Problematic Procrastination

June 1, 2000
I`ve been meaning to start this article for days now, but I just never felt like it was the right time. "Tomorrow," I said to myself, "I`ll have all of my notes together. The article will practically write itself." But tomorrow came and went, leaving me with nothing to show for it but a monkey on my back.

Here are some tips to keep procrastination from letting you realize your full potential.

Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH

I`ve been meaning to start this article for days now, but I just never felt like it was the right time. "Tomorrow," I said to myself, "I`ll have all of my notes together. The article will practically write itself." But tomorrow came and went, leaving me with nothing to show for it but a monkey on my back.

Don Marquis described procrastination as, "The art of keeping up with yesterday." You don`t move forward; you only tread water in the sea of time. While researching this topic, I came across scores of college Web sites dedicated to the art of procrastination. Some were genuine masterpieces that showed how much thought - and time - went into such an endeavor. I wondered what those students should have been studying instead. William Knaus, a psychologist, estimated that 90 percent of college students procrastinate. Of these, 25 percent are chronic procrastinators who eventually drop out of college. They avoid the task at hand so well that it never gets done. As these statistics portray, the "I`ll do it later" mindset has the potential for painful consequences, stifling the success of the most promising people. But what good is a promise if it`s never fulfilled?

Why do we put things off? There are a number of reasons. If a more important task needs your attention first, you`re prioritizing, not procrastinating. But if the really important task is the one you are avoiding, procrastination is in progress. Time management is a vital skill to have in our hectic lives. Unfortunately, some chronic procrastinators are so versed in managing their time that they deliberately leave no time for the distasteful chore to be avoided.

My daughter, a freshman psychology major, wrote a two-page list of the things she did while avoiding writing a three-page paper for class. In her "30 steps of avoidance," the second step stated, "Consider doing the paper." The same feeble suggestion was repeated at step #30. Everything else took up the entire day. The paper was finally started at 2 a.m. - not unusual for a skilled and proud procrastinator like my first-born. (By the way, procrastination is a trait of the first child. When her grades reflect her mismanagement, I`ll get upset.)

Inability to find "a good time" aids procrastination. Let`s say you have an idea that you think will make your office run more efficiently. You`ve been putting off bringing it up because your day is so busy and your boss is only available for a conversation of 15 words or less. Capsulizing has never been your strong suit, so it remains just an idea that is wedged between thoughts of dinner plans and flute lessons for your daughter.

Suppose that idea sounds fantastic to you, but you`re afraid your co-workers will just roll their eyes and snicker. Fear of your idea being ridiculed is another reason for procrastination.

Fear of the unknown can also stop you dead in your tracks. The new direction sparked by your idea may be uncharted territory in your office. You hesitate and procrastinate until you get up enough nerve - whenever that is.

Lack of self-confidence always holds you back. When you have negative beliefs about your own capabilities or role in the office, you`re not inclined to forge ahead. You`ll stay where you are - safe and stagnant. Procrastination is your security blanket, but it`s smothering you!

Maybe you have an unrealistic concept of what you must do before mentioning this wonderful and life-changing idea. You think you have to read everything that has been written on the subject in order to suppress the taunts of the office naysayers. You haven`t called at least 10 people and proposed the idea to each of them, as well as the mayor and Uncle Anthony. You don`t feel prepared and, until you are, you`re not opening your mouth. Your argument must be perfect or you won`t argue at all. Perfectionism and procrastination go hand-in-hand.

You could be the kind of person who can`t handle failure. If your idea is given a "thumbs down," you think you have failed; therefore you are a failure. You can`t take that risk, so you don`t even try. You procrastinate - sometimes indefinitely.

Or you might be the type that has a fear of success. That may sound strange, but success brings increased pressure to perform, more responsibilities, longer hours, and more work. "OK! Great idea!" the boss might say. "I`m putting you in charge of the entire operation, and I want to see what you`ve got by Friday." Now you have to worry about disgruntled co-workers who didn`t like your idea and now must abide by it, as well as your ability to make this really work by Friday. Fear of what could happen if you succeed gives birth to procrastination.

Milton Cudney, PhD, and Robert Hardy, EdD, have procrastination first on the list of harmful traits in their book, "Self-Defeating Behaviors." They state that a characteristic of a self-defeating behavior is that "At one point or another, it works to help an individual deal with a hurtful or threatening situation. It is never the best behavior that could be used in a particular situation."

Your idea has not yet been voiced, and your office is still suffering from some fatal efficiency flaw. You had a shaky and potentially riot-inducing idea last April, and it was laughed down before it even reached the staff meeting. You were humiliated, and you remember that. You believe procrastinating in bringing this idea to the staff`s attention will save you that pain. You think to yourself, "Procrastination will protect my feelings and reputation in the office, while speaking up about my idea will get me hurt. Therefore, I`ll procrastinate." But what makes you think every idea is of the same caliber? This is a good one, yet you are stuck in a rut. You are the victim of a self-defeating conclusion from the past influencing your behavior in a new situation.

When I moved to my present location, I held the conviction that I would never work downtown because of the traffic jams, accidents, icy overpasses, and tornados (they always seem to hit around rush hour). I was dead-set against going more than 10 miles from my house to seek employment. I had just moved from the Washington, D.C., area and was glad I didn`t have to take I-95 to get to work anymore. The morning traffic reports here rival the calamities that befall motorists in the D.C. area. I told myself I would work close to home this time, but most of the jobs are downtown. My self-defeating conclusion that bad things would happen if I worked downtown kept me from even answering an ad in that area. When all other avenues to employment led nowhere, I was forced to examine my conclusion and face what Cudney and Hardy refer to as "mythical fears."

