If you're a self-identified chronic procrastinator—as 20% of American adults are—then you're more likely to be unemployed. You'll probably make a lower salary, you'll be less likely to save for retirement, and might forget to take care of preventative health care.
"This is their maladaptive lifestyle," says Joseph Ferrari, a DePaul university psychology professor who's been studying procrastination since the 1980s. "(Procrastinators) are going to miss events, not RSVP on time, wait for the gauge to go on empty."
As Ferrari tells Fast Company, there's a huge difference between procrastination—which leads to the unsavory outcomes above—and delay, which can be super useful. In business, you quickly get trained in delay, where you put some decisions off while more information comes in (and thus not get mired in low-priority tasks).
Waiting for enough information to make a decision is a good strategy, he says, but waiting for the sake of waiting is not. Thus the toxicity of procrastination: intention gets broken down.
"Someone intends to do something," he says, "but they don't follow through."
As the Wall Street Journal reports, a lot of this comes from a misunderstanding of how to manage procrastination. Too often, when procrastinators are trying to finally get going on a task, they'll try to "repair" their mood by doing something nice like taking a nap or getting a quick hit of Facebook. That "giving in to feel good" isn't very effective, researchers are finding, since it makes you feel worse later.
What's required, then, is a better way of regulating the emotions that drive or distract from getting work done. Techniques recommended in the Journal include:
- Forgive yourself: Research shows that if you forgive yourself for not getting started already, you'll be much more apt to finally get going.
- Travel through time: Reflect on how awesome it will feel to get your work done or how much it will benefit people. One software engineer in the article thought about how the prototype of the medical device he was making would help people's lives—and voila, he was stoked to code.
- Get started with the smallest thing possible: "A real mood boost comes from doing what we intend to do—the things that are important to us," a researcher said. So do the smallest bit of what needs to get done, even if it's just flossing one tooth.
But as Ferrari tells us, procrastiation presents a set of questions that's much deeper than all that.
"Time management programs aren't very successful," he says. "You can't manage time; you can only manage yourself: What am I doing? Why am I not getting this task done? Understand why you're delaying."
Hat tip: the Wall Street Journal