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Procrastinators: Don’t put off reading this!

About 20 percent of Americans are chronic procrastinators. Dr. Gail Saltz has advice on how to break this frustrating habit.

Haven’t done your taxes? Still won’t have them done by April 14?  You are not alone. If you avoid making decisions or you make big plans and then never carry them out, you just may be one of the 20 percent of Americans who are chronic procrastinators. “Today” contributor Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital, was invited on the show to discuss this topic, a subject she wrote about for a recent issue of Parade magazine.

“David” is looking miserable as he recounts to his wife that once again he has to pay a late penalty for failing to turn in his taxes on time. "I never get those tax forms right anyway," he explains. He is angry with himself, and feels guilty that this delay will now cost him the money he was saving for the family vacation. His family and friends have been calling him lazy for years. It seems to him the harder he tries to "get it right" the worse his procrastinating gets.

“Maria” had always gotten things done on time — until she was up for a promotion. Then suddenly this very efficient and conscientious woman started delaying the execution of her assignments. She knew she was messing up her chances for advancement, but she also knew that her husband felt threatened by her climbing higher on the corporate ladder than he was.

David is one of the 20 percent of Americans who are chronic procrastinators. Almost every aspect of their life is affected by their behavior. Maria, on the other hand, is an occasional procrastinator, reacting to a specific dilemma in only one arena of her life.

Almost everyone procrastinates some of the time, and the results can bring anything from annoyance to complete misery — both to the person doing it, and to those affected by it.

Research has shown that procrastinators tend to feel extremely stressed, resulting in more insomnia, colds and stomach aches than non-procrastinators. They also smoke and drink more.

In one survey of 300 college students who confessed to being procrastinators, 47 percent said they would rather donate blood than write an assigned paper, almost a third said they would rather visit the dentist, and more than one in five said they would rather pick up trash on campus than get their paper done.

Men and women are both prone to procrastination, and both sexes suffer anxiety as the most common symptom. But in addition, women suffer from guilt nearly twice as often as men.

The idea that procrastinators are simply lazy is a myth. Most often procrastination is caused by fear. If you were simply lazy, you might respond by giving yourself a good kick in the pants, but procrastination can't be solved in that way.

Too often procrastinators receive the advice, from professionals or loved ones, to simply "quit it." In other words, to change the behavior alone. But it's not that simple.

In order to make any lasting change in your patterns of behavior, you need to understand what "story" is motivating you to procrastinate in the first place. You have to change your way of thinking about what it means to get things done.

Here are the two most common reasons for procrastinating:

1. Fear of failure.The most common story is "I'm so afraid of failing that I would rather not try at all, than try and fail." These people tend to be perfectionists. Doing a task and having it be "just okay" is mortifying. In addition, this type of procrastinator believes that he or she needs to please others in order to be accepted. This was what happened with David.

David came to understand that he was afraid of failing. He imagined screwing up on his taxes, screwing up his job, and even being a big disappointment in his relationships. So he avoided doing many things in order to try and spare himself the chance for failure. He then came to see that he had screwed them all up by procrastinating. This understanding helped him to change his behavior and improve his life.

2. Fear of successThe opposite story can also result in procrastination. "I'm afraid to be successful because people will envy me or see me as a threat, and then I'll lose them." You may fear success because you think that if you succeed you'll then be expected to be wildly successful all the time, or you'll become a workaholic, or that you are not deserving of success. This is Maria's story.

Maria was afraid of her current success because it threatened her competitive husband. Once she understood that, Maria was able to catch herself delaying her work and forge ahead. She was also able to discuss her feelings with her husband, who realized that his envy of her was misplaced and became far more supportive.

Turning understanding into actionFiguring out which fears you have and why you have them is an important first step. So is taking notice of the particular situations that tend to trigger your procrastinating. The specific arena of life where you procrastinate (work, love life, friends, your body, money) will clue you in as to where you feel most conflicted and afraid. It is likely to be the arena of life that is most important to you at this time.

(For those living or working with a procrastinator — which, of course, can be exasperating — rather than blaming them, which only perpetuates the cycle of anxiety and procrastination, explain to them the story you see them acting out. Tell them you want to help them break the cycle.)

Tips for the procrastinator1. Prioritize tasks. When everything seems like a priority, you feel overwhelmed and get nothing done. Alternatively, if nothing seems important, then nothing gets done either. Therefore, start small and make a "to do" list with the most important items first, and then work your way down.

2. Control your impulses Most procrastinators jump from one task to the next and never get any one done. Make yourself complete one task before moving on to another.

3. Don't expect overnight success. Old habits die hard. Don't expect things to change immediately. If you change one thing a week, you are making progress, and that progress will show you that more change is possible.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It will be available in a paperback version in June 2005. Her latest book, "Amazing You," helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. It will be published in May 2005.  For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.