#276 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 5          May 1997

It’s About Time!
By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D.

Dr. Sapadin, author of It’s About Time!  The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them (Viking Press, New York, 1996) is a psychologist and management consultant.  She provides training and development seminars and is a keynote speaker and consultant.  She can be reached at 19 Cloverfield Road, Valley Stream, NY 11581; phone 516-791-2780; email Lsapadin@aol.com.

Yes, everyone procrastinates occasionally.  The task of writing a report may be put off until the last minute.  A messy office may be cursed for months without ever getting into it.  Discussion about a sensitive, but very important, issue may be held off.  However, for many people, procrastination is much more than a simple issue.  It’s a chronic, pervasive problem that creates feelings of powerlessness, ineffectiveness and underachievement.  There’s a fair chance that you manage one or more of these chronic procrastinators.  You may want to share this article with them.

Advice to procrastinators usually focuses on time-management principles.  However, most procrastinators know all about what they should do; yet, they don’t do it.  Therefore, they need to look beyond the obvious and see what’s at the root of their chronic self-defeating patterns.

Far from being lazy, as the stereotype would have it, chronic procrastinators generally have sufficient energy—the energy gets blocked, however, and doesn’t flow smoothly from mental preparation to physical execution.  They want or need to do something, but feel resistant toward doing it because of some type of fear or anxiety.  This impasse indicates an approach-avoidance conflict, with no clear-cut solution.  Like a Hamlet in the world of action, the procrastinator is torn between two impulses—“to do” or “not to do.”

Although the result of procrastination is always the same—broken promises, wasted time and unfinished projects, all procrastinators are not the same.  My research indicates that there are six distinct styles of procrastination, each of them plagued by a different sticking point, which I call the “But” factor.  It’s not unusual for people to relate to two or three of the styles. 

The Perfectionist

But I want it to be perfect!”

Perfectionists want so much to do things just right.  Their self-esteem is constantly on the line, pronouncing themselves a failure if a task isn’t done perfectly.  They either have trouble getting started on a task, or get bogged down and can’t complete a project because there’s always one more detail to finish.  Their main problem is having unrealistically high standards and too much attention to unimportant details, thereby slowing down their progress.

What to Do

THINKING:  Focus on what’s realistic, not idealistic.  Strive for accomplishment, not perfection.  Don’t sweat the unimportant details.

SPEAKING:  Change your “shoulds” to “coulds.”  Instead of always beating yourself up for what you “should” have done, think about choices.  The word “could” reminds you that you have the power to choose and puts you more in control of what’s happening now, rather than what “should have” happened.

ACTING:  Set time limits for what you need to accomplish.  Perfectionists can let projects drag on forever.  Give yourself 10 percent over the time limit, then call it quits.  If you need help in doing this, work with someone who will remind you when enough is enough.

The Dreamer

But I hate dealing with all those bothersome details!”

Many dreamers are creative, charismatic, interesting people.  But when you get to the how, when and what of the project, they get very vague.  Whereas perfectionists get bogged down in details, dreamers don’t pay enough attention to them.  They are often great at the beginning of a project, but when it comes down to the actual work of doing what needs to be done, they get quite vague.

What to Do

THINKING:  Differentiate your dreams from your goals.  With your goals you need to keep asking yourself detail-oriented questions such as “Who needs to get this memo?” or “How and when should we discuss the budget?”

SPEAKING:  Avoid using vague specifications such as “someday” or “soon.”  Be more detail-oriented while communicating.

ACTING:  Keep two separate lists.  One “To do” and one “To think about.”  With the former, make a time-line, giving yourself specific deadlines for each part of a project.

The Worrier

But I’m afraid to make a change!”

Worriers tend to have a too small comfort zone and hesitate to leave their cocoon.  They try to avoid risk or change, which, of course, is quite impossible.  Lacking confidence in their own abilities and decision-making, they often let deadlines quietly pass rather than take an active approach to getting things done and initiating activity.

