Giving Procrastination the Boot!
Theresa Dowsett, CHRP , CPCC

"It's a job that's never started that takes the longest to finish."

~ J. R. R. Tolkien


Ahhhh... You finally have time to sit down and write that report that your client has been expecting for two weeks. But wait, what's that? The laundry needs folding? Well, that just won't do, we all need our laundry to be neat and tidy. Or perhaps you see the pile of tax receipts that needs to be organized, a task you've been putting off for months. And so, once again, you set aside the report to take care of this "urgent" matter.


Welcome to the world of Procrastination. Each day, millions of people around the world give in to strong and pressing urges to accomplish mundane jobs, rather than getting important tasks done. Procrastination literally means "to put off for tomorrow".


For some, procrastination is a useful tool. Action is postponed to allow for a period of reflection, or to make room for another job with a higher priority level. Even those who are focused, committed and disciplined fall behind temporarily when unexpected events occur. But for some, these lapses are part of everyday life.


"People who acknowledge their limits are not likely to feel distressed when they can't do everything," says Dr. Jane B. Burka and Dr. Lenora M. Yuen in their book procrastination: why you do it, what to do about it. "They do the best they can, but they know they can't do it all."


"Only Robinson Crusoe had everything done by Friday."
~ unknown


But for millions of others, procrastination is a way of life that can have a significant effect on daily stress levels and long-term effectiveness. Thousands of books have been written to help people overcome this problem. Motivational speakers make billions of dollars each year, "teaching" hapless procrastinators how to rid themselves of this sometimes-debilitating habit.


Keep in mind that it is not just your mental health that will benefit from eliminating negative procrastination from your life. According to a study of 374 undergraduates by the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University (Ottawa) in 2003, procrastinators get more cold and flu symptoms and have more digestive problems than their punctual peers.


As Victor Kiam (former president and CEO of Remington Razor) once stated, "Procrastination is opportunity's natural assassin." How true, and yet, we procrastinate - for some to the extent of our own destruction...


Why Procrastinate?


It's easy to assume that people who procrastinate are lazy, disorganized or have a lack respect for the task. Before we jump to conclusions and brand an entire strain of humanity, it is important to take a closer look at the underlying world of procrastination.


Procrastination is often employed subconsciously, and for many is a very real coping strategy. At its core, procrastination signifies an emotional block that many are not capable of recognizing, let alone "fixing".


The reasons we procrastinate are many. We may lack confidence in our skill set to get the job done. Often, especially in business, we are pulled into saying yes to new work, even when we have not had the training or education to feel confident in our abilities.


In our hectic society, we often find ourselves with an overload of tasks all at once, resulting in an inability to prioritize each step. Instead of having a steady stream of work, coming in at a comfortable pace, we face peaks and valleys where we sink or swim. Our feelings of being overwhelmed increase, creating a recipe for procrastination that would make Scarlett O'Hara proud ("Oh fiddle, I'll think about that tomorrow." ~Gone with The Wind).


In times of procrastination, we experience difficulty concentrating and experience anxiety about getting the work done. We get to the point where we doubt our own ability to know what is required. Negative feelings begin to fill our heads and, because we spend so much time thinking about the work we are putting off, these messages become a heavy burden to carry.


For some of us, procrastination is all about setting ourselves up for failure. We set overly ambitious standards that even Superman could not meet. Our "all-or-nothing" thinking leaves no room for error, so if we experience even one setback, it is seen as a total catastrophe.


Of course, sometimes we procrastinate just because we are bored with the task at hand, and anything - even ironing - seems MUCH more interesting and "fun".


"You may delay, but time will not."
~ Benjamin Franklin


Procrastinators Take Heart!


Procrastinating is NOT a life sentence. It CAN be controlled, managed and even overcome. At its core, procrastination is an attempt to cope with our emotional reactions. Its purpose seems to be to make our life more pleasant, but instead it almost always adds stress, disorganization and, frequently, failure. Thankfully, there is no procrastination gene. It is not hereditary, and we are not destined to procrastinate just because our forefathers did. Procrastination is a habitual behaviour and, as such, the habit can be broken and changed.


"Hooray!" you say - there is hope!


Because procrastination has deep-seeded emotional roots, by uncovering the emotional ties and creating structures to lessen the impact of these ties, procrastinators the world over are able to make positive changes in their lives. But it takes time, honesty with oneself and a willingness to let go of some of our strongly held beliefs both about ourselves and the world around us. Emotions commonly associated with procrastination include:


  • Fear (of failure, success, the unknown, rejection - you name it!)
  • Anger
  • Mild to severe sadness, sometimes bordering on depression
  • Pleasure-seeking (a sense of freedom, an abstract sense of control over one's use of energy and time...


To discover how you can turn this behaviour around, it can be useful to examine the reasons why you procrastinate. Ask yourself these questions:


  • What am I procrastinating getting done? Is there a pattern?
  • What blocks me from getting this task done?
  • If I were to get this task done, what am I afraid might happen?
  • What might the underlying emotions be that are tied to my procrastination?
  • What other tasks do I do instead (e.g. mundane tasks, watch television, socialize, etc...)?
  • What problems does my procrastination cause?
  • What is the immediate payoff for procrastinating (e.g. enjoying our favourite show, being with friends, feeling "powerful" in the moment)?
  • What are the costs (both actual, real costs and opportunity costs) associated with my procrastination?


"There are a million ways to lose a workday, but not even a single way to get one back."
~ Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister


Giving Procrastination the Boot!


When you understand why you choose to procrastinate, you can take steps to make alternate choices. Follow these suggestions for improved performance.


  • Choose one area of your life where you would like to stop procrastinating. Don't bite off a project that's too big - lasting change is built on successful accomplishments. Keep your first projects small enough so your confidence level is high enough to keep you moving towards your goal.
  • Decide what behaviour you want to replace the procrastination with. Be specific about how you want to behave - this will provide a foundation from which progress can be measured.
  • Enlist the help of a loved one or friend to help you change this behaviour. Your partner's support and encouragement will help you keep motivated. By committing to someone else your chances of success are 65%. By committing to someone else and being held accountable to that person raises your chances of success to 95% (according to the American Society of Training and Development). Wow!
  • Reward even the smallest change - and reward yourself often. Each time you catch yourself procrastinating and you turn your performance around, tell yourself you are on your way, give yourself a pat on the back (and make sure your accountability partner does the same). This reinforces the positive benefits of your new behaviour and will encourage you to repeat it.
  • Have patience. Procrastination has deep emotional roots, and the habits formed are well established and strong. It takes time to completely change an ingrained behaviour. Be willing to give yourself the time you need to release an old habit.


If you slip up, don't worry. The important thing is that you begin each day with the attitude that it is a fresh canvas on which to paint your success. So what are you waiting for? Good luck!


"You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


Theresa Dowsett, President of Business Acceleration Inc. , has over 20 years of business management experience. Educated in business administration, human resource management, business law and professional coaching, Theresa is a Certified Human Resource Professional and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach. Having worked in a variety of industries, including the private and public sector, Theresa works with clients both one on one and in groups to help achieve their goals and create work environments that support growth, satisfaction and success.