Why dithering will be the death of meShe's failed to do her tax returns for four years and still hasn't collected a necklace she took to be repaired in 2003. Can anyone help Britain's worst procastinator
23:54 GMT, 26 August 2012
A fortnight ago I hauled four bulging carrier bags up to my loft and tipped tens of thousands of receipts, invoices and phone bills all over the floorboards.
I stood amidst the flotsam of random expenditure, finally admitting the scale of my procrastination.
I find it mortifying to admit, but it has been four years since I last filed a tax return and most weeks I receive brown envelopes announcing ever-steeper fines.
Build up: Brown envelopes, unpaid bills and ever-steeper fines continue to mount around Rowan Pelling
I may appear, from a safe distance, to be a normal, functioning human being, who practises journalism and raises two sons, but underlying the carapace of activity is a deep and mystifying inertia.
I am not alone in displaying the sort of dithering and mental paralysis that adds up to profound self-sabotage.
Joseph Ferrari of De Paul University in Chicago — an expert on procrastination — has found that 20 per cent of the world’s population are chronic delayers.
There are millions of us all over the world crushed by mountains of unresolved paperwork, not paying our taxes, ignoring urgent emails, binning our parking tickets, not phoning our mums, never tidying our bedrooms, not reproducing until our ovaries are ancient — basically never doing today what we could defer until we’re dead.
I wrote a short article about my debilitating tendency to procrastinate at the start of the year and many people contacted me with similar tales.
One woman hadn’t paid her phone bill for so long she’d been cut off and taken to court, yet she had sufficient funds in her account. Another had left three antique cane chairs at a restorer’s shop ten years ago, but had never reclaimed them.
A common theme followed all the correspondence: like Hamlet (literature’s most famous procrastinator) we were baffled by our failure to act. It was illogical, damaging and, above all, maddening for our spouses, family and friends.
Then an email arrived from a BBC radio producer. Might I like to bare my soul a little more fully, he asked How about making a short documentary for Radio 4 on the subject of procrastination. I could even, he said, investigate some strategies for dealing with the problem.
JUST SAY NO!
Substance abuse among procrastinators is higher than normal. This may be due to their inability to self-regulate
‘Argghhh, um, I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Let’s crack on with it! Face the fear!’ he said. So I turned to face a dark treacly lake of dread and indecision.
There are so many tasks I fail to perform, for no good reason, over so many years, that it’s hard to list them all.
I took an antique necklace to be a mended at a jeweller’s nine years ago and have never picked it up.
I bought a rocking horse on eBay in January, but it’s still with the original owners. I married 17 years ago, yet my wedding photos are still in shoeboxes, waiting to be put in albums.
There’s not a snap in the house of my two sons, because I haven’t had one printed since they were born. My eight-year-old son slept in his cot-bed until he was five because I couldn’t summon the willpower to clear the small room earmarked for him. Eventually my big sister drove round with her daughter’s old bed and issued instructions to ‘move him now, before social services do!’
I never look at bank statements or bills. I fail to invoice for work I have done, meaning one glossy magazine has owed me 2,400 since 2001. My desk is submerged under an Eiffel Tower of envelopes, novels and one Wombat-In-A-Tin. For eight years I have been failing to write a memoir of my days at the helm of the Erotic Review. No wonder my favourite cartoon is the Private Eye cracker, inspired by Peter Cook, which depicts one man saying to another: ‘I’m writing a novel.’ His companion replies: ‘Neither am I.’
The truth is I can’t write an article until the deadline’s hurtling towards me with all the horror of a head-on collision.
Better adjusted mortals will never know the cloud of self-loathing that descends as the procrastinator struggles to free themselves from a thick, black bog of incomplete chores. The sensation’s just like those nightmares where a monster is lumbering towards you, but your legs won’t work, so you can’t run away.
