It’s easy to put things off, from starting a big project at work to making a dental appointment. Everybody procrastinates, says Joseph Ferrari, PhD, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, but not everybody is a procrastinator.
“Twenty to 25% of adults are chronic procrastinators; it affects their home, school, relationships, and job–wherever they have to do something,” says Ferrari, author of Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. “That’s higher than the rate for depression, substance abuse, phobias, and other psychological abnormalities. People think it’s humorous, but it can be a serious problem.”
Perpetuating the lackadaisical attitude toward procrastination are the myths that surround it. Ferrari shares eight misconceptions about putting things off, and offers some tips on how to reframe our thinking.
It’s a misnomer to say procrastination is a time-management issue, says Ferrari. “We cannot manage time; time is and cannot be controlled,” he says. “We can only manage ourselves and how well we fit into time.”
Ferrari says people procrastinate because they don’t value the time of others. “As a culture, we don’t give the early bird the worm; we cut the worm up and make sure everybody gets a piece that is the same because we’re more concerned with being fair,” he says. “We don’t offer rewards for doing things early; instead, we punish for doing things late.”
Instead of worrying that they aren’t up to the task, procrastinators put things off due to issues with social-esteem, says Ferrari.
“Procrastinators say, ‘If I never finish a task, you can’t judge me as being incompetent,’” he says. “They would rather have the negative public image that they lack effort than ability. Lacking effort implies that they might have the ability, and that’s not as damaging as lacking skill.”
Good leaders often wait and gather more information before choosing a course of action. Procrastinators, on the other hand, avoid making the decision at all, absolving themselves of the responsibility for the outcome.
“It’s an inability to make up your mind,” says Ferrari. “You work on A so you don’t have to think about B. It’s active avoidance, and you don’t feel good about it.”
Not true, says Ferrari, who has been studying procrastination for 30 years. “This is not a U.S. phenomenon,” he says. “It’s common in Canada, England, Peru, Austria, Poland, Italy, Japan–just about any country you can imagine.”
This month, Ferrari is attending the 9th Biennial Conference on Procrastination, in Germany, where one of the topics to be explored is the role of culture in procrastination.
This is an insult to our ancestors, says Ferrari: “Do you think they didn’t have a busy life on the farm, with fields to plow, roofs to fix, goods to can, homes to clean?” he asks. “There are 168 hours in a week and it’s been 168 hours for centuries. We have no more or no less to do in that amount of time than any person at any other point in history.”
Procrastination is learned, not inborn, says Ferrari. While a recent study from the University of Edinburgh suggests that procrastinating is similar to impulsivity and is in some people’s DNA, Ferrari believes the research is flawed and dangerous.
“If you say procrastination is genetic, then there is no need to change,” he says. Instead, procrastination is a byproduct of a person’s upbringing and environment, and can be learned in families. Nurture, not nature.
In 2006, a newspaper reporter interviewed Ferrari about the 50th anniversary of the alarm clock snooze button, and suggested that it was the first technology for enabling procrastination.
“An extra nine minutes to sleep isn’t bad, unless you go through the process four or five times,” he says. “Whether it’s a snooze button, telephone, or automobile, it’s not technology that’s bad. It’s that we figure out a way to abuse any technology and make it into something that becomes an excuse for procrastination.”
Data show 70% of college students procrastinate and 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators, but that doesn’t mean that people get better over time, says Ferrari.
“College students may engage in delaying their studies, but if their boss needed them or they had a social event to attend, they would be there on time,” he says. “Chronic procrastination doesn’t lessen with age.”