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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's Christmas Eve. You're wading through the chaos of a crowded department store in a desperate attempt to find something, anything suitable for your mother-in-law. Sound familiar? Well, how about this: It's the night before a tough chemistry exam. You should be memorizing the periodic table, but instead you've just wasted 40 minutes changing the line-up of your fantasy football team.

If any of those scenarios sounds familiar, you may be a procrastinator. Don't despair. You're not alone. Research shows that procrastination is a natural response to the pressures of a tough deadline or of stressful tasks, be them work related or personal in nature. An estimated 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. A full 70 percent of college students procrastinate, which could account for the extraordinarily high number of stricken grandparents just before final exams.

Procrastination, seemingly innocuous, also has its consequences; increased stress, loss of productivity are among them. The good news is there are ways to kick the habit, but it isn't easy.

Later in the program, Bob Dylan knows how to write a tune, but can he host a talk show?

First, though, procrastination, and here's your chance to fess up. Are you a chronic dillydallier? What obligations do you put off until the last minute, and what do you do when you procrastinate? If you're a defender of dawdling, call in and make your case. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

But before we waste any of your time, let's introduce our first guest. Joining us now is Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he researches procrastination. And he joins us by phone from his home in Ottawa.

Thanks very much for being here, and we're not going to subject you to any more procrastination jokes.

Professor TIM PYCHYL (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada): Thanks very much, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Well, we know it's bad, so why do we procrastinate?

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, we--I think your comments about Christmas are a good one, you know, that some people say Christmas brings the best out of us. But I think it brings the worst, too. The situation's a very strong situation. For example, if you step on an elevator, most people react to that situation by all facing forward, not making a lot of chatter. That's a strong situation. And Christmas is the same. You think about gift buying or the holidays in general. Gift buying is a tough thing. If--you don't know what you're going to get for people, you don't know what they want or what even size to get, so there's a lot of uncertainty. And uncertainty's one of those situations that leads to lots of procrastination. Then you add to that just the kind of crowded parking lots and fighting for gifts in the stores, and you've got something that's very aversive and that leads most of us to want to put it off.

CONAN: But there are--you know, when we do something habitually, like procrastinate, normally there's some mechanism that reinforces that.

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, there's no doubt. And I think--but some of it--when you say we do it chronically, a lot of it then depends on our personality. So if we're those kind of people who are not very well-organized, not very self-disciplined, what--psychologists would say they're low in conscientiousness; these are people who are prone to procrastinate. And so are people who don't self-regulate very well. So this person that you were saying a moment ago is trying to study for that chemistry final...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PYCHYL: ...and 40 minutes goes by because they're reorganizing their football team, well, what they needed to do is protect the intention to study from that other intention, which is to dillydally. And if we don't have those strong regulation skills, the ability to really take control of ourselves, then we're going to have a problem with procrastination.

CONAN: Are there consequences beyond a bad grade in chemistry one term?

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, definitely. In fact, some of our research now shows that there's health effects. People have done research earlier and said certainly procrastination leads to stress, which seems to lead to health problems. We've also found that people who procrastinate will put off treatment seeking. So you've got a problem, and you'll even put off seeing the doctor about it. So there are problems that way. And, in turn, the kind of things you create socially are nightmarish. You leave everything till the last minute, and then you're canceling social engagements, you're calling in favors. When a printer breaks down, it's the end of the world. So it really does wreak havoc on our lives in different ways.

CONAN: It also spawns a lot of homework-eating dogs.

Prof. PYCHYL: It does and, as you noted earlier, sick grandmothers. But, you know, the thing about these excuses is that so often, you know, we're forced to make an excuse, and so those are the white lies we tell as we muddle through our lives.

CONAN: What do you put off? What do you procrastinate about? Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: totn@npr.org. What do you put off, and why?

Let's talk with Adam. Adam calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

ADAM (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Adam. You're on the air.

ADAM: Hi there. I was just--I'm a college student myself, and I've noticed that I know I procrastinate. Yet I have a paper due, and, you know, I can't create the certain amount of creativity I needed until the night before it's due.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ADAM: I try a certain number of days in advance because I know I have to get it done. Yet I am unable to come up with anything creative until the night before.

