Sooner or later, procrastination can lead to failure

By Barbara Gutierrez

Sooner or later, procrastination can lead to failure

By Barbara Gutierrez
University of Miami professors offer ways to avoid this condition, which affects nearly all of us—at some point.

In one of her books, the writer Annie Lamott recalls a time when her 10-year-old brother, who had three months to work on a school report about North American birds, found himself distraught the day before the assignment was due. He had put off doing the homework until the very last minute.

The boy, almost in tears, looked at his father for advice. His wise father said: “Do it bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Procrastination seems to be a condition that affects many people.

We have a task to get done, but we put it off. Any distraction will do to keep us from the work at hand. Why does that happen?

Debra Lieberman, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences who studies human behavior, said that when we think of procrastination, we associate it with work. But it can also be applied to our relationships, even our health.

“The definition of procrastination is putting off for another time that which we can do now,” she said. “When we are concerned with the outcome of a particular act, we tend to delay engaging in it. It could be because we are afraid of being evaluated, or there is a conflict. Or we are afraid of failure. There are many reasons why we fail to act in a timely manner.”

Today’s society—with so many diversions such as the internet, social media, iPhones, tablets, and video games—offers a myriad of distractions to take our minds off the work that must be done.

“But anyone who wants to succeed must keep in mind that procrastination rarely produces superior work—which runs the risk of causing others to negatively evaluate our work—and perhaps even greater procrastination the next time around. But there is a group of individuals who tend not to procrastinate: leaders,” said Lieberman.

Chantel Acevedo, professor of English and the author of several books, said that she believes the only way to tackle a large project is not to look at the enormity of the task but to dissect it.    

“As a writer, procrastinating on a project means having to rush at the end, and good art isn’t usually made that way,” she said. “I ask my creative writing students to break their work down into chunks, so that they aren't looking at a massive, intimidating assignment, but rather, something doable that they can build on.”

Similarly, Lieberman tries to break down tasks into smaller components.

“If you are procrastinating, give yourself three tasks that you must do,” she said. “If it is a large paper you have to write, come up with three smaller tasks. No matter how small those tasks (e.g., write three sentences), wash, rinse, repeat, and your paper will start to form.”

Inevitably, she said, doing those tasks will lead to more and more.

Beyond work, we procrastinate in other areas of life.

“When someone delays having a conversation with his or her mate about a failing relationship, it can be seen as delaying a painful process, not necessarily procrastinating,” Lieberman said. “However, if someone delays going to the doctor after ignoring a pain for days, that goes beyond procrastination and can be considered negligence.”   

Margaret Krigbaum, an executive and personal coach who teaches in the Division of Continuing and International Education, said that she believes a person who has created a habit of procrastination must look inside themselves for change.

She offers these questions to ask oneself as a way to begin the process of changing:

  • What does procrastination cost me both internally and in my life and career?
  • How long am I willing to pay the cost?
  • What reward am I giving myself, even unintentionally, for procrastinating? Is that reward greater or smaller than the cost I am paying?
  • What do I have to shift internally to put myself and my success first and procrastination second?

Lieberman said she has learned to see most major tasks or obstacles as opportunities. With each accomplishment, the next one seems less daunting.

“By procrastinating, we are putting ourselves behind the eight ball and not realizing how large our accomplishments could be,” she said. “If you do decent or passable work at the eleventh hour, imagine what you could do if you took even a few more hours. If a task is going to be done, it is worth doing well.”