Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now


By Jane Burka

By Lenora M. Yuen

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 2, 2007. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A practical, tested program to overcome procrastination by achieving set goals, managing time, enlisting support, and handling stress.

A must have for anyone who puts things off until tomororw. Based on their workshops and counseling experience, psychologists Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen offer a probing, sensitive, and at times humorous look at a problem that affects everyone: students and scientists, secretaries and executives, homemakers and salespeople. Wise, effective, and easy-to-use, Procrastination identifies the reasons we put off tasks-fears of failure, success, control, separation, and attachment-and their roots in our childhood and adult experiences. Burka and Yuen even provide tips on living and working with the procrastinators you may know.


"Trying to kick the procrastination habit? In their practice treating procrastinators, [these] California psychologists . . . have pinpointed several causes."
—USA Today
"An exploration of what causes people to procrastinate and various procrastination styles. . . . Fascinating."
"Dr. Burka and Dr. Yuen . . . get procrastinators to feel better about themselves. . . . In learning to reduce their delaying tactics, procrastinators have much to gain in addition to faster performance and enjoying life more."
—New York Times
"Procrastination can be deadly to just about every aspect of your life . . . Burka and Yuen . . . offer hope for those prone to delay."
—Boston Herald
"Procrastination's basic message: A tendency to be tardy is neither a bad habit nor moral failing [but] a 'complex psychological problem' caused by fear."
—U.S. News and World Report
"Warmly and even humorously written, but the points are clearly made. . . . Burka and Yuen did not procrastinate in getting to the remedies which have been successful in their clinical work."
—Honolulu Star-Bulletin
"Burka and Yuen see procrastination as more than just laziness. For some, it's closer to a psychological block that keeps them from doing what needs to be done."
—San Jose Mercury-News
"If procrastination is starting to play havoc with your sanity . . . fortunately there are . . . helpful tools [in] Procrastination."
—Oakland Tribune
"A close examination of procrastination. . . . Most useful is the authors' advice on how procrastinators can break their bad habits. . . . This frequently lively book will certainly set time-wasters and task-avoiders on the path to self-improvement."
—Publishers Weekly
"A good overview. . . . The authors provide useful suggestions without being slick . . . [and] give sensible advice for dealing with the procrastinators in one's own life."
—Library Journal
"Why do we make excuses and put things off? Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen explain how we get that way, and what we can do to stop it."
—In Business
"Want to stop procrastinating and be more productive? Read this now!"
—Working Woman

