Procrastination

Running after a deer was not an option I had considered. That day, strolling around my property, admiring my handiwork, I found the deer nonchalantly munching my hard-earned blooms. I spent much of the spring laboring outdoors, moving dirt, spreading fertilizer, pulling weeds, and ending each day with protesting muscles. My planning and efforts had paid off, and the product was plain to see. No way was I going to allow this freeloading deer to destroy my work in one afternoon.

The time for deer repellents and pricing the best fencing was past. I whooped and shouted, sprinting (or lumbering, depending on your point of view) toward the disbelieving deer. She trotted off, shooting me a wounded look before disappearing into the woods. I stood, winded but triumphant, satisfied with my decisive action.

Spring is the season of renewal and rebirth. Welcome are the longer days and warmer temperatures that hint at approaching summer. For many, the preceding months have been spent thinking about the possibilities of the new year, dreaming of sunny vacations, making lists from seed catalogs, or making plans for home improvements. Spring is the time to bring those ideas to fruition. For most people, ideas become reality by simply making a beginning; digging one hole, purchasing one pound of nails, completing one phone call. But for some, that beginning is very difficult.

Approximately 20 percent of any population is affected by chronic procrastination — the inability to take action in a timely way. By comparison, 7 to 8 percent of Americans suffer depression. Procrastination negatively affects the sufferer and the people around them. The procrastinators increase their own levels of guilt and anxiety. The people around them learn they cannot count on the procrastinators for completed work, being part of a successful team effort or making important deadlines.

I recently learned there are two basic categories of procrastinators: avoidant types and arousal types. Avoiders will do anything to put off a task, including repeated reorganizing or endless research. Arousal types enjoy the thrill of last-minute efforts, believing that the adrenaline-spiking time crunch produces more creativity or better results.

Research suggests that procrastination is a coping mechanism for emotional problems related to depression, ADHD, anxiety, or other issues. It is not simply a “time management” problem. Procrastination is a behavior that is learned, and can be unlearned. It is a state of being that is optimally helped by cognitive behavioral therapy.

If you find yourself in this situation, what can you do? One leading researcher in this field, Dr. Joseph Ferrari, suggested surrounding yourself with doers — people who take action and get things done. Use a slogan: Just say Now, and take action. As the commercial says, “A body in motion stays in motion.” Break tasks down into smaller pieces and begin one bit at a time. Use a simple system. For example, a paper and pencil list, convenient for crossing off completed tasks. Let yourself be accountable to other people by making your intentions public. Try not to be afraid of failure.

At this very moment, I am procrastinating. I will do anything to put off doing my taxes. I plan to wash dishes next, then fold laundry. All the while, the tax chores are hanging over my head. It is an unpleasant job that I want to avoid as long as possible. I am also procrastinating about purchasing a new car. I am researching online and in person. There are so many choices.

While I acknowledge that these two are tasks I am putting off, it does not make me one of the 20 percent who chronically procrastinate. Giving important tasks the time and attention needed for thorough consideration is smart, and shows some maturity. But putting off every job I need to do and reducing my life to a struggle for competence is a pervasive handicap, one which interferes with quality of life.

We cannot manage time; that cannot be changed. However, we can manage ourselves, and the way we approach tasks that must be done. In research for this column, I learned another important aspect about procrastination. While it is easy to joke about the subject, it is a source of hidden agony for the sufferer. Fear, guilt, anxiety and shame often lie beneath the surface. Procrastinators deserve the compassion and support we would offer anyone with an incapacitating condition. We cannot know the concealed fears and struggles of a person who may seem to have it all together. Forget New Year’s Resolutions, let’s make Spring Resolutions and resolve to show kindness to ourselves and others.

Vicki Husted Biggs is a longtime social worker. She lives in Home.

A Shift in Perspective