A mythical fear is "a fear that arises from faulty and self-defeating conclusions we form when trying to cope with the toxic input from our culture." In my case, toxic input was the list of bad things about working downtown. When we let mythical fears control us, we may have feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression, and self-doubt. Fear of fire, drinking and driving, ice fishing in the spring, etc. are common-sense fears that could save your life. Unfortunately, we perpetuate and nourish these mythical fears when we don`t recognize them for what they are and deal with them. You don`t have to be a slave to mythical fears; you can face them and conquer them. But first you have to ask yourself, "Exactly what is it I`m afraid of?"

I did that. Today I dropped off my resume in two downtown offices and made an appointment for an interview in one of them. Whether I get the job or not isn`t as important to me as the fact that I had a breakthrough and challenged the mythical fear that had been controlling me for the past five months. Now that I`ve conquered it - and found the trip to the office in question took 14 whole minutes on the parkway and I-565 on an accident-free day - I am free to travel to any other office in that vicinity or farther. Overcoming mythical fears is a real rush!

If you find yourself procrastinating because of these kinds of fears and want to be free of them, take a minute to recognize and understand them. These fears are holding you back from your full potential and talent. Bring to consciousness your subconscious conclusions about "what will happen if..." Once your fears are voiced or recorded, they can be dealt with one at a time. After you have pinned down exactly what frightens or worries you, you can deal with the faulty, irrational beliefs and eliminate them with rational arguments. But if they continue to be just "a bad feeling" about doing something new, you have no defense. They will remain unidentified and will control your actions once again, keeping you in a "going-nowhere" state. People in this position tend to develop low self-esteem because they are immobilized and enslaved by their mythical fears. They are seemingly unable or unwilling to fight them. Some say, "That`s just the way I am. I have to live with it." This is called "disowning," a refusal to recognize your self-defeating behaviors. Freedom comes from owning, identifying, understanding, and conquering these self-defeating fears.

So let`s get back to this Nobel Prize-winning idea you have. The best time to discuss it wouldn`t be during a busy workday. That`s not giving it your best shot. Be prepared to unveil it at the staff meeting. Leave a note where your boss sits to alert him that you have something to say.

If you`re afraid of your idea being ridiculed, just try to count the numerous inventors whose ideas were laughed at!

Are you afraid of what might happen if you speak up? Give it a try and see. You`re big enough to take it, and you can`t get fired for a bad idea. What`s the staff going to do? Tar and feather you? Do you have a dim view of your own capabilities? You wouldn`t have been hired if your boss felt the same way. Do you feel you must OK it with the president before presenting it? Does he OK things with you? It`s just an idea, not a foreign policy.

Do you think you`ll be destroyed if your idea is shot down? Stephen King collected stacks of rejection letters before someone appreciated his talents. I`m sure he was destroyed for a day or two, but then he came back with more best-selling horrific ideas. You can recuperate and regroup too - and without all that blood!

Are you worrying about succeeding? If the boss loves your idea, this could be your leverage for a raise down the road. It looks great on a resume too! And there`s nothing like a pat on the back to improve your self-image. Go for it!

Replacement behaviors and techniques are not always as easily implemented as the habitually used self-defeating behaviors. Procrastinators use those destructive behaviors throughout their lives without knowing it. Take a good look at the choices you make on a daily basis. Ask yourself why you made that choice and then examine the answer. Is it founded in truth and reality, or is it an unsubstantiated fear? This is the first step in recognizing the defeating thought patterns and faulty conclusions that nurture and perpetuate mythical fears. As Cudney and Hardy point out, defeating behaviors nurture defeating behaviors, while winning behaviors perpetuate winning behaviors. Once there is a breakthrough and a defeating behavior is conquered, it`s easier to ride that "freedom high" and examine more of why we do what we do. Ultimately, the goal is to be totally free to be the real you, unfettered by negative and unsubstantiated whisperings from yesterday that influence your actions today. Strive to be free! And, start today, don`t procrastinate!

Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Procrastinator`s Dilemma

See if you can identify the fears in these self-defeating statements.

1. I hate changing offices. Last time I changed, I ended up here and, boy, was that a mistake! You never know what you`re going to get. It`s so uncertain. I guess I`ll have to learn to live with it for now.

2. Someday I`ll get around to sharpening these instruments, if I can remember how to do it without ruining them. Maybe I should let Sue do it.

3. When is the cut-off date for CE hours? Two months ago! Oh no! I just can`t seem to find a good time to take that perio course!

4. It looks like decay, but the last time I brought something like this to his attention, he laughed at me and said it was food stain. Let`s just put a "watch" on it.

5. Yes, I`ve been here for five years, and I`m still at starting pay. I hate asking for money. He would raise my salary if he thought I deserved it, right? Maybe I`ll get a raise next year.

6. I`ve been miserable in this office for a long time. The dentist scares me with his tantrums! I`d love to leave, but the last hygienist who dared to leave was practically blacklisted. He knows every dentist in town.

7. If he asks, don`t tell the boss it was me who fixed the prophy jet. He`ll make me fix everything else in this office!

8. I don`t think I`ll go to that interview. If I do and he doesn`t hire me, I won`t be able to take it. If I don`t go, I`ll still have my self-respect. No one will have rejected me.

9. I`m not sure that I want to turn in this article. Mr. Hartley might not like it, and I`d be devastated. Or, he might like it and ask me to write another right away. But I`m not that good. And when could I fit it in? There`s so much research to do! And then there are those letters to the editor! I don`t know what they`ll say about this one. I`ve never written one like it before.