When I started to record the Radio 4
documentary it was spooky — and comforting — to find how many people
mentioned the same symptoms: the inability to work without the stress of
a deadline, the unpaid bills, unopened mail and endless staring into
I talked to the late
Douglas Adams’s agent, Ed Victor, about the time the author’s publisher
locked him in a hotel room for three weeks until he finished the
long-awaited sequel to the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Signs: An empty picture frame (left). Rowan has no photos of her two sons around her house because she has not found time in eight years. A woman shouts at her phone (right) which was cut off due to procrastination (posed by model)
Adams was just about the most famous procrastinator in the business. It was he who famously said: ‘I love deadlines — I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’
And few understand the curse of procrastination as thoroughly as New York writer Sheryl Canter. It was when she found herself facing six years’ unpaid tax that she began to recognise ‘compulsive task avoidance’ was at its core — an ‘impulse control problem, just like drug addiction’
So Canter set up procrastinators- anonymous.org which helps its users diagnose and discuss the problem and support each other back to semblance of normality. She believes denial is the first thing procrastinators have to tackle.
Canter came across people who had lost their jobs and marriages, and felt suicidal. The site is peppered with techniques to battle procrastination, such as daily task lists you post online and tick as you progress and teaming people with ‘work buddies’, who monitor them through the day’s jobs.
Many of us fail to achieve, it seems, because the only people monitoring our progress are our own weak selves. Professor Piers Steel, of the University of Calgary, has written an acclaimed book The Procrastination Equation. He tackles common myths such as ‘I’m a perfectionist’, ‘I need an imminent deadline to do my best work’ and ‘I’m at my most creative when I’m stressed’.
True perfectionists start tasks early and leave time to improve on their work, while copious research shows no one does their most efficient, or most creative, thinking under the stress of a deadline.
One of Steel’s key insights is that procrastination is linked to impulsiveness. If you live for the moment you will tend to favour activities that offer speedy gratification, finding it easy to ignore tasks that offer distant rewards, such as writing a book or taking out a pension.
Steel offers a raft of cognitive strategies for combating procrastination, from breaking tasks into manageable chunks and scheduling hard assignments for the hours you are most energised, to working under observation (we all do better if someone else is in the room, apparently), removing temptations and giving yourself rewards for reaching milestones.
Steel’s advice is sound, but what about those of us who defy all appeals to logic
Helping hand: New York writer Sheryl Canter set up Procrastinators Anonymous after she found herself facing sex years' unpaid tax owing to her problem
Sometimes, it seems, procrastinators aren’t just overwhelmed, they are wilfully self-sabotaging. One of the most interesting conversations I had while recording the documentary was with the renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach.
While many cite fear of failure as a factor in procrastination, Orbach believes ‘fear of success’ can be as significant, and that what we view as delaying can be ‘an active act of refusal’.
The reasons for that fear will differ, but if you explore those for the dread, you will be one step closer to conquering it. This strikes a deep chord with fellow procrastinators. One writer friend who is a chronic self-saboteur says he fears success would bring him into the fold — the conventional order of things — where other people could control him.
Another procrastinator admits she fears any form of success might bring unwelcome comparisons with her high-achieving mother.
My own most shameful moments have invariably involved situations that threaten me with success. I once spent so long not providing the material needed by a film company who had bought a film option from me that the deal nearly collapsed; all that time, my primary emotion was deep, unremitting and mystifying fear.
Clearly, if I could understand what prompts that dread, I would be closer to freeing myself. During my interview with Orbach, I mentioned my procrastination started when I was about 15. She immediately picked up on that being a key moment of puberty. Was it possible, she wondered, that I was frightened of growing up I had resisted becoming an adult, I said — and in many ways still do.
I emerged from the documentary resolved to rid myself of my inner, stroppy, task-avoidant teenager. I could see it’s unfair on my children (and my endlessly patient husband). Halfway through making the programme I took my first step towards recovery when I employed a super-efficient school leaver to help clear my paperwork.
I took a pile of neat files to my cheery new accountant and told her how ashamed I felt. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I had a man here the other day who hadn’t paid tax for five years and handed me some carrier bags stuffed with receipts.’
Yet another tough case, it seems, for Procastinators Anonymous.
■ Helping Hamlet: Can Science Cure Procrastination is on Radio 4 tomorrow at 11am.