds of disorders.

It’s an international phenomenon, too, he notes, and affects all aspects of life, from failing to go to doctor’s appointments and waiting until the gas gauge is on empty to fill up a car with gas, to delaying payment of bills and being habitually late for meetings and other events.

Moreover, it’s a bigger problem among corporate white-collar employees than with blue-collar workers. Why? Blue-collar workers are paid only if they get things accomplished, while white-collar workers get salaries.

On the other hand, just because you delay acting on things doesn’t make you a chronic procrastinator. Or as Ferrari is fond of saying: Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.

“We all put off tasks we don’t want to do,” he observes. “Many times, it’s a good thing for a manager to wait — to gather all the necessary pieces of information before moving forward.

“Procrastination, on the other hand, occurs when you intentionally or purposefully delay the start of something, even if you have all the pieces in place,” he continues. “It’s intentional and strategic.”


Why the delay?

To fully understand how to help procrastinators get moving, it’s important to first comprehend what motivates them to delay decisions or actions, Ferrari notes. And in many cases, it all boils down to fear of failure and a lack of self-esteem.

“Many procrastinators believe that they’ll never fail if they never finish a project,” he says. “They think that if they never complete a task, no one can evaluate them. They’re typically very concerned about what other people think of them … and they’d rather have people think that they lack effort than that they lack ability.

“They also fear success,” he adds. “They think that if they do well now, they might get asked to do more in the future.”

Ferrari also says it’s important to debunk the rationales to which procrastinators cling in order to justify their behavior. For example, some procrastinators claim they’re too overwhelmed by social media.

“I don’t think it’s true,” he says. “Just look at the snooze button on alarm clocks — technology that’s been available since 1956. I consider it the first technology designed for procrastination. We’ve always had technology that enables us to procrastinate. It’s not the technology; it’s how we use it.”

Another crutch that procrastinators fall back upon is the notion that people in general are busier today than ever before. Fat chance, Ferrari says.

“What a major insult to our ancestors!” he notes. “We’re just very good excuse makers.”

Then there’s the mother of all procrastination rationales: I work better under pressure. Not so fast, Ferrari cautions, pointing to studies in which procrastinators made more errors on specific timed tasks than non-procrastinators.

“They (procrastinators) thought they performed the tasks better, but they actually did worse than non-procrastinators,” he says. “Working better under pressure is just a myth.”


How to motivate change

So how can managers help procrastinators get into the game? First of all, don’t send them to time-management seminars, which Ferrari believes are ineffective.

“There have been 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week for a long, long time,” he points out. “You can’t manage time — you must manage life within that time. You can’t send chronic procrastinators to time-management seminars because they won’t take ownership of that.”

What managers can do, however, is start emphasizing to procrastinators that their inaction creates negative ripple effects that impact others on a team, not just them. In addition, Ferrari suggests a paradigm change: Instead of punishing people for doing things late, reward them for doing things early.

“We don’t give early birds the worm any more,” he notes. “In this age of political correctness, we try to give a piece of the worm to everyone, instead of giving it to the person who gets things finished early.”

Christmas shopping and income tax returns offer good examples. Ferrari proposes that instead of prices going down further and further as Christmas Eve approaches, retailers should gradually increase prices to motivate chronic last-minute shoppers to shop earlier. And instead of penalizing people who file their income taxes late, the government should offer a reward for early filers. For example, people who file by February 15 could get an additional 4 percent of their total refund as a bonus, and 2 percent if they file by March 15.


More coping strategies

Procrastinators usually don’t miss the forest for the trees, Ferrari points out. They see the trees and feel overwhelmed. So in a manner of speaking, managers need to teach procrastinators to cut down one tree at a time.

“And if they can’t do that, try cutting off just three branches,” he says. “If not that, try removing only leaves … just give them something small to start with. Once you start moving, you’re more likely to continue moving.”

In a similar vein, break down a long-term deadline into smaller interim goals. For instance, if a project is due in eight weeks, spell out what must be accomplished in two weeks, then at four weeks, at six weeks and so forth.

“It won’t work to just tell them, ‘It’s due in eight weeks — see you later,’” Ferrari says. “And be sure to reward them for each step they reach toward that bigger goal, and don’t be afraid to get angry if they miss a goal. Just be sure they know it’s the behavior, not them, that you don’t like.”

Managers can also wield the so-called Premack Principle, named after psychologist David Premack, who in 1965 developed the rule of operant conditioning, which holds that preferred behaviors can be used to negate unpreferred behaviors. For instance, tell procrastinators they may use the corporate health club only if they spend 40 minutes writing that report they don’t want to start.

Or have the procrastinators send out public postings by email or Twitter, announcing that they’ll complete a certain goal within a specific deadline.

“This is effective because procrastinators are so afraid people won’t like them,” Ferrari says.

Managers also can pair a procrastinator with a non-procrastinator so the procrastinator can model good behavior. Or use technology that drastically limits the time procrastinators are allowed to view email each day.

In the end, however, really bad procrastinators may require cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps them develop tools to disrupt their irrational thought processes.

“It’s not laziness or bad time management that causes procrastination,” Ferrari says. “It’s far more complicated than that.”

But until then, managers can try the aforementioned tools and others explained in Ferrari’s book. Just don’t wait to get started.


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