CONAN: I have to ask, Adam, are you postponing another task you should be doing to call into this radio program?

ADAM: Not necessarily. But there's always stuff I have to do, but not at the moment.

CONAN: Adam is with--like a lot of other people, Tim Pychyl, he seems to think that basically he works better under pressure.

Prof. PYCHYL: Right. And I think there's a bit of a myth there, although some psychologists say that you're an arousal procrastinator. When we do studies where we put pagers on people and we page them throughout the day and say, `What are you doing? Is there something else you should be doing?'--on Monday, when they're procrastinating, they say things like, `Oh, you know, I work better under pressure,' or like Adam said, `I'm more creative later.' But when we page them on Thursday night, the assignment's due Friday, they're working on the assignment, none of them spontaneously say, `I'm glad I waited till now. I work so much better under pressure.'

CONAN: Yeah. `Now I'm really in the zone,' yeah.

Prof. PYCHYL: Yeah. We tell ourselves those things because there's a gap between what we should be doing and what we are doing, and we have to get rid of that somehow. And we say, `You know, it's 'cause I'm more creative later.' A lot of times, Adam, I think you have to admit that people end up saying, `I wish I'd started this earlier because, like, I actually enjoy this, and there's other things I wish I had time to read. I just have to get it done now.' So there's--I agree with you, you need a certain amount of pressure to get you going, but we often leave it way too late and then compromise even how much we can get out of the task.

CONAN: Adam, is that the sound of your life being changed there?

ADAM: I understand that. But how would you--do you recommend setting maybe perhaps a self-imposed deadline, like, say, even though the physical deadline of a project is due on Friday, say by Monday you set your own deadline to create a sense of--you understand what I'm saying?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PYCHYL: Yeah, but that doesn't work, again. And from our research, we see that everyone knows that's just a game they're playing in their head.

ADAM: Right.

Prof. PYCHYL: Instead, I'd argue you should, quote, "prime the pump" a little bit. If you can just get started one day, say, `I'm going to work 30 minutes on this. I know that I'm'--and you can even say to yourself, `I know that I'm not most creative now, but I'm just going to get started either by doing a piece of reading that I know I have to do or even just doing the outline of this paper that I need to write,' whatever it is you think is the first step. When you prime the pump like that, what we often find--and we find it in our research--is that people say, `Hey, this isn't so bad. This is going better than I thought.' And ideas start to come to you.

What we do is we make the task look worse ahead of time than when we actually get going. So rather than trying to make these internal deadlines that you think you're going to work to, just make a deal with yourself that you'll work on it for 30 minutes and then you can stop if you want. You know, you can do most--just about anything for 30 minutes. And oftentimes what we find then is that we're ready to get going.

CONAN: Adam, good luck.

ADAM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

You mentioned one type of procrastinator called an arousal procrastinator, people who believe--they think they work best under pressure and tend to delay risk--tend to delay tasks just for the thrill of it in a way. There's another type.

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, a passive procrastinator. But, you know, I don't buy it yet. I think that we in the psychology field are debating this a bit, and I--from my own research, I don't buy this distinction. I think that the arousal procrastinators that--are people that are making excuses for their late performance. And, of course, there is a lot of arousal of just making it under the wire, and there's a great feeling of accomplishment. But it's kind of an excuse for the after-the-effect. All the procrastination that went up to that point was truly the same sort of passive, dysfunctional procrastination. I think the word itself carries a negative connotation, and to use it in a positive sense is just to misuse the word.

CONAN: Let me read you a quote from Ira Glass, the host of the radio program "This American Life" here in this country. He said, "There are people who are fundamentally lazy, who only get anything done because they put themselves under dreadful deadline pressure. Those people are all my brothers." Are there a lot of successful procrastinators out there who use that bad habit to advantage, like Ira Glass does?

