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Why you procrastinate — and how to stop

Scientists insist there aren’t any benefits of procrastinating for any of us. Here’s why keep putting things off and how to quit procrastinating.

Each year Americans waste millions of dollars by not filing their taxes on time. Workers forego hundreds of thousands of dollars in matching 401K contributions because they never got around to signing up for their retirement program. And we all know what happens when we put off starting that diet plan. One study found procrastination makes us poorer, fatter and unhealthier.

“Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of “Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.” And this year, it's a procrastinator's dream: three extra, government-given days to put off your taxes, since they're due Monday instead of today.

It’s not a time-management issue. For the vast majority of us, it’s usually about doing a task we’d rather put off, like taxes or scheduling a colonoscopy. But a significant (foot-dragging) minority of us are chronic procrastinators — people who wait until the last minute to start virtually everything from emptying the dishwasher to updating their life insurance policy.

Scientists insist there aren’t any benefits of procrastinating for any of us. Procrastinators are great excuse makers, but the reality is that you won’t really feel more like doing it tomorrow; you don’t work best under pressure; and it is your fault.

Here’s why you keep putting things off and how to quit procrastinating:

Procrastination mantra: All-or-nothing thinking

Rationalization:  People have this all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to cleaning closets or losing 20 pounds. “They think of the 20 pounds rather than the day-to-day struggle of chipping off the weight and gradually reaching a goal,” says Judith Belmont, a psychotherapist in Allentown, Penn., and author of the forthcoming “The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life; How to Get through Life’s Holes without Getting Stuck in Them.”

The fix: It’s a big project — pace yourself. Break the task up into small chunks and just get started. Once people get started, the perception of the task changes. “Progress fuels motivation, so it’s priming the pump,” says Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of “The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.” If you have a 40-page report to write, start with a page. If you can’t do that, start with a paragraph. Can’t do that? Start with a sentence.

Procrastination mantra: Perfectionism

Rationalization: Procrastinators think it’s all about them. “They’re afraid if they finish and the thing comes out terribly, they look bad and are no good,” says Ferrari. Some people want success, cerebrally, but they undermine it. Either they’re afraid of it, afraid of failing or afraid succeeding might not be all its jacked up to be.

The fix: Get over yourself. Surround yourself with people who are doers, who help you get things done or are good non-procrastinator role models. Find someone at work and say, ‘I see how much you accomplish and it’s so impressive, can I shadow you or take you to lunch and talk about how you do it?’ Then learn from them.

Procrastination mantra: Pleasure principle

Rationalization: Freud said people were guided by the pleasure principle, which means, essentially, that we like to have fun. And it’s hard to do something you don’t want to do. “We give in to feel good,” says Pychyl. We focus on short term mood repair by procrastinating on tasks we don’t like.

The fix: What if you had incentive to get projects done early? “We don’t give the early bird the worm,” says Ferrari. He suggests the IRS give you five percent off the money you owe if you file by Feb. 15. Since that won’t happen, reward yourself for not procrastinating. ‘If I work for two hours, I can check Facebook for 10 minutes. If I exercise now, I’ll watch ‘The Biggest Loser’ later,’” Ferrari suggests.

Procrastination mantra: Learned it from family

Rationalization: “No one is born a procrastinator; there is no gene for it,” says Ferrari. Procrastinators learn the behavior from their family. Either their parents procrastinated or they grew up with a stern, demanding dad. Ferrari says studies found it’s the father that causes kids to become procrastinators more than mothers. Impersonal, demanding dads can produce children who learn to cope by procrastinating. When you’re young, you rebel by learning to respond late, take your time and put off doing what you are supposed to do.

The fix: Move away from vague intentions that lack clarity to a more specific, what you are going to do when. “Put the cue in the environment,” says Pychyl. Saying, "I’ll schedule my annual physical this week" is vague as opposed to something like, "After I get the kids off to school, and get the dishes done, I’m going to sit down and call the doctor’s office." The cue triggers your action.

Procrastination mantra: Just my personality

Rationalization: Procrastinators are bad judges of time. They overestimate or underestimate how much time things take. Sometimes procrastination is related to depression and there is a small link to attention deficit disorder. “One of the things you have to do to stay on task is to pay attention, so if you are impulsive or have ADD, you will have a harder time,” says Pychyl.

The fix: Willpower is like a muscle. It can be strengthened to help you beat procrastination, no matter your personality.  Reaffirm your values. Remind yourself that you really do need to work out, see the doctor, sign up for your 401K. Validate that these things are important to your life, your health and wealth, and when you put them off, you aren’t living your best life.