The Science of Procrastination
> 1/12/2007 10:45:06 AM

Nearly everyone has, at at least one point in his or her life, responded to a perceived challenge or obligation by practicing procrastination. The strategy is hardly limited to "layabouts" or those with persecution complexes; modern-day reflection reveals that many of history's most celebrated minds were dedicated procrastinators. The habit is both problematic and extremely common, and there is no one method with which to "cure" it, so different types of procrastinators must find ways to minimize the symptoms of this complex predisposition.

The objects of continued delay are as varied as the people who avoid them, and the reasons may be obscure, but several key elements usually contribute: seeing the goal or task at hand as unpleasant and thereby fearing it or looking to avoid it, harboring doubts about one's personal ability to perform the task to a desired level of satisfaction, and the larger problem of failing to think (or actively choosing not to think) beyond the present moment:

"The heart of procrastination is an adaptive natural tendency to value today much more than tomorrow," says Piers Steel, an associate professor of industrial psychology at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.

People also implement a multitude of excuses to justify their procrastination to themselves and others: some use seemingly essential errands like house cleaning, checking email or shopping as a cover for putting off something more important. Small, pleasurable activities such as reading and watching television can also serve as stalling mechanisms to avoid larger projects. Procrastinators often know that they will feel better after completing their stated goals, and the issue may remain in the backs of their minds while they do other things, distracting and unsettling them, but they still put it off, often waiting until all other options are exhausted. Detailed schedules, one of the most commonly used prescriptions for procrastination, do not usually work, because one can always find a reason to avoid or delay certain undesirable elements within the list, only to look back on it the next day, week or year with regret or self-recrimination, thereby beginning the cycle anew.

Well-known author Paul Graham, for one, advocates neglecting small duties in order to focus on more important ones. Forgetting to shave or tidy one's home is a small price to pay for moving toward some larger goal, he says. The fact that time is extremely limited and that most of it is occupied by the relatively mundane is unfortunate, but dwelling on the restrictions and disappointments of one's own life  is ultimately unproductive. In an academic context, recommendations range from controlling one's environment (finding a more appropriate setting for study with less opportunity for distraction) to creating bite-sized projects from the cumbersome obligation at hand. In such cases, after adjusting one's expectations to focus on more realistic, day-to-day goals, gradual steps that don't seem significant at first can lead to faster, more efficient performance over time. Whatever coping method one chooses, conquering procrastination is a work-in-progress, and if the issue is left to simmer, it can encourage mental and physical stress that will eventually feed into serious health problems.

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