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Procrastination Nothing New, But Getting Worse


Chances are, you know a procrastinator: someone who's always scrambling to get things done at the last minute, putting things off. Maybe it's you. Procrastination is on the rise and something has to be done about it, sooner rather than later.

"'Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today'" is good advice, but it is often ignored and has been for years.

"About 95 percent of people admit to procrastinating," Piers Steel says. "It's about people in general; it's human nature." The University of Calgary, psychologist spent 10 years studying procrastination. Steel says he found references to it throughout history and across many cultures. "We have procrastination from Eastern references, from Western references. (The Indian deity) Krishna talks about it. There are (references) going back to Mark Anthony in ancient Rome, early agrarian references."

Steel says people tend to wait till the last minute to finish an assignment not because they are too busy or too lazy or perfectionists, as many believe. It's mostly because they lack self-confidence. If you believe you are up to the challenge of finishing a project "you are more likely to get it done," he says.

Steel says procrastinators are also impulsive, and that affects how they think about upcoming events.

"It's a personality trait," he says. "People who are impulsive tend to value today more than tomorrow, far more than they should. Consequently, they can't get excited about long-term goals. Only just before the deadline does motivation start to spike and they actually want to do it."

Steel analyzed more than 200 studies on procrastination, dating back to the 1920's, and found it was a growing problem. He says in 1978, only about 5 percent of Americans thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators. Now, it's 26 percent.

He says gender and age also affect people's tendency to put things off. "Men are slightly more likely than women to procrastinate, but just a bit," he says. "If you took a 100 procrastinators, maybe 52 or 54 would be men and 48 or 46 would be women."

Young people are far more likely to procrastinate than older people. "Younger people tend to be much more impulsive. As we mature, our character grows and we tend to take a longer-term perspective, while the young have a tremendous difficulty in doing that."

Even if assignments are finished and deadlines are met, Steel says, procrastination takes its toll. "Sometimes you can get away with it, but over the long run you're worse off," he says. "Procrastinators tend to be more miserable, less wealthy, and less healthy than those people who don't dilly-dally."

Time management expert and owner of Key Organization Systems Denise Landers agrees. "The negative side of putting off assignments is stress," she says.

Landers says with TVs, online video, web surfing, iPods and cell phones, people are more distracted, and it's easy to lose track of what they're supposed to be doing. "We are hurting ourselves with all the multi-tasking we do," she says. "We get so sidetracked. We may have planned to go on-line and check the weather, and it's an hour later, and we're still on there. What is happening is we are so busy, with so much to do, and not using the tools to manage our time well."

There's no time like the present to change that, Landers says. The secret is to take immediate, but tiny, steps.

"For instance, if it's something you really don't want to do - it's this big chore out there, this big project - break it up into parts, into smaller pieces," she says. Landers suggests giving yourself a timeline to complete each piece. "Just say, 'Today I'm going to do this one piece, and tomorrow I'll do this, and next week I'll do this.' You'll be much more likely to get it done than if you sit there and go, 'Ah, I got this big project. I'll wait until I have a day to do it.'"

Researchers still don't understand why some people are more prone to procrastination than others. Some suggest it may be genetic. The University of Calgary's Piers Steel says research into procrastination should continue sooner rather than later, because, as Benjamin Franklin noted, you may delay, but time will not.