Putting an End to ‘Putting It Off’
YOU have just finished dinner. You tell yourself that this evening you are going to straighten out your closet, or the garage, or your desk, or finally get to one of those projects that you have been meaning to do for weeks or even months.
But before you get started, you reason, why not relax for a moment? After all, you just finished dinner. So you rest on the couch and turn on the TV—“just for a few minutes.” Before you know it, you are watching the late news. The evening is gone. The task you have been meaning to get to will have to wait again.
If you see yourself in the above description, you can at least draw comfort from the fact that you have plenty of company. Putting it off, postponing, procrastination or whatever else you want to call it is surely one of the most common of human weaknesses. There is hardly anyone who has not at one time or another said to himself or herself, “I know I should be doing it, but . . .”
“I’ll Do Better Next Time”
Procrastination makes itself manifest in our lives in many guises, some tragic, some not quite so serious. In fact, behavioral scientists believe that, because many instances of ‘putting it off’ are not really so serious, it is easy for the habit to become ingrained in us.
For example, you may have all the intentions of sending off a thank-you note to the friends you stayed with on a recent trip. But time marches on. Before you realize it, weeks and months have gone by, and your note is still unsent. But there appears to be no real harm done. “I’ll do better next time,” you tell yourself. And there is the beginning of a losing battle.
There may not always be a “next time.” A 25-year-old woman, who for years had been hesitant about showing her affection for her sister, wrote: “I wanted to hug and kiss her many times, but I never let her know how I felt. . . . On Feb. 25 my sister died. My world has collapsed. How sad that she never knew how much I loved her! . . . When there is love among family members, . . . show it! Don’t put it off until later. It may be too late.”
It must be noted, however, that not all delaying is necessarily harmful. Some may prefer to use the term “deliberation” instead. It takes time for ideas to gel and plans to crystallize. Putting off a decision until a more opportune time may, in fact, be a good decision in itself.
A more serious form of procrastination, though many fail to recognize it as such, is chronic lateness. This may involve being late for appointments, social engagements, business meetings, or simply being late to work. Or it may involve tardiness in getting things done on time or in meeting deadlines. It could cost one friends, a job and even, it has been said, one’s marriage.
Why Things Get Put Off
Since procrastination appears to have something to do with time, the first explanation that comes to mind is that procrastinators are not time conscious or do not know how to manage their time. Thus, supervisors in large corporations often attempt to teach their employees certain time-management techniques. But often, to their disappointment, they find that when it comes to putting the newly learned techniques to use, most procrastinators procrastinate as usual. Something more appears to be involved.
In the book Decision Making, coauthors Irving Janis and Leon Mann wrote: “A decision maker under pressure to make a vital decision affecting his future welfare will typically find it painful to commit himself, because there are some expected costs and risks no matter which course of action he chooses. One way of coping with such a painful dilemma is to avoid making a decision.”
The feeling of inadequacy or incompetence is another reason why many people procrastinate. “Putting things off acts as a buffer for their shaky sense of self-worth,” says psychologist Jane Burka. Rather than risking the possibility of doing poorly, they put off the task altogether. Their fear of criticism prevents them from even starting.
Experts who have studied the problem of procrastination point to other causes that are, perhaps, more subtle. A subordinate may be rebelling against the rules, deadlines and other demands of his superior by procrastinating. Putting things off until the last minute may be a person’s way of excusing his shoddy work because he can then say: “If only I had more time!” Others are so intimidated by the overall size of their task, or by the amount of time it takes to complete it, that they feel there is no use even to get started.
Indeed, there are many reasons why people procrastinate, and each one of us is affected differently. So what can be done to overcome the insidious effects of procrastination and chronic lateness?
How to Put an End to ‘Putting It Off’
If you have ever read any books on overcoming procrastination, you probably have noticed that most of them are full of exhortations such as, “Do it right now!” “Get up and get started!” and so forth. But few readers are ever motivated enough to do anything more than getting up and putting the book down. Why? Because most such “self-improvement” books approach the matter from an egoistic point of view. Why worry about what others think or say? Go ahead and do what you want.
The problem with such an approach is that much of putting things off, passing the buck, and especially lateness, is, to begin with, due to a lack of concern for others. Moreover, if a person is really that conscientious about doing everything that is supposed to be good for him, most likely he would not be a procrastinator in the first place.
