The Science of Procrastination
> 1/12/2007 11:32:40 AM

Nearly every student has, at at least one point in his or her school career,responded to a perceived challenge or obligation by practicingprocrastination. The strategy is hardly limited to "layabouts" or thosewith persecution complexes; modern-day reflection reveals that many of history's most celebrated mindswere dedicated procrastinators. The habit is both problematic andextremely common, and there is no one method with which to "cure" it,so different types of procrastinators must find ways to minimize thesymptoms of this complex predisposition.

The objects ofcontinued delay are as varied as the people who avoid them, and thereasons may be obscure, but several key elements usually contribute:seeing the goal or task at hand as unpleasant and thereby fearing it orlooking to avoid it, harboring doubts about one's personal ability toperform the task to a desired level of satisfaction, and the largerproblem of failing to think (or actively choosing not to think) beyondthe 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.

Peoplealso implement a multitude of excuses to justify their procrastinationto themselves and others: some use seemingly essential errands likehouse cleaning, checking email or shopping as a cover for putting offsomething more important. Small, pleasurable activities such as readingand watching television can also serve as stalling mechanisms to avoidlarger projects. Procrastinators often know that they will feel betterafter completing their stated goals, and the issue may remain in thebacks of their minds while they do other things, distracting andunsettling them, but they still put it off, often waiting until allother options are exhausted. Detailed schedules, one of the mostcommonly used prescriptions for procrastination, do not usually work,because one can always find a reason to avoid or delay certainundesirable elements within the list, only to look back on it the nextday, week or year with regret or self-recrimination, thereby beginningthe cycle anew.

Well-known author Paul Graham, for one, advocates neglecting small dutiesin order to focus on more important ones. Forgetting to shave or tidyone'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 isoccupied by the relatively mundane is unfortunate, but dwelling on therestrictions and disappointments of one's own life  is ultimatelyunproductive. In an academic context, recommendations range from controlling one's environment(finding a more appropriate setting for study with less opportunity fordistraction) to creating bite-sized projects from the cumbersomeobligation at hand. In such cases, after adjusting one's expectationsto focus on more realistic, day-to-day goals, gradual steps that don'tseem significant at first can lead to faster, more efficientperformance over time. Whatever coping method one chooses, conqueringprocrastination is a work-in-progress, and if the issue is left tosimmer, it can encourage mental and physical stress that willeventually feed into serious health problems.

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