Procrastination: Is it a Problem for You?

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CIII, No. 3March, 2003

Leslie Cardell, CSW

Dithering, dawdling, delaying, and deferring: we all procrastinate sometimes. Who hasn’t put off doing the laundry for just one more day? Sometimes we really do need just a little more time to think something over before taking action. And sometimes we don’t.

Procrastination only becomes a problem when it leads to some kind of negative consequence, either in the outside world, or inside, in terms of how we feel about ourselves. Have you missed out on possible work because you didn’t follow up on a lead in time? Are there projects you’ve been wanting to complete, but somehow they never get done? Do you find that you put things off until it feels worse to delay any longer than it does to just do it?

If you think procrastination is sometimes a problem for you, it might be useful to think about when you first started putting things off. For many people it happened when they were in school. I remember a high school social studies teacher who made me feel like nothing I did would ever please him. I put off doing a complicated assignment until the night before it was due because of my anxiety about whether or not I could overcome his poor opinion of me. I didn’t feel very good about the work I turned in, but putting it off gave me an “out,” an excuse for not having done better. I could still believe my work would have been great if only I hadn’t delayed in doing it for so long.

We may be able to get away with procrastinating during our school years, but it doesn’t always work so well with the demands and responsibilities of adult life. It can start to feel more and more like a painful trap. One reason procrastinators have trouble changing these habits is that they have some unrealistic expectations and assumptions. Some of these might be:

  • I should be perfect.
  • It’s better to do nothing than to risk failure.
  • If I succeed, someone else will be hurt.
  • If I do well this time, I’ll always have to do well.

For many people, a fear of failure underlies their habit of procrastination. Through the use of delaying tactics, the procrastinator avoids having to deal with important issues such as whether or not he will be able to live up to his own or others’ expectations.

For some, it can be a fear of success. However you define that for yourself, success inevitably involves both change and the unknown, things we sometimes want to avoid. At times, people use procrastination to hide their ambition; they may feel there’s something wrong with being too competitive.

Somewhere in the back of your mind is there a fear of being too successful? How would this affect the people who are your friends now? Do you worry that they might feel resentful of your success, of the jobs you’ve gotten that they didn’t? Perhaps people will come to expect more of you, and you’ll be trapped into working harder and harder.

For musicians, it’s not just a matter of completing the tasks necessary to keep a particular job, there are all kinds of different activities involved in getting that next job, as well as in building and maintaining a career. Self-employed people have only themselves to rely on to do what’s necessary to stay in business. There’s no one watching to see that everything gets done, and it can be too easy to put off till tomorrow what you just don’t feel like doing today.

If you’ve recognized some of your own thoughts and behaviors, perhaps you’re wondering what you can do about it. An important place to start is to think through why you procrastinate. It doesn’t just happen; people procrastinate for a reason. What purpose does it serve in your life? Once you’ve begun to identify some of the assumptions you’ve made, you can begin to challenge them.

The next step is to set realistic and achievable goals for yourself. Whenever possible, goals should be specific, concrete, and broken down into small steps. Something like: “I have to record my own CD,” can feel overwhelming, and you’re stuck before you even get started. How can you break down a goal such as that into more manageable pieces? What’s the first step you’ll need to take, and how much time will you commit to it this week? Perhaps an initial goal might be to make five phone calls to people you know who’ve done it and get their advice.

There are plenty of times when it really is best to think something through before taking action, and there’s no need to wash every dish the moment it’s been used. What’s important is to feel that you have a choice, so that you can agonize less and feel more in command of how you manage your life and work.

This column is based on material from the book “Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It” by Jane D. Burka, Ph.D. and Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D.