by Jane Burka, PhD and Lenora Yuen, PhD
Coaches often work with clients who seek
help for the problem of procrastination. Clients feel stuck, dread deadlines,
create last-minute havoc to get things done and feel badly about themselves for
putting things off.
Some coaches procrastinate too—you might
put off building up your business, returning calls or emails or setting up your
web page. Maybe you handle your work life efficiently but find yourself
procrastinating on home projects or taking care of your health.
It’s tempting to tell procrastinators,
“Just do it,” but you have probably noticed that this approach doesn’t work. If
they could, they would. Why can’t they?
Procrastination is usually thought of as a
problem of time management or organization, so you offer your clients time
management or organizational techniques. These techniques work, if clients use
them. But have you noticed that clients often put off using your helpful
The answer is to have a dual
approach: consider the reasons why your client procrastinates and offer
suggestions designed specifically for procrastinators.
complex. There are always psychological roots that lead to avoidance
and procrastination; surprisingly, biology may be involved too.
The psychological roots of
People avoid tasks because there is some
underlying anxiety associated with doing the job or finishing the job. Four main
anxieties typically underlie procrastination:
• Fear of failure
If clients wait until the last minute and
then are not satisfied with the results, they can always think that it would
have been so much better if they had just started sooner. Their best is never
evaluated, because they didn’t allow enough time to do their best. They maintain
the illusion of brilliance, but the illusion is not tested.
Perfectionism is a common aspect of fear
of failure. The perfectionist’s attitude is: “If it’s not perfect, it’s not good
enough; if it’s not good enough, I’m not good enough.” Striving to be
perfect is overwhelming, and feeling overwhelmed leads to procrastination.
Sometimes it’s only the immediacy of the deadline that allows perfectionists to
get to work, because they finally have to give up the notion that the task can
be done perfectly.
• Fear of success
Although people hire coaches to help them
become more successful, there are anxieties associated with success that lead
people to procrastinate. They may be afraid of the greater responsibility and
increased expectations that come with success. They may fear being in the
spotlight as the authority figure that others will compete with. They may fear
outshining their co-workers or close friends or relatives. They may feel that
they don’t deserve success. Procrastination puts roadblocks on the road to
• Fear of feeling
Procrastination can be an indirect way of
saying NO; doing things on your own timetable and not on someone else’s
schedule. In organizations, procrastination can help people feel they have some
control over their work lives when their jobs are regimented or closely managed.
For some people, maintaining their sense of independence and autonomy via
procrastination is more psychologically important than cooperating (experienced
as capitulating) and getting ahead.
• Fear of facing
You may have noticed that procrastinators
can be very unrealistic. They may not know the date of their deadline, or they
assume that deadlines don’t really matter. They may expect to accomplish more in
a few hours than is humanly possible. They may believe that they are prepared
when they are not. They may expect that everyone will rally to help them at the
last minute, when people actually resent being pulled into their time trap. As
one procrastinator protested, “Reality sucks!”
The common thread in these fears is that
procrastination is a strategy that puts the focus on timelines and evades the
underlying issues of feeling like a failure, facing the pressures of success,
having to protect a sense of independence or accepting unpleasant realities.
The biological roots of
For some people, procrastination also has
biological roots. For example:
- If someone is depressed, it may take too
much energy to get anything done.
- People with ADD have difficulty focusing
and resisting distractions, so they put off work that takes a lot of focused
attention, leaving a trail of unfinished projects behind them.
- People with executive functioning problems
have problems prioritizing, organizing and following through; life is full of
abandoned dreams and disappointment.
- Everyone’s internal clock is different.
For some people, their subjective sense of time does not come close to matching
actual clock time.
- Set a goal. Help a
procrastinator identify a goal in concrete, behavioral terms. Not “I’m going to
get organized,” but “I’m going to spend one hour clearing off my desk.” Work on
one goal at a time. Trying to do everything is part of the problem. Countering
perfectionism is part of the solution.
- Identify small steps.
Show the procrastinator how any goal can be broken down into its component
steps. Procrastinators think in vague and global terms, so it can be
surprisingly difficult to get them to recognize the specific small steps that
lead toward accomplishment of any goal.
- Use small bits of time.
Procrastinators don’t want to start until they have all the time they need to
finish, but how often do you have large chunks of free time?
- Learn to tell time. Guess
how long something will take, then measure how long it actually takes. Most
procrastinators underestimate or overestimate time.
- Monitor progress.
Self-monitoring is a helpful motivator. Keep track of how much time is actually
spent working on the goal. Even a little bit counts. This system sets up rewards
for progress and confronts a procrastinator with the reality of where time goes.
- Get support. Don’t suffer
in isolation over projects that have been put off. Get help in identifying where
to start, what to leave out, and which steps to take. People who don’t
procrastinate often have a hard time understanding why procrastinators don’t
approach work as they do, so it’s important to choose the right person for
Jane Burka, PhD and Lenora Yuen, PhD are co-authors of
Procrastination: Why You Do It; What To Do About It NOW, published in
2008 by DaCapo Press (www.procrastinationbook.info). Burka and Yuen are
psychologists in the San Francisco Bay Area and have conducted procrastination
groups and workshops for businesses and non-profit organizations.