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Women's Health

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Stop Procrastinating – Right Now!

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Melissa Kirsch
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
6 ways to outsmart your paralysis and actually get something done

I procrastinate horribly — not about everything, just about phone calls. Sometimes I put off making dinner reservations until all I can get is a 10 p.m. slot at my third-favorite restaurant. I regularly run out of prescriptions because I can't manage to phone the pharmacy for refills. I dial my mother so rarely that, when I do, she thinks someone died. For no reason I can understand, the prospect of making even a mundane phone call leaves me overwhelmed. Procrastinating over such a simple task seems crazy — but research shows that most of us are busily not doing things every day.

In a five-year study of procrastination (that took 10 years, so who are they to call the kettle black?), psychologist Piers Steel, Ph.D., at the University of Calgary found that 95 percent of us report having postponement problems. We put off jobs we find tedious, as well as things that inspire fear of failure, of not living up to our own expectations, of never finishing — insecurities that threaten our very identities. My phone phobia is probably due to some combination of finding the calling process tiresome and a dread of the call mushrooming into more projects (my mom might insist I come visit; I'll have to pick up that prescription). Yes, I know it's absurd and counterproductive to delay, but I do it anyway, even though there's a price.

As we all learned in grade school, procrastination is the thief of time — but studies show that that's just the beginning. Putting off tax filing, for example, costs Americans a cumulative $400 million a year, because once we start rushing, we make mistakes. Delaying routine medical tests results in dangerously late detection of otherwise treatable illnesses. "People who procrastinate tend to be less healthy, less wealthy, and less happy," reports Steel. Ready to repent? Here is the latest research on how you can reclaim your time and finally start making things happen.

Replace the Finish Line with the Starting Line

When a big, unpleasant task is looming, its sheer enormity can make even the most enterprising woman decide she'd be better off plucking her eyebrows. Instead of thinking about how far you are from the finish line, says psychologist Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, concentrate on starting. And if you do begin a lengthy, boring project — say, organizing the pantry — only to soon find yourself browsing Depression glass on eBay, don't get upset or throw in the towel. Just ask, "When can I start again?"

The point of staying focused on beginning: to avoid getting intimidated by all the fears that surround finishing. What if I do a lousy job? What if I flat-out can't do it? Such concerns can seem silly in the context of a simple cleaning job, but they often arise out of perfectionism, says Fiore. To move ahead, don't criticize yourself for your garage-cleaning skills (or lack thereof). "To get things done — and done well — you have to keep your sense of worth as a person separate from whether every task you do turns out perfectly," he says. Take dieting, a scarily long-term project that's easy to put off until after the Valentine's Day candy is gone, or longer. Susan Wilkinson, 37, of Middletown, CT, has lost 20 pounds by continually starting over. "When I slip up and eat a piece of cake, instead of thinking, It's hopeless, I might as well just eat anything I want now, I think, So I ate a slice of cake. Let me start over again." That's just what Fiore advises: Think of big projects as a series of beginnings — and remember that no failure is final.

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