Since time began, it seems, people have been putting off till tomorrow what they could have done today — berating themselves and inconveniencing others in the process.
It wouldn’t be a problem except that time eventually runs out. “We may delay, but time will not,” said Benjamin Franklin.
In the world of work, procrastination has “expensive and visible costs,” said Rory Vaden, a corporate trainer, who points to research showing that the average employee spends two hours a day on nonwork tasks.
People know that procrastination hurts themselves, others and their work, so why do they do it? One answer, especially in these times, is that they are overwhelmed, said Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant in New York and author of “Time Management From the Inside Out.”
Since the recession, work teams have shrunk and workloads and pressures have grown, she said. Companies are asking their workers to be more innovative and creative — and at the same time more efficient. It’s a recipe for paralysis.
Technology like email, Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, offers more avenues for distraction. Answering a trivial email or attending to other minutiae can provide a momentary sense of accomplishment, or a “quick win,” Morgenstern said.
Often, procrastinators are “extremely concerned about what other people think of them,” said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University and author of “Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.” These people would rather be accused of lacking effort than lacking ability; the idea is: “If I never finish, I can never be judged,” he said. And there can be a fear of success, too: “If I do well, you might expect more from me next time, and I don’t know if I can come through,” he said.
An accomplice of procrastination is perfectionism.
Waiting until the last minute gives perfectionists the perfect excuse: They just didn’t have enough time, Morgenstern said. Perfectionists often need the pressure of the deadline to force themselves to finish.
“The most productive people tend to focus on progress over perfection,” said Vaden, author of “Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success.” Remember, he said: “Success is messy.”
Procrastination often emerges in connection with long-term projects, said Chrisoula Andreou, associate philosophy professor at the University of Utah and co-editor of “The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.”
You can tell yourself that putting off one step in a long process is merely a deviation, and “each deviation in itself seems negligible,” but eventually this behavior becomes the rule rather than the exception and the work is never finished, she said.
People who procrastinate are often plagued by guilt, Morgenstern said, but beating yourself up is not a solution. Instead, identify the specific areas where you are procrastinating and map out the steps required to achieve your goal.
The new world of work, with its inevitable interruptions, “requires the skill of breaking large projects into small, completable steps that are anywhere from half an hour to two hours — three hours tops,” she said. And if you aren’t sure what the next steps are, she said, don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.
Time management techniques may work for some people, but they will probably be ineffective for the 20 percent of people who are chronic procrastinators, Ferrari said. These people tend to put things off at home, at work, in relationships — in all areas of their lives, and they are experts at coming up with plausible excuses each time they are late, he said.
“To tell the chronic procrastinator ‘Just do it,’ would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, ‘Cheer up,’ ” he said.
For these chronic “procs,” as he calls them, sessions with a psychologist who focuses on cognitive behavior therapy may be the only path to bringing their time — and their lives — under control, he said.