Procrastination – An Emotional Problem, not a Time-Management Problem

I came across the following article in the Wall Street Journal that was too good to keep to myself.  The correlation between procrastination and planning–or should I say the dichotomy between these–is obvious.  If we procrastinate important decisions for long enough, we may find it is too late… and then we suffer the consequences.

To Stop Procrastinating, Start by Understanding the Emotions Involved

Time management goes only so far; the emotional reasons for delay must also be addressed

Chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, researchers say, and it can lead to difficulties in relationships, jobs, finances and health. ILLUSTRATION: YAO XIAO

By

SHIRLEY S. WANG

Putting off a work or school assignment in order to play videogames or water the plants might seem like nothing more serious than poor time-management.

But researchers say chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, and it can lead to significant issues in relationships, jobs, finances and health.

In August, researchers from Stockholm University published one of the first randomized controlled trials on the treatment of procrastination. It found a therapy delivered online can significantly reduce procrastination.

Psychologists also are studying other ways people might be able to reduce procrastination, such as better emotion-regulation strategies and visions of the future self.

Scientists define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. It is opting for short-term pleasure or mood at the cost of the long-term. Perhaps we didn’t finish preparing a presentation on the weekend because we had house guests. That is just intentional delay based on a rational decision, says Timothy Pychyl (pronounced pitch-el), a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has published extensively on the topic.

The essence of procrastination is “we’re giving in to feel good,” Dr. Pychyl says. “Procrastination is, ‘I know I should be doing it, I want to, it gets under my skin [when I don’t].’ ”

TO PROCRASTINATE LESS, START BY DOING THIS

Tips from research led by Timothy Pychyl, Piers Steel and Alexander Rozental.

  • Break a long-term project down into specific sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomorrow”) you plan to work on the task.
  • Just get started. It isn’t necessary to write a long list of tasks, or each intermediate step.
  • Remind yourself that finishing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable.
  • Implement “microcosts,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to procrastinate, such as having to log on to a separate computer account for games.
  • Reward yourself not only for completing the entire project but also the sub-goals.

Ben Lockwood, a 39-year-old office manager in Chippenham, about 100 miles west of London, knows the feeling all too well. Even though he isn’t a lazy person, he says, he struggles with procrastination at work and in his personal life. He says he feels paralyzed by wanting to do everything perfectly, which then makes him feel anxious about getting started.

Instead of looking for a new job, he might go to the gym—a move researchers call “moral compensation.” That is when procrastinators do something to make themselves feel good or productive in order to avoid the task that needs to get done.

Mr. Lockwood says this pattern of behavior fills him with self-loathing. “I think I’d rather tell someone I robbed a bank than tell them I procrastinate,” he says.

Chronic procrastinators often hold misconceptions about why they procrastinate and what it means, psychologists have discovered. Many chronic procrastinators believe they can’t get started on a task because they want to do it perfectly. Yet studies show chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, which is a tendency to act immediately on urges, according to Piers Steel, an organizational-behavior professor at the University of Calgary.

People may assume anxiety is what prevents them from getting started, yet data from many studies show that for people low in impulsiveness, anxiety is the cue to get going. Highly impulsive people, on the other hand, shut down when they feel anxiety. Impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotion and want to do something else to get rid of the bad feeling, Dr. Steel says.

Some people claim they purposely leave things to the last minute because they work better under stress, but true procrastinators get stressed out by the delay. It’s arguable whether the quality of their work is actually better than if they had started earlier, according to Dr. Pychyl.

Experts say the consequences of chronic or extreme procrastination can be serious: Marriages break up, people lose jobs and often feel like impostors. Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, in England, recently began studying the effects of procrastination on coping with chronic illness.

The mental-health effects of procrastination are well-documented: Habitual procrastinators have higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer well-being.

Less is known about physical effects, and especially serious health problems. In a recent paper, Dr. Sirois and colleagues found procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease were less likely to engage in active strategies for coping with the illness, such as finding meaning or taking action, such as arranging to exercise with a friend. They were more likely to adopt maladaptive behaviors, like being avoidant or blaming themselves for the illness and trying to forget it.

In addition, procrastinators often seem unable to see as clearly into the future about their choices and behaviors as non-procrastinators—a phenomenon she calls “temporal myopia.” Their vision of their future selves is often more abstract and impersonal, and they’re less connected emotionally to their future selves. Temporal myopia may be largely due to their high levels of stress which can shift their focus to more immediate rather than distant concerns.

“A lot of us think, I’m doing it for me” and that in the future we’ll benefit because of what we’re doing now, says Dr. Sirois. But procrastinators aren’t as good at envisioning this. Dr. Sirois, Carleton’s Dr. Pychyl and others are testing interventions for helping procrastinators better envision and connect with their future selves.