A Note to Our Readers
People who write books are supposed to be very knowledgeable about their subjects. We know procrastination from the inside out: between us, we have been through many all-nighters, spent long years struggling with our doctoral dissertations, paid late tax penalties, and made up elaborate scenarios to excuse our delays (a story about a death in the family is our most extreme example).
In addition to two lifetimes of personal experience, we have had many years of professional experience working with procrastinators. We began in 1979 when we were on the staff of the Counseling Center at the University of California at Berkeley where, to the best of our knowledge, we created the first group treatment program for student procrastinators. In our Procrastination Groups, we saw patterns and themes emerge again and again. While each individual's struggle was unique, there were many striking similarities among them. We learned, for example, that our plan to start the week off by holding the group on Monday mornings from nine to eleven was completely unrealistic—no one even showed up until ten o'clock!
When we offered Procrastination Workshops to the general public, we were once again reminded of the nature of the beast. We almost canceled our first workshop one week before the scheduled date because too few people had registered. In the end, we had to move to a larger room when two-thirds of the group signed up at the last minute.
For thirty years now, we have worked with individuals in our private practices of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, exploring issues of procrastination in depth for extended periods of time. Our patients have opened their hearts and minds to us, and we have been the fortunate beneficiaries of their courage.
All of these experiences have reinforced our idea that procrastination is not primarily a time management problem or a moral failing but a complex psychological issue. At its core, problem procrastination is a problem with one's relationship to oneself, reflecting a shaky sense of self-esteem. In our first book, we called it a problem of self-worth. Now we emphasize that self-worth is rooted in the capacity for acceptance, which includes acceptance of our biology, our history, our circumstances, and our many human limits.
Why, after twenty-five years, did we decide that the time is right for an update of our book? We want to place procrastination in the context of our current culture and add new perspectives to our formulation of what procrastination is all about. In addition to having a deeper psychological understanding of the issues, we have new information from other fields, such as neuroscience and behavioral economics, that contributes to the understanding of procrastination.
Twenty-five years ago, there was virtually no research on procrastination, but now there are research findings that clarify what leads to procrastination. In 2007, psychologist Piers Steel at the University of Calgary published a review of almost 800 studies on procrastination,1 including our 1983 book, which was one of the earliest resources cited. Steel ultimately identified four main issues that make procrastination more likely—low confidence in succeeding, task aversiveness, distractibility and impulsiveness, and having goals and rewards be too far off in the future. We were pleased to see that these research findings supported our clinical observations and suggestions, but we think there is more to procrastination than meets the research eye.
The world has changed dramatically since we wrote the first edition of Procrastination. The Internet was not available to individuals in the early 1980s, and the personal computer was not commonplace. We wrote in pencil on yellow pads, typed our drafts on IBM Selectric typewriters (with the thrilling "erase" key), and exchanged chapters in person. Getting our manuscript to the publisher required many mad dashes to the Federal Express office for overnight delivery. (If we missed the 6:00 P.M. closing time downtown, we were well aware that there was always the 8:00 P.M. option at the airport.) Now computers are our pads and pencils, our research libraries, and our mail carriers.
At that time, there were no Blackberries, PDAs, cell phones, or iPhones. Technological advances now allow us to work 24/7, but they also tempt us to procrastinate 24/7! No matter the time or place, at work or at home, we can lose ourselves for hours while we surf the Internet—reading the news, researching ad infinitum, blogging, watching sports, fantasizing about vacations or pornography. There's something for everyone.
In fact, over the years there has been an increase in avoidance behavior, with the Internet as the single most powerful cause.2 Now, information is both limitless and instantaneously available; there is far more information than we can manage, let alone use. Too much information, too many decisions, too many options—this overabundance of information leads many of us into procrastination paralysis.
As we write today, we see that procrastination is even more complex than we once thought—an interweaving of not only individual psychological, behavioral, and emotional issues, but also social, cultural, and technological dynamics, biological and neurological predispositions, and universal human tendencies. We therefore regard the complexity of procrastination with even greater respect.
In writing this book, we believe now, as we did twenty-five years ago, that loosening the grip procrastination holds over your life requires both understanding what leads you to put things off and finding some way to take action. You may be aware of how delaying works against you, but we imagine you are less familiar with how procrastination works for you, and until you can see the function that procrastination serves in your life, you'll probably put off trying our techniques, just as you've put off so many other things. If you don't understand why you delay, all the practical techniques in the world aren't likely to help. Yet, even if you've searched your soul and believe you thoroughly understand your reasons for procrastinating, you still won't get anywhere unless you do something to overcome it. (Reading about techniques may be interesting, but reading is not doing.) So figuring out how to take action in new ways is vitally important.
In Part One of this book we untangle the many and varied roots of procrastination; then in Part Two we offer suggestions that can help you take action. Our aim is not to do away with procrastination. There are plenty of times when it's in your best interest to put something aside and not attend to it. Rather, we hope this book will lead you to the freedom of choice that comes from self-acceptance. We want our readers to lessen their tendency to delay by being happy with their humanity, accepting their strengths and weaknesses, and being able to be with themselves liking the company they keep. We don't suggest that you give up setting ambitious goals, striving for excellence, or taking on new challenges. But the fear, shame, dread, and self-loathing that go along with conflicted attempts to take action are surely worth banishing.
We no longer procrastinate the way we once did. Although Lenora does file a tax extension every year, it is a planned event, not a frantic, desperate solution to last-minute panic. And despite the fact that it took Jane five months to take her new PDA out of the box, she now manages to handle most of her responsibilities sooner rather than later. And while our first book was delivered two years past the publisher's deadline, this time we needed only a four-week grace period! We can attest to the fact that change is possible, though we also know it's not easy.
In this book, we want to accompany you through the challenges of procrastination into a world of psychological growth, acceptance, and action. We have given voice to many of the people with whom we've worked. To protect their confidentiality, we've changed all names and identifying information; the procrastinators we describe are composites of several people we've known. In sharing their stories, we hope you will better understand your own. It is in knowing your story, the narrative of your own life, that you will find the context for your procrastination. We believe this is crucial, for when we accept ourselves as we really are, rather than as we wish to be, we are most able to act in our best interest and not live at the mercy of procrastination.