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, there's no doubt. In fact, I'll meet many students who want to come and study with me. They'll say, `I want to understand it because I'm a dreadful procrastinator,' and they have A+ grades. What bothers them about their procrastination is that they wonder about their own motivation. `Why is it that I say that I want to do my master's,' for example, `I want to accomplish something on the job, and I wait till the last minute and I'm up all night?' It's not comfortable to spend these late nights doing it and particularly when we just waste time ahead of time. The irony is that between when you think you're going to start and when you actually start, you totally waste your time. It'd be different if you went and did something that was really fun, that you actually intended to do.

But imagine you're sitting at your desk and you think you're going to do your report, and it's not going well. So you say--and this could be Adam--`Oh, I'm going to go get something to eat.' So you go to the fridge and you say, `Oh, I'll grab that piece of--that yogurt there.' And you notice that the yogurt container leaves a mark on the shelf, and you say to yourself, `You know, it'll only take a minute to clean that.' And then you move the pickle jar to get back there with the cloth, and you realize that the pickle jar left a mark and you say, `It will only take a minute to clean that whole shelf.' Well, 10 minutes later your roommate walks by and says, `What are you doing? Cleaning the fridge?' `No, I'm working on my report.' And this happens all the time.

We don't really make a choice to leave the task that we started, but we find ourselves, as you said, dillydallying along the way. And we're doing things that we really don't want to do, but we're doing anything to avoid it. So I don't think this is a successful way to live our lives, and I think there's other ways than saying, `I need to put pressure on myself to accomplish my tasks.'

CONAN: Well, for those who may want to try to kick the procrastination habit, we turn now to Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at the Ohio State University. He teaches a class at Ohio State called Strategies For College Success, which teaches students how not to dawdle. And Mr. Tuckman joins us now from his studio at member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio.

Nice to have you on the program, sir.

Professor BRUCE W. TUCKMAN (Ohio State University): Nice to be on the program, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: What's the first thing a person ought to do in order to overcome chronic procrastination?

Prof. TUCKMAN: Take my course, that's the first thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sign up at Ohio State and then take the course.

Prof. TUCKMAN: Or read the book, "Learning and Motivation Strategies: Your Guide To Success."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TUCKMAN: Seriously, it's something that people can use help with, and most people don't necessarily get help or they think that they have to have some sort of serious counseling. And I think there's some general principles and ideas that we teach people about why they procrastinate so they can understand it better and some techniques that we teach them in order to overcome it.

CONAN: I've read that it's just about as easy to kick as the smoking habit. Boy, that's encouraging.

Prof. TUCKMAN: Yeah. Well, it's--my take on it is that what it does is it represents--what we call self-handicapping. It's like running a marathon with a bag of bricks on your back. It's hard enough to run a marathon without the bricks, but imagine what it must be like with the bricks on the back. And when you cross the finish line, somebody asks you, `How come it took you so long to run the marathon?'--you said, `Well, I had a bag of bri--I'm really a good runner, but I had a bag of bricks on my back.' And I think people are giving themselves an out for buying the wrong Christmas present or not being adequately prepared, and so that way they can--they always have a way to cover their own ego.

CONAN: We are talking today about procrastination and how to beat it. What do you procrastinate over? Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail: totn@npr.org. We're talking with Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and with Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at the Ohio State University. Join us when we come back from the break.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Don Marquis, the old columnist for the New York Sun, once said that procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday. Well, today we're talking about why we procrastinate and how we deal with the consequences. What's your best excuse for not to do something? Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our guests are Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at Ohio State University, in Columbus.

And, Professor Tuckman, you teach a class in, more or less, how to get rid of procrastination. Isn't the first trick to say, `Don't look at that term paper or that dissertation as one gigantic task. Look at it as 100 little tasks'?

Prof. TUCKMAN: That's absolutely right. We have a term for it. We call it bite-size pieces. And we teach students to break things down into bite-size pieces. Earlier this week I got an e-mail from a woman, and she said, `My name is Michelle, and I'm a chronic procrastinator trying to finish writing a term paper that is only five to seven pages long, yet I can't seem to get myself together this time. I am truly in a pinch. Please advise.'

And I wrote her back almost immediately because I try not to procrastinate: `Force yourself to write an outline of the paper TODAY.' And `today' is in all big letters. `Your outline should contain the six questions you want your paper to answer. Then take one question at a time and write a one-page answer to each question. So it's much easier to write a one-page paper than it is to write a six-page paper, and the only difference is you have to do it six times. But once you've broken the ice, then you're on your way.'

