Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.
According to a top procrastination researcher, there is no gene for idling—it's a learned behavior. If so, my parents were master teachers. (At summer camp on visiting day, as the tail lights of the cars of the other parents were receding down the hill, the headlights of my parents' station wagon would be just appearing.) As their model student, I have spent a lifetime keeping people waiting, pulling all-nighters, paying late fees. I once started packing at 10 p.m. the night before I was to get on a plane for a trip early the following morning. This wouldn't sound so bad except for the fact that it was a one-way flight—I was moving from Texas to California.
So for this "Human Guinea Pig," a column in which I do things readers wish someone else would do for them (or, in this case, things they can't get around to doing themselves), my challenge was to see if online support groups or self-help books could help me to get my life on track.
It did seem ironic to start in on the project with that Swiss army knife of procrastination tools, the Internet. I began with a visit to a pair of Web sites set up a few years ago: Procrastinators Anonymous and Procrastination Support. Either they would cure me, or I could bookmark them as new places where I could waste time.
Scrolling around, I found it hard to see the benefits of interacting with other people who, like me, spend much of the day on activities like brewing tea and squeezing blackheads. People wrote of their hopes that they could buckle down and achieve goals like flossing and brushing. Other posts were cries of despair: "Of the past 27 hours of work time, I have actually worked for only a few minutes. … When my boss asks me what I have done, I don't know what I am going to say."
Procrastinators Anonymous had an announcement about its weekly phone-in meeting that came with this disclaimer: "This meeting was originally scheduled for every Wednesday, 9 a.m. ET. But people have not been showing up at this time." I called in anyway and listened to the sound of Kenny G-style sax and my own breathing for 15 minutes before giving up.
According to the small but annoyingly prolific band of scientists who study procrastination—serious research began in the 1980s—a lot of us aren't making our meetings. They say the chronic inability to get things done, what they call "trait procrastination," affects about 20 percent of the public, a number far greater than those who suffer from depression (about 10 percent) or phobias (about 9 percent).
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University (and the expert who says there's no DNA for delay), divides us into two general behavior types: arousal procrastinators and avoidance procrastinators. Arousal procrastinators seek the excitement and pumping stress hormones of having to finish everything under duress. (I'm this type.) Avoidance procrastinators make their work the measure of their self-worth and so end up putting it off out of fear. (I'm this type, too.) I talked to Ferrari and discovered that after 20 years of studying us, his sympathy is wearing thin. "I don't understand this, why they're consistently like this. I don't like cutting the grass, but I do it."
Ferrari co-wrote Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment and co-edited Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings. The portrait that emerges from these books is pathological. Procrastination "merits extirpation," it is a "nasty, unattractive" part of human behavior, and its "illogicalness is its salient feature." Procrastinators are noted for their "impulsiveness," "lack of persistence," and "lack of self-control." Self-reflection "is generally not a strong point with procrastinators," and willpower "is a vital weak point" in their character. Sure, we sound like those FBI psychological portraits of serial killers or pederasts. Fortunately, our malady prevents us from carrying out any nefarious plans that we might have.
Finding no solution online and little solace from professor Ferrari, I decided to move to self-help books. I ordered three: The Procrastination Workbook by William Knaus, The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and The Complete Idiot's Guide To Overcoming Procrastination by Michelle Tullier (which I never read because I ran out of time).
I started with the Workbook. The opening chapters present various acronyms for how to modify your behavior. I should stop doing the three Es: excesses, extensions, exonerations. Instead I should PURRRR: pause, utilize, reflect, reason, respond, revise. Knaus also provides quizzes to assess what kind of procrastinator I am. He has many categories, from cramming (I rated high) to decision-making (medium) to lateness (high). There are lists of catalysts for procrastination, from seeking diversions (high) to dodging discomfort (medium) to self-doubt (medium). By Page 37 all this self-assessment made me realize just how intractable my procrastination was, which in turn provoked such an anxiety attack that I had to put the book aside altogether.
I turned to The Now Habit and promised myself I'd stick with it. Fiore has a humane approach to procrastinators: He understands how we alternate scourging self-lectures with baleful self-pity and takes a cognitive-behavioral approach to our problem. He aims to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and turn distraction into action.
Fiore wants procrastinators to break down tasks and see them as a series of beginnings: If we can just sit down and do 30 minutes of solid work, the feelings of flow and accomplishment will allow us to continue. He also suggests building play breaks into the day so that we stop feeling our lives are a slogging misery. I followed Fiore's advice and put Post-it notes around the house with his suggested self-talk: "When can I start?" "I choose to." "I can be perfectly human." I started keeping what he calls an "unschedule"—an hour-by-hour record of the day with mandatory breaks for having fun. The only thing I didn't do was create a "planned setback" in which I would deliberately observe myself procrastinating, just to prove I had the ability to stop when I chose. Since my entire life is a setback, I felt no need to create one.
For me, small tasks—getting the dry cleaning, checking the downspouts—have a way of inflating like helium, floating the day away. As I filled in the unschedule, it was disturbing to see how many little rectangles were devoted to the mundane or to scrolling the Internet. (Can't I call that research?) I followed his plan for a month but made no progress. I didn't blame Dr. Fiore; maybe I had worn too deep a dilatory groove in my brain to ever spackle it in and become efficient. Yes, I got stuff done, but in my same stressed-out, staying-up-until-1:30-a.m., self-berating way. (In the Bible, Job described the feeling: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and are spent without hope.")
Fiore's book gets many raves from reformed procrastinators on his Amazon page. So I contacted one of them to see if it was still working. Neil Gunton, a computer programmer in St. Louis, had written in 1998: "I tried the other books, and they didn't do anything for me. Save your money, and just get this one." Gunton told me, however, that he was still a procrastinator. The lesson he got from Fiore was to accept it. "I just don't worry about it so much. That's how the book helped. Not so much getting more done, it just helped me to understand who I am." But I don't want to understand who I am; I just want to get more done!
Seeing my desperation, my 12-year-old daughter offered me some personal coaching. First there was a critique, all true: "Mom, you sit down to go to work, then you go to the bathroom, then you walk Sasha, then you say you're checking one last e-mail. You take a lot of breaks, Mom. You say you don't get any work done after I get home from school, but I'm 12, and I don't bother you anymore. Then you'll have so much work, you work 15 hours a day and you don't even come down to dinner. You've got to balance it out."
At least my daughter has broken my family legacy. When she comes home, she does her homework and practices her piano. I never nag her. How does she do it? She said it was something she learned in the Sunshine class, when she was 4 years old. "The teachers would hand out snacks: five pieces of popcorn, five gummy bears, and five pretzels. Everyone ate what they liked first, then they weren't happy. But I liked the pretzels best, and I realized if I saved them for last, I'd get the taste of them in my mouth the longest. So now, if I can get my homework done, then I have the rest of my night to do whatever I want."
There it was—she didn't need online support, Post-it notes, or the unschedule. She figured it out in nursery school: Save the pretzels for last. Which reminds me that I'm kind of hungry, and it's time for a break. I'd like some pretzels, and I'd like them right now.