About four weeks into our first Procrastination Group at UC-BERKELEY, a student said with surprise, "Procrastination is like a dandelion. You pull it up and think you've got it, but then it turns out the roots are so deep, it just grows back." While for some people, procrastination is like a flower easily loosened and removed, for many it is a patch of dandelions whose roots are deep and tangled. We can only talk about these roots one at a time, so we must separate them in an artificial way. But in life, these roots grow simultaneously, interweaving and shaping each other as they grow. Human experience, like some weeds, is complex.
The emotional roots of procrastination involve inner feelings, fears, hopes, memories, dreams, doubts, and pressures. But many procrastinators don't recognize all that's going on under the surface, because they use procrastination to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Underneath the disorganization and delay, most procrastinators are afraid they are unacceptable in some basic way. As painful as it is to judge yourself for your procrastination, self-criticism may be easier to tolerate than the feelings of vulnerability and exposure that come with trying your best and then landing in the territory of your fears. We know this is uncomfortable territory, but when you avoid your feelings, you are always unbalanced, picking your way through a field of buried emotional land mines, fearful about when you will stumble into the next explosion. We therefore invite you to explore this territory with us, to look at fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being controlled, and fear of intimacy or separation in relationships, because we believe that when you know what you feel and understand why you feel it, you are likely to be more confident, solid, at ease with yourself, and then able to proceed without procrastinating.
Another root of procrastination is the procrastinator's complicated relationship to time. Procrastinators often have a "wishful thinking" approach to time or see it as an opponent to outwit, outmaneuver, or outlive. This attitude toward time fuels more procrastination. If your "subjective time" is in conflict with "clock time,"1 it is difficult to anticipate deadlines, work steadily toward a goal, or predict how much time you need to get things done. In addition, your sense of time may have created trouble in relationships with other people whose subjective experience of time is more naturally aligned with clock time. And when you have conflict with others about time, you might be tempted to procrastinate all the more.
The biological roots of procrastination include your body, your brain, and your genetic inheritance. All play a role in your procrastination. The field of neuroscience has exploded with exciting discoveries that may help you understand your procrastination in a new way. What happens in your brain influences what you avoid, and what you avoid (or don't avoid) affects the structure and function of your brain. Because of this "neuroplasticity," the brain is always changing, and therefore your biological tendencies do not have to be a fixed impediment to your progress.2
The interpersonal roots of procrastination encompass your family history, your social relationships, and your place in your current culture. Family dynamics from your past probably continue into the present and play a role in maintaining a dynamic of procrastination that no longer serves you. Social and cultural concerns may also contribute to your tendency to procrastinate, and it's important to understand their influence on your sense of yourself and your relationships with others.
We encourage you to explore and understand these emotional, biological, and social influences without criticism or blame. One of the themes of our book is that it can be exciting and interesting to learn from your experience—not denying it, forgetting it, or judging it, but accepting what is and making the most of it. Learning about the roots of your tendency to delay lays the foundation for utilizing the techniques to overcome procrastination that we offer in Part Two.