Focusing on time management alone will help procrastinators, but only so much, the scientists say. The emotional regulation component must be addressed as well.

Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus.

At Stockholm University, researchers set out to test whether a self-help treatment could have an effect on more-severe forms of procrastination, as the research in this area was lacking. Though there are many self-help books and experimental lab studies, the group wanted to design an intervention that, if shown efficacious, could be rolled out widely, such as via the Internet, said Alexander Rozental, a clinical psychologist and doctoral student who was an author of the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Some 150 participants were self-reported high procrastinators and were randomly assigned to complete the intervention, either by themselves, with the guidance of a therapist or to a wait-list control. The treatment program consisted of 10 weekly modules.

One component focused on goal setting, such as breaking down long-term goals into smaller and more-concrete sub-goals. Instead of saying one was going to work on a paper on Tuesday, participants were taught to be specific and divide it into manageable sub-goals: I am going to work on a paper for one hour at 11 a.m.

The intervention also employed a reward system. Participants would give themselves something positive, whether a cup of coffee or a break after accomplishing mini-goals, rather than wait until finishing the overall goal.

Another module involved exposing procrastinators to stressful feelings or thoughts in brief but gradually longer periods. The goal there is to help them feel that they are better able to manage their emotions and not to instinctively follow them.

The results showed that after intervention with both guided and unguided self-help, people improved their procrastination, though the guided therapy seemed to show greater benefit. The researchers, who have continued following up with the participants, will look at one-year outcomes later this year to see if the results were maintained.

They also are conducting a study of college students receiving either group therapy or Internet-based cognitive behavior therapy, where they will look not only at self-reported procrastination but also at real-life outcomes including academic grades and use of alcohol and drugs, Mr. Rozental says.

In Calgary, Dr. Steel’s lab is testing and helping to develop new software with a Hong Kong company, Saent, that helps by delaying the loading of websites such as Facebook for 15 seconds or so, using “micro-costs” such as requiring a password before surfing the Web. Sometimes these little bits of effort are all that are necessary to deter procrastinators from distraction, Dr. Steel says.

Mr. Lockwood, the procrastinator from the U.K., has developed his own strategies for helping him delay tasks. Since he’s had to pay late fees before for not paying bills on time, for no reason other than he didn’t put the check in the mail, he now makes sure he’s always stocked with stamps and envelopes at home and has online bill pay set up for as many places as possible.

But he wishes he could shake his procrastination in other areas of his life. He says his girlfriend is always planning their vacations because he has a hard time getting started and is reluctant to ask for time off. But he actually enjoys the act of planning trips. He says one day he would love to surprise her by coming up with the idea and doing the planning.

“If you’re an occasional procrastinator, quit thinking about your feelings and get to the next task,” says Dr. Pychyl. “But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, you might need therapy to better understand your emotions and how you’re coping with them through avoidance.”

Write to Shirley S. Wang at shirley.wang@wsj.com

A Breakthrough in the Fight Against Brain Decline

I try to stay informed about important legal, scientific, medical, and societal developments in order to better serve my clients and their loved ones.  I have learned of an exciting medical development that is good news for our brains.

Around the world, people are living longer than ever before.  In the United States, the wave of Baby Boomers reaching the traditional retirement age is being called “The Silver Tsunami”, reflecting its size and scope.  The impact of this transition from one generation to another on our national economy and societal landscape will be dramatic for at least a decade, as more than 10,000 people turn 65 every day!

With all the talk of living longer, people are looking for ways to age gracefully, on their terms, to enjoy life to the fullest.  Proper nutrition, exercise, and reducing stress are proven effective to slow down the body’s aging process.

But what about your brain’s health?

In my practice I have seen an increase in dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions affecting cognitive function.  These conditions are traumatic to the sufferer and to the family.  You can be proactive about the effects of incapacity by preparing an estate plan that will enable your loved ones to assist you.  We hope that never happens, but according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, one in three seniors will die with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Until now, I had not known of anything that could biologically prevent and correct deterioration of the brain.  However, a product known as EHT is doing just that.  Developed over twenty years by lead researchers at Princeton University, this supplement is a breakthrough in the fight for the mind.

Over time, the brain’s vital neuronal connections weaken, which can cause memory loss, slower reaction times and diminished alertness. EHT helps protect against mental decline with a revolutionary formula containing a natural mixture of bioactive molecules.  EHT has been clinically proven to:

  • Combat oxidative stress and chronic inflammation
  • Fortify and strengthen natural brain functions
  • Protect and support neuronal networking
  • Enhance the body’s natural energy stores
  • Boost the body’s immune system
  • Increase focus and alertness

I have partnered with the company exclusively licensed to market EHT Age-Defying Supplement, which will be available for purchase this summer.  If you would like more information, please do not hesitate to contact me. More information is available by clicking here.

