On the surface, Robert Capp is a true success. He’s a publishing executive at the top of his field. In his 38 years, he’s 1)overseen everything from major magazines to major Internet sites. In his free time, he 2)runs a charity that helps war 3)veterans adjust to life after 4)traumatic injury. But every day, Capp fights a battle he rarely wins.
“As soon as I have something important to do,”he says, “I get really into my head about it. I don’t do it, just can’t do it. Anxiety starts to build. If I have to arrange a meeting, just making the phone call to set it up becomes impossible. All sorts of 5)weird excuses start 6)popping into my brain. If the meeting is with someone important I start thinking,‘Who am I to be calling this guy, he’s really important and I’m not, why would he possibly want to waste time speaking to me?’ It’s truly awful.”
For Capp, this awful feeling has been one of the more 7)defining features of his life. “Procrastination has affected every part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was always 8)hiding from responsibility. By the time I was a teenager, I discovered drugs and alcohol and these were the perfect tools to 9)foster my procrastination. Why do something I should be doing when there were drugs to take?”
His addiction lasted over 10 years.“But even when I got sober, the urge to delay didn’t get better. It nearly destroyed my marriage. It’s impossible to be in a relationship with a chronic procrastinator. It feels crazy to a partner, who can’t help but think, ‘Here’s this rational, intelligent person, so how can this keep happening? It doesn’t make any sense.’”
For Capp, it’s worse at work. “Several months ago my boss sent me a 10)memo listing things that were wrong with my performance. There were eight items on his list and all eight had to do with my procrastination problems.” Capp lost his job—although he 11)landed a 12)coveted position on a new Web site.
“Everyone procrastinates,” observes DePaul University psychologist Joseph Ferrari. However, “not everyone is a procrastinator.” Still, a large and growing proportion of the population can 13)lay claim to this problem. In a 1978 survey, 5 percent of the population defined themselves as procrastinators. Ferrari recently completed two large studies of the behavior. “We found that between 20 and 25 percent of the population are procrastinators.”
Psychologists define procrastination as a gap between intention and action. Chronic procrastinators like Robert Capp feel bad about their decisions to delay—which helps distinguish procrastination from laziness. Laziness involves a lack of desire; with procrastination, the desire to start that project is there, but it 14)consistently loses out 15)to our appetite for delay. And this is no ordinary delay. Procrastination is considered a needless, often irrational delay of some important task in favor of a less important, but seemingly more rewarding, task. And that accompanying negative feeling—the 16)gnawing guilt, the building anxiety—is one way we know we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do.
Researchers now believe that procrastination reflects the triumph of 17)impulsivity over the lure of future rewards. We’re terrible at processing time. Because our brains were built largely when survival 18)hinged on mastering immediate conditions, we engage in 19)temporal discounting—that is, we misjudge the importance of a task when it lies even a short distance in the future, so we see distant rewards as smaller than they really are. And our impulsivity never had it so good: Modern life furnishes an 20)abundance of endlessly reinforcing demands for our attention, such as the streams of tweets you 21)subscribe to.
However much procrastination reflects a 22)mismatch between our stone-age brains and the highly sophisticated environments those same brains have created, it reaches deep into our being. “It is always about choice,” observes Canadian psychologist Timothy Pychyl. And that makes procrastination 23)quintessentially an 24)existential problem. “We’re given a certain amount of time and we have to use it,” he says.
“It’s the acts of 25)omission that lead to our biggest regrets in life. Where do we choose to invest ourselves?”Procrastination, he contends, bumps right up against our commitment “to who it is we are trying to be in life.”Even 26)indecision and inaction are really decision and action, Pychyl notes.“Your indecision, your inaction, becomes your choice, your act—perhaps your whole life.” Unless, of course, you take 27)deliberate steps to 28)counteract your worst tendencies.