Don't delay setting goals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am

Anyone - young or old, brilliant or average, unemployed or professionally successful - can be a procrastinator

Book Procrastination

Author Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen

Publisher Da Capo Long Life

In the deeply divided world we live in, it is comforting to know that some things are universal. Procrastinating, or the practice of putting off things people find unpleasant to do, is one such universal characteristic, according to American psychologists Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen.

They point out in their book Procrastination that hesitating and putting off things until the last minute does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, sex, or ethnic origin. The reasons for hesitating until all is almost lost - and the awful problems created by this delaying tactic - have exercised literary minds for centuries, they say. After all, one of the most famous dramatic works of all time, William Shakespeare's Danish tragedy Hamlet, strips bare the eponymous prince's indecision, hesitation and delay in reacting to the murder of his royal father.

In so doing, Shakespeare has gripped the imagination of people around the world for centuries. As with poor prince Hamlet, we dither over life's questions, large and small. However, trying to understand people's taste for procrastination and then doing something positive about it is something few have attempted.

Procrastination is renowned as one of the best books published on this topic, and is an astute and humane work that can be a lifeline for anyone who wants to learn how to resist the dark art of putting things off. It is also the product of a pair of confessed procrastinators who want to help us shake off our chronic torpor and learn how to seize the day.

The authors freely admit to knowing procrastination inside out, from their struggles to deliver doctoral dissertations to the elaborate excuses they have made over the years to excuse their delays. They offer much experience of working with procrastinators on a professional basis.

This began when they were on the staff of the counselling centre at the University of California, Berkley and ran a procrastination group for the university's students. Their research continues via workshops and seminars, both at the university and nationwide for corporate and public groups. Throughout their work with students on the procrastination group, they noticed some striking similarities between many different people's struggles with putting things off.

'We learned, for example, that our plan to start the week off by holding the group on Monday mornings from nine to 11 was completely unrealistic because no one showed up until 10 o'clock,' they wrote. This was reiterated when they offered procrastination groups for the general public.

'We were once again reminded of the nature of the beast ...' the professors wrote.

From leaving registration to the last minute to signing up at the 11th hour, most people wanting help used every delaying tactic they could think of. So, any reader feeling a bit sheepish about admitting to problems with leaving things to the last minute should not worry about losing face.

Shilly-shallying and making laughably feeble excuses of the 'dog ate my homework' school of creativity for one's inability to get to grips with the project in hand is apparently not exclusive to a particular group or culture.

'Anyone - young or old, brilliant or average, unemployed or professionally successful - can be a procrastinator,' the authors say.

The first part of Procrastination deals with the problem of procrastination itself, presenting it as a protective mechanism. It is some sort of uncontrollable auto response that helps us pretend that we are fine when, clearly, we are not.

The second and perhaps more immediately useful half suggests what we can do about our tendencies to procrastinate - and even how we can use them to our benefit.

'Most procrastinators are aware of the ways delaying has been working against them,' the psychologists wrote. 'But these same people are less familiar with how procrastination may also be working for them ...'

Putting things off is a strategy that protects us from facing fears and anxieties. These include the fear of failure or the fear of success, plus the fears of being controlled, of becoming too separate from others or of being too attached to people. For those who find this concept far from alien, the authors' discussion of such fears and the techniques dealing with them should be helpful. They also include tips for saboteurs - those procrastinators among us who do their best to wriggle out of implementing anti-dithering techniques and suggestions.

There is also advice for reformed characters when they fall off the wagon later along the ride. They wrote: 'Although people who suffer usually hope for quick relief, giving up procrastination is a gradual process that takes time.'

In a nutshell

Who should read this? Hands up all those who think they are not procrastinators! According to the authors, absolutely everyone young and old is affected by the problem of procrastination, largely thanks to deep seated fears and the impact of childhood and adult experiences.

Why should they read this? This book is a huge help if you are looking for wise advise from confessed procrastinators on how to bite the bullet and achieve your goals. It is delightfully cliche free, probing and tolerant. And, unlike rather too many self-help guides, there are no overnight miracles or snake oil cures on offer.

Five insights

1 Procrastination can be troublesome in two ways, write Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, the authors of the seminal work Procrastination. 'First, delaying tactics may lead to external consequences ranging from innocuous (a library fine for late books) to severe (losing a job or jeopardising a marriage),' they say. Secondly, people who procrastinate may suffer internal consequences. These feelings range from mild irritation and regret to intense self-condemnation and despair.

2 Procrastination can project a fragile sense of self-worth that is shaken by threats of judgment, control and closeness or distance, the authors write. 'All of us have to cope with times when our work or our character is evaluated, times when we are subjected to someone else's power, and times when we are more along or more intimate than we would like. And ... it is often the fear of such situations that sets the stage for procrastination.'

3 If you are ready to give up the protection of procrastination, there are some steps you can take. You can experiment with goals, limits, accommodations and relationships. But it's up to you. 'What do you want in your life - progress or more procrastination?'

4 One early step towards managing procrastination is to familiarise yourself with your own personal way of procrastinating. 'Although most procrastinators are used to living with delay, they usually don't think much about it except to wish it would go away!' say doctors Yuen and Burka. 'It helps to look at your procrastination as if you were an objective observer.' If you can, put aside any tendency to criticise and condemn yourself. Instead, just make an inventory and become more aware of your own experience.

5 A key difficulty for procrastinators is achieving goals. This can even become such a problem that they never accomplish the goals they have set, or only manage to do this after agonising fits and starts. However, setting goals can be just as difficult. This could be because the goals are ambiguous ('I've got to get some work done today') or overly ambitious ('I want to be president of my own company some day'). And such goals are rather likely to elude the procrastinator.


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