What to Do

THINKING:  It’s better to make a mistake and learn from it, then to keep avoiding tackling something new.  Develop more confidence in your abilities—if you don’t know something, ask or research the answer.

SPEAKING:  Worriers often catastrophize events by a “What if” question.  When asking a question, look for answers.  Don’t ask a rhetorical question to just raise your anxiety level.

ACTING:  If something seems too overwhelming, break a project down into chunks that you can confidently handle.  If there are areas that you truly don’t know enough about, take a course, read a book, don’t continue your ignorance

The Defier

But why should I do it?”

There are two types of defiers.  One is the open, aggressive defier who is argumentative, sulky and resistant; the other is the passive-aggressive defier, who hides his defiance under a guise of compliance.  The latter type may seem openly agreeable, but doesn’t keep his part of the bargain.

What to Do

THINKING:  Defiers tend to react negatively to authority, automatically resenting and resisting what others want.  Defiers need to learn to work with their team, not against it; and if something doesn’t seem right, they need to speak up and suggest a more effective solution, not just complain or defy.

SPEAKING:  Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Don’t just say what others might want to hear in order to get them off your back.  Avoid words of blame, attack and righteous indignation.

ACTING:  Learn to “act,” not “react.”  Acting is doing what you know needs to be done, not because someone else is demanding it, but because you recognize it’s a task that is part of your responsibility.

The Crisis Maker

But I only get motivated at the last minute!”

Crisis makers initially under-react by putting off tasks until the last minute, then over-react, creating a crisis in order to get it done.  They may rush in as a super hero, making their staff work all night, until the project is completed.  But they’re only fooling themselves, for it doesn’t take long for others to recognize that the crisis wouldn’t have happened in the first place if things were done in a timely manner.

What to Do

THINKING:  Recognize that you don’t have to feel interested in a project in order to get started.  Often, the interest builds after you get involved.

SPEAKING:  Avoid over-dramatic language like, “It’ll kill me to get it done on time,” or “That’s an outrageous request.”  This kind of talk creates a crisis before you’ve even begun.

ACTING:  Keep a record of repetitive crises, and figure out how to avoid the constant repetition.  If you find you really do need that adrenaline rush, set your sights on some other achievement; perhaps, some health-related activity like playing a competitive sport.  Avoid getting your “highs” from putting off work task—like waiting until the last minute to get a report done.  It’s not worth it!

The Overdoer

But I have so much to do!”

Overdoers don’t seem like procrastinators because they are always working.  However, they often work inefficiently and ineffectively.  Overdoers constantly take on more work than necessary, because they have difficulty saying “no” or delegating responsibility.  They rarely set priorities, lack self-discipline and easily get distracted, responding to the need of the moment.  They are primary candidates for early burnout.

What to Do

THINKING:  Say good-bye to the myth of Superman or Superwoman.  You cannot do it all, nor can you have it all.  Certainly not at the same time.  Choose what’s important to you at this time and give it top priority.

SPEAKING:  Learn to say “No.”  You can do that graciously, as in “No, but thank you for asking me” or giving an alternative, “No, I don’t have time this week, but next week would be fine.”  Avoid speaking about yourself as a victim with no alternatives, “I have so much to do; I’m so busy I don’t have a moment to breathe.”

ACTING:  If you truly are overworking, cut your hours; don’t extend them even more.  Take a break, like a long weekend.  Then, evaluate your time and eliminate tasks that are unnecessary.  Learn to delegate as much as you can.

CHANGE IS A PROCESS:  You need to move from denial (“There’s no problem here, just get off my back and everything will be fine”) to awareness.  Once aware, however, you still have to overcome a sense of ambivalence and powerlessness.  Once you commit to change, it will be relatively easy for you to implement many of these ideas to help you reach your goals.  You don’t have to change who you are, just modify some of the ways you do things.

Overcoming procrastination is a matter of realizing that what you do with your time and how you experience what you do is, in fact, your life.  Then it becomes a matter of discovering how to live and work productively and efficiently, so you can both enjoy life and accomplish what’s important to you.  After all, it’s about time!

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