Digital Assets: Protecting 21st-Century Estates

Most people realize they need to protect their tangible assets such as houses, cash, investments, and personal property from the probate process.  However, few remember to account for their digital property, which can be quite valuable.

Think of your iTunes account, Dropbox files and other cloud storage, online magazine subscriptions, e-books, games, and even email accounts.  These assets are often overlooked during the estate planning process, but they can represent thousands of dollars in cash value, not to mention their infinite emotional worth.  Who has rights to access those items after you pass away?

Recently the Wall Street Journal published an article regarding the importance of planning one’s digital estate.  It states that, while only 5 states provide a direct solution to this issue via fiduciary laws, most states are behind the curve in legislation.  Several other states have proposals but no laws on the books.  California is one state with no digital estate statutes.

So, how can you help to ease the transfer of your online assets?

Estate planning experts recommend placing the licenses to your online accounts, as well as passwords to access them, into a living trust.  Remember, living trusts are usually private, but wills can be made public very easily.  Never list your account information in a will.  I would typically advise against listing sensitive information in your living trust either.  Instead, make a list of your online accounts, include the current login information, and seal it in an envelope addressed to your successor trustee.  Store the envelope together with your other estate planning documents in a safe place, and never share the envelope with others during your lifetime.  Every year or so, review the letter to make sure it is current.

This information is just a start, and it should not be considered to be legal advice.  If you’d like more information about safely transferring your digital wealth of music, photos, connections, and information, please speak with an estate planning lawyer.

Beware of scammers after real property transfers

One important step in creating a living trust is trust funding.  This is the process of renaming your assets into the name of the trust.  .

For example:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith own a home as joint tenants.  They create a revocable living trust to avoid probate and provide a private administration of their assets upon their deaths.  After the trust is signed and notarized, they have two deeds prepared: the first transfers from Mr. and Mrs. Smith as joint tenants to Mr. and Mrs. Smith as community property.  This step ensures the stepped-up basis in capital gains taxes is realized for these clients.  The second deed transfers the property from Mr. and Mrs. Smith as community property to Mr. and Mrs. Smith as trustees of their living trust.

The deeds are signed and notarized and then recorded with the local County Recorder’s Office, where they become public record. It is the only part of creating a living trust estate plan that must be publicly accessible.

Some businesses prey on unsuspecting property owners by sending them solicitations to provide copies of the newly-recorded deeds to the property owners, for exorbitant fees. The solicitations usually look as though they originate from a government agency, which is done to confuse and persuade people to buy these services.  This is NOT necessary.

It is standard practice among estate attorneys to request that the recorded deeds be mailed back to the attorney’s office, so that the attorney can take a photocopy of the recorded deeds for the file.  Then the attorney forwards the original, recorded deeds to the clients for safe-keeping with their estate documents.

If you receive a solicitation from a suspicious-looking organization offering to mail your deeds for an astronomical price, you may disregard it and call your estate attorney for follow-up.

How to Prepare Your Successor Trustee for Your Legacy

If you have a living revocable trust, the person who manages and distributes your property after your death is called the successor trustee. It is not an easy job sometimes, and so you should consider preparing the successor trustee the best you can.

Here are three ways to prepare your estate plan for easier administration by your successor trustee:

1. Keep it simple.

Your estate plan should be prepared as simply as possible while accomplishing your objectives. If your beneficiaries do not understand what they are receiving, conflicts can arise.  And if your successor trustee has a different interpretation of your trust than you do, your wishes might not be carried out.  Avoid some of the common pitfalls.  For example, you might choose to make percentage distributions to your children rather than set amounts of money or property.

2. Keep it organized.

Your estate plan should be kept all together in a safe place, such as a file cabinet drawer or even a safe deposit box. Wherever it is located, please be sure to tell your successor of where and how to find it. It is a good idea to keep all real property deeds, insurance policies, recent bank and investment account statements, and other important papers with you estate planning documents.

3. Keep it current.

Remember this: a living trust is a living document, and living things need care to survive and thrive. If you created a living trust within the last 12 months, you may check again to ensure your real property has been properly titled into the trust (known as trust funding). If you created your trust 3 years ago, you might review it again to ensure all beneficiaries are listed according to your wishes. If your trust is more than 10 years old, you may have it reviewed by a qualified trust lawyer to ensure it complies with current laws and carries out your wishes adequately.

You have a living revocable trust for many reasons, some of which include (1) avoiding probate, (2) allowing for easier distributions, and (3) giving peace of mind to you and your family. If you prepare a good estate plan and then maintain it regularly, you can expect that your plan will be carried out according to your wishes, and with less effort by your successor trustee.