How to Overcome Chronic Procrastination

Psychology professor Joseph Ferrari explains how to overcome procrastination. 

Joseph Ferrari probably shouldn’t look at the comments section. Whenever he does, he is angered by the snide remarks about procrastination, his area of expertise. The psychology professor at Chicago’s DePaul University recently organized the 10th Procrastination Research Conference, with over sixty fellow researchers filing in (on time) for the festivities. 

Everyone procrastinates, he tells me, but not everyone is a procrastinator. But because we’ve all put things off, we tend to think chronic procrastinators, or “procs,” do not have a problem. So when people laugh at the issue, he says it’s no different than laughing at an alcoholic or someone suffering from depression. 

Twenty percent of adult men and women are chronic procrastinators. They’re not just putting off ‘a’ task. This is their maladaptive lifestyle. 

And this task begins in childhood, Ferrari says. While some researchers search for a genetic basis for procrastination, he thinks they’re foolish for looking at DNA. The 20 percent—a global statistic in all the countries he’s studied, which prove to be numerous—had cold, demanding parents. Mostly fathers, in fact. While we “blame mothers for everything,” it’s the patriarchy creating procs, according to Ferrari’s research. 

Ferrari published his first study on the topic in 1988. Since then the rates of procrastination have remained the same, though the discussion has changed—we talk about it more. 

But that does not imply that we’re doing much about it. Ferrari dismisses common misunderstandings, such as the notion that technology causes us to procrastinate more. Such an idea requires a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary biology.

We have had the same number of hours for centuries. To say that we’re more complicated today insults our ancestors, who may have been farmers, who had to get up in the morning and plow the fields, fix the fence, get the pump working, feed the animals, lubricate this piece of equipment, fix the roof. Their lives were pretty busy.

He also swipes away the notion that our lives are more complicated today. He’s come across people claiming there’s too much going on in a world of multi-taskers. “Prioritizing is not procrastinating,” he assures me. Just because some people choose to focus on this task rather than that one does not make them a proc. 

Having spent so much time in this field, he believes procs are selfish. “Life is not about me, but about we,” he repeats like a mantra. Procrastinators are also not stupid. In fact, he finds many to be highly intelligent. They’re just good at making excuses, so much so that they continually believe them, creating elaborate excuses that often fool the listener as well.

Ferrari has found the only effective treatment to be cognitive behavior therapy. He says procs need to rethink and reframe their time management abilities and motivation. By first recognizing and admitting their behaviors—he promises me that procs will read this article and think it’s valid, except in regard to them—and then changing those behaviors can they quit procrastinating. His last book, Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, suggests ways to implement such behavioral changes.

That’s the individual. But Ferrari also believes society has a hand in procrastination. While we live in an age of “you have to be politically fair to everybody,” he believes punishing lateness is not nearly as effective as rewarding earliness. He uses Christmas as an example: instead of making everything cheaper after the holiday, give the best discounts in November, then raise the prices as the day approaches (and beyond). He even thinks the same is possible with everyone’s favorite, tax season. 

If you pay your credit care late, you pay a fine, but if you pay it early you should get a reward. The same should occur during tax season. If you don’t file your taxes by April 15, you have a penalty. But the government should say, if you get it to us by February 15, take 5 percent off, or by March 15, 3 percent off.

One can dream.


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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