Nuisance or Nemesis?
It's New Year's Day—time for your annual resolutions. But after a long night of celebration, and with all the Bowl games on TV, who has time for serious reflection? By the end of January, when one friend has already lost ten pounds on her new diet and another has begun working on his taxes (who are these people?), you decide that the time has finally come for you to make your own resolution: "I'll never procrastinate again!"
Procrastination. The word conjures up different images for each of us. If you are among the fortunate who are not severely afflicted, you may imagine a person lying in a hammock, contentedly drinking iced tea instead of mowing the lawn. But if procrastination has been a problem for you, the images are probably less pleasant: a desk so cluttered, you can hardly see it beneath the rubble; the faces of old friends you've been meaning to write to for years; memories of school days that turned into all-nighters; a project that even now is waiting to be done. . . .
The dictionary definition of the verb "procrastinate" is "to postpone, put off, defer, prolong." The word comes from the joining of two Latin words: pro, meaning "forward," and crastinus, which means "belonging to tomorrow."1 Forward it to tomorrow, otherwise known as "I'll do it later." Procrastination has been a problem since ancient times. The Egyptians had two words that translated as "procrastinate," and both were related to survival.2 One denoted the useful habit of avoiding unnecessary work and impulsive effort, thus conserving energy. The other denoted the harmful habit of laziness in accomplishing a task that was necessary for subsistence, such as failing to till the fields at the appropriate time of year in the Nile flood cycle. In 1751, Samuel Johnson wrote about procrastination while a messenger waited to deliver the essay Johnson was late in submitting: "The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind."3
Procrastination has been on the rise since we wrote our first book. In 2007, estimates of procrastination in college students ran as high as 75 percent, with 50 percent of students reporting that they procrastinate consistently and consider it a problem. In the general population, chronic procrastination affects 25 percent of adults.4 Over 95 percent of procrastinators would like to reduce their delaying ways,5 since they suffer both in terms of their performance and their sense of well-being. If we want to stop procrastinating, why is it so difficult to do so? Research does not provide a simple answer to the mystery of why we procrastinate. There is no "typical" profile of a procrastinator, because "the network of psychological variables seems complex."6
One cause can be put to rest: research has shown that intelligence bears no relationship to procrastination,7 so you can forget the idea that you're putting things off until your brilliance kicks in, or that being a procrastinator means you're stupid. Men procrastinate only slightly more than women, and there is evidence that procrastination abates as we get older. Perhaps people don't want to waste the time they have left, or they have stepped off the competitive escalator, or maybe they are finally comfortable with who they are and what they've accomplished—or not.
Procrastination plagues people of all occupations. Under the constant pressure of grades and other evaluations, a student puts off writing papers and studying for exams, only to cram for days when time is finally running out. Self-employed people have only themselves to rely on to stay in business—yet many find it's easy to delay when no one is watching to make sure they follow through. In increasingly competitive corporate settings, some people slow down instead of trying to keep up with the fast pace. Those irritated by bureaucratic red tape may file things under "pending," rather than complete the requisite (boring) busywork. At home, the possibilities for procrastination are endless. Who isn't nagged by an unfinished project, such as cleaning out the basement, painting the bedroom, or deciding on a new cell phone plan?


People often wonder how they can differentiate between true procrastination and simply putting things off either because they don't have time to do everything or because they're naturally relaxed and low-keyed. This is an important distinction. One way to tell whether procrastination is a problem for you is whether you find it troublesome. At one end of the continuum of distress about procrastination are people who procrastinate but don't suffer much. Here are some examples.
Some people thrive on keeping very busy, loaded with projects and activities; living from one deadline to the next, they love intense pressure and wouldn't choose to live any other way. There are also people who like to take life easy. It may take them a long time to get something done, but they're in no hurry to get around to it; they aren't especially driven or pressured. At times, people deliberately choose to procrastinate. They might decide to put something off because it's low on their priority list or because they want to think things over before making a decision or taking action. They use procrastination to give themselves time to reflect, to clarify options, or to focus on what seems most important.
We all have moments when everything seems to happen at once and we can't help but fall behind temporarily. There might be one day when the relatives arrive for a visit, the kids need chauffeur service, the refrigerator breaks down, and the tax receipts are due at the accountant's the next day. At times like these, something's got to give—it would be impossible to get everything done on time. People who acknowledge that there are limits to what they can expect of themselves are not likely to feel overly distressed when they can't do everything.
Some people don't suffer from their procrastination because it occurs in areas that are of little consequence to them. The important things get done more or less on time. Procrastination is part of their lives, but in a minor way.
Others don't suffer because they don't anticipate any problems, and they don't admit they're procrastinating. They may be overly optimistic about how long it takes to complete a task, consistently underestimating how much time they need. Some are "socially active optimists"8 who use the distraction of social activity to procrastinate and have fun doing it. Outgoing and extroverted, they are (overly) confident about postponing now and being successful later.