Setting Your Priorities
Since procrastination, as we have seen, is a form of avoidance, to overcome it one must be able to see the reason and the true worth of the task at hand, as well as its relative importance among the many things that one must do or wants to do. This is what management experts call setting one’s priorities.
What are the truly important things in life to you? To what would you assign top priority? For many today, self-advancement and getting ahead take the first place in their life. Yet the files of professional counseling centers contain many case histories of ambitious men and women with promising careers suddenly hitting a snag, becoming serious procrastinators, even jeopardizing their future. The competition and the pressure to produce causes them to doubt their own ability. They begin to drag their feet, to put things off, to procrastinate. As one young lawyer put it: “It’s a fear of judgment, of being laughed at. Better to show them nothing than to show them something stupid.”
Ancient King Solomon was certainly one who had advanced to the top. But this is what he said about such endeavors: “I myself have seen all the hard work and all the proficiency in work, that it means the rivalry of one toward another; this also is vanity and a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4) Surely, it is easy to put off something that is “vanity and a striving after the wind” when one begins to feel the “rivalry of one toward another.” Putting it in colloquial speech, people ‘drop out of the rat race when the going gets tough.’
Clearly, self-advancement can be motivating only to a degree. For something to be counted as really important, hence, not to be put off, it must involve more than mere self-interest. It must have a broader and truly worthwhile purpose.
So the next time you wonder why certain things you have intended to do get put off so often, stop and ask yourself: Are these things really important? Do they serve a useful purpose? And if so, what is preventing me from doing them?
Examine Your Habits
We live in a fast-paced world, and for most of us life is filled with many things to do. Some of these we have to do. Others we would like to do. Still others we do more or less out of habit. Serious procrastinators put off things in the first category. Most people procrastinate in things in the second category. But very often it is doing the things in the third group that causes us to fall behind and makes procrastinators out of us.
Take, for instance, the matter of chronic lateness as a form of procrastination. Those who are perpetually late usually know the importance of what they have to do, and they even enjoy doing it once they get started. But they are always late. Experts in the field believe that the habit is learned early in life, usually from parents and siblings. It is carried over first to school, then to work and into other areas of life. For such people it is not simply a matter of learning how to manage their time. They “should start changing their thinking from ‘better late than never’ to ‘it’s better to be early than late,’” says psychologist Pierre Haber.
Interestingly, Tony and Robbie Fanning, a husband-and-wife counseling team, note in their book Get It All Done: “Being late has nothing to do with actual time; it is a matter of putting off the deadline.” Chronic latecomers will find themselves late even if they have or allow themselves extra time. To break the habit, the Fannings suggest moving up the deadline mentally. If you have to be at a meeting at 7:00 p.m., aim for 6:30 or 6:45. You still may be late as usual but yet on time for the meeting.
Help Is Available
Many are those who, for a lack of real motivation, procrastinate in trying to rid themselves of certain harmful habits. A man who smoked as many as three packs of cigarettes a day for 11 years related his experience: “I made at least a dozen serious attempts to quit, but all were unsuccessful. Each time I tried to quit I would go through a period of agony . . . and always ended up smoking.” Another man, who was a compulsive gambler for some ten years, said: “I tried a number of times to break the habit but could only stop it at the most for about two days.” Their repeated failures caused them to put off trying again. Eventually, however, both of these men found the motivation they needed.
The former smoker related: “In studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses I found a lot of scriptures that dealt with both physical and spiritual cleanness. Also, there is the basic principle of showing love to one another and treating other people as we want to be treated. How could someone sit and blow smoke in another person’s face and say that he follows that principle?”
What did this newfound motivation do for him? “I made up my mind that I would quit once and for all,” he said. “I asked for Jehovah’s help each time I felt that I wanted a cigarette. To my surprise, it was easier than I anticipated.”
What about the gambler? “My wife began studying the Bible,” he said. “She invited me to the study and I accepted. The result was I quickly realized gambling was wrong.” The Bible truth gave him the needed motivation. Within three months he accomplished what he had been putting off for ten years.
“He that is watching the wind will not sow seed; and he that is looking at the clouds will not reap,” says the Bible at Ecclesiastes 11:4. So whether you are troubled by serious procrastination or habitual lateness, it is the course of wisdom to take a serious look at your priorities and your habits. Then put an end to putting things off.
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Before you know it, the evening is gone. The task you have been meaning to get to will have to wait
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Always being late is a bad habit
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Pressure can lead to procrastination