At the other end of the distress continuum are people whose procrastination creates significant problems. There are two ways procrastination can be troublesome. People who procrastinate may suffer internal consequences, feelings that range from irritation and regret to intense self-condemnation and despair. To an outside observer, many of these people appear to be doing just fine. They may be highly successful, like the lawyer who heads his own firm or the woman who is able to manage three children, volunteer work, and a full-time job. But inside they feel miserable. They are frustrated and angry with themselves because procrastinating has prevented them from doing all they think they are capable of. Although they appear to be doing well, they suffer inside.
Procrastination may lead not only to internal suffering but to significant external consequences. Sometimes these external consequences come as a shock, if you haven't even thought about possible repercussions. Some are mild, like a small penalty for a late payment. But many procrastinators have endured major setbacks at work, at school, in relationships, or at home and have lost much that is important to them. A lawyer was disbarred because she missed too many court deadlines. We know a man whose wife left him because she got fed up with the way his procrastination at work interfered with family activities. The last straw came when he had to cancel their anniversary trip to Hawaii in order to meet a work deadline. An accountant told his manager that he missed his deadline because his wife was in the hospital. When the manager called his home and his wife answered, he was fired for his deception. A mortgage broker spent his time helping others learn new computer software instead of reviewing mortgage applications. He lost his job, had to move his family to a less-expensive neighborhood in the middle of the school year, and was unemployed for several months.


Many procrastinators find that their delaying seems to have a life and will of its own. They compare the experience of procrastination to living on an emotional roller coaster. Their moods rise and fall as they attempt to make progress, yet they inevitably slow down. When they anticipate starting a project and then work toward its completion, procrastinators undergo a sequence of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that is so common that we call it the "cycle of procrastination."
You have your own unique experience of this cycle. Your cycle may be drawn out over a period of weeks, months, or even years, or it may occur so rapidly that you move from the beginning to the end in a matter of hours.
1. "I'll start early this time."
At the outset, procrastinators are usually very hopeful. When you first undertake a project, the possibility exists that this time it will be done in a sensible and systematic way. Although you feel unable or unwilling to start right now, you may believe the start will somehow spontaneously occur, with no planned effort on your part. It is only after some time has elapsed and it becomes apparent that this time may not be different after all that your hope changes into apprehension.
2. "I've got to start soon."
The time for an early start has passed, and illusions of doing the project right this time are fading. Your anxiety builds and the pressure to begin intensifies. Having almost lost hope for the spontaneous start, you now begin to feel pushed to make some effort to do something soon. But the deadline is not yet in sight, so some hope remains.
3. "What if I don't start?"
As time passes and you still haven't made a start, it is no longer a question of the ideal beginning, or even of the push to get going. By now, any remaining optimism has been replaced by foreboding. Imagining that you may never start, you may have visions of horrible consequences that will ruin your life forever. At this point you may become paralyzed, a number of thoughts circling around in your head:
a. "I should have started sooner." You may look back over the time you have lost, realize it's irretrievable, and chastize yourself with this self-reproach. You regret the behavior that has brought you to the edge of this precipice, knowing you could have prevented it if only you had started sooner. As one procrastinator put it, "I have the experience of constant lament."
b. "I'm doing everything but . . ." It is extremely common for procrastinators at this stage to do everything and anything except


  • "This book succeeds on many levels. It is a useful self-help guide for general readers and the lay public. Mental health professionals...will find innovative ideas and sage advice."—Metapsychology Online Reviews
  • "Read it. Now."—Louisiana's Acadiana Lifestyle
  • "[A] deeply perceptive book...Show[s] you how to fix this vexing, life-sapping problem."—Business Today (NC)

On Sale
Apr 2, 2007
Page Count
240 pages

Jane Burka

About the Author

Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist in California. Along with Jane B. Burka, she has conducted workshops and seminars at the University of California at Berkeley and for corporate and public groups nationwide.

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