CONAN: Here's an e-mail that we got from Phil in Oakland, California, that discusses I think the situation that we've been talking about. `I am at this moment procrastinating. I'm avoiding work on my dissertation about psychological coping by listening to your show while cleaning my house rather than taking small steps to complete a somewhat overwhelming learning task. I am taking a visibly rewarding step in a realm over which I have more control, my space, while educating myself with your fascinating program. Too bad I can't get my degree this way.'

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, I agree. I mean, he just hit it on the head there. That's when I started studying procrastination is when I started doctoral students. It's a terrible process because of the uncertainty that's there. He really nailed that one and I think just as Bruce suggested a few moments ago about how you have to start making things concrete and bite-size, the same thing applies to the dissertation. `What's the next step I need to take?' Define it and do it. It is that simple. But it is, as you say, a tough habit to break. But to do that, you have to be concrete about: `Well, what is it that I don't understand?' And we do find ourselves cleaning our houses 'cause, as this caller noted--or this e-mail noted, `I know how to do that, and I feel good about myself doing that.'

Prof. TUCKMAN: We teach people to--people use rationalizations to justify procrastinating. In effect, they give themselves permission to procrastinate. `I work better under pressure' is absolutely the most ultimate rationalization because indeed they don't work better under pressure, they work only under pressure, so they have no idea how much better they could work. What we try to teach them to do, because you need to change the way you think before you change the way they behave, is to try to recognize the real reasons that they're doing it. And as we've established already, most of the time the real reasons are the lack of self-confidence. A dissertation is a huge undertaking, and it's really hard to have much self-confidence about it.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Kathy. Kathy with us from Prairie Village in Kansas.

KATHY (Caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

KATHY: I'd like to ask your guests if they have any information or if there have been studies done on any links between depression and procrastination. And the reason I ask that is that I come from a family of procrastinators, a long line of procrastinators, and I believe I've passed this on to one of my daughters, in particular, who struggled all the way through high school with any kind of long-term project in school, anything that would involve research and preparing--you know, having different steps that she would have to complete and then turn in. And what happened is she became very depressed in high school and fell far behind. She tested very high in any kind of standardized testing; as far as her intelligence, that always came out very, very high. But when it came to completing tasks and doing assignments, she fell behind and then she became seriously depressed.

CONAN: Tim Pychyl, any help there?

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, there's so much in that question. To begin with, let's just talk about the basic question of--about the relation between procrastination and depression. Certainly we can see procrastination as a symptom of depression. People who become depressed become amotivated, and they put off everything. But they're not one and the same. In that case, procrastination is just part of an outcome of this terrible state of depression.

Now in terms of this caller, the depression was a result of the failure to achieve what she wanted to. And you can go back to Bruce's comments about the self-handicapping, the sense of self that's involved in procrastination. So the continued failure, in this case, in the long-term projects led to a real lack of positive sense of self and to depression. And so you can see how the two might play on each other. And I think that Bruce has hit the nail on the head by saying we have to understand a great deal about the self to understand why we are procrastinating.

KATHY: Yes.

CONAN: Hmm. All right, Kathy...

KATHY: Thank you.

CONAN: ...good luck.

KATHY: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an e-mail question from Linda in Mt. Shasta, California: `I procrastinate paying bills. I have the money all along but wait until they're past due, and often this costs me more money in past-due fees. I get extremely angry at myself but invariably do the same thing again the next month. Am I nuts? Please help.' Bruce Tuckman, can you offer Linda any advice?

Prof. TUCKMAN: Well, she's got to be her own self-regulator. Tim talked about self-regulation. And in the final analysis, if you're going to procrastinate and you want to do something about it, you have to do something about it. You can't just keep, you know, saying, `I have this conundrum,' and keep on procrastinating. So she's got to decide if--whether or not she really wants to pay her bills on time. Then she can hang up notes all over the house, she can write herself reminders, she can leave the checkbook out and do all sorts of things. But she'll manage to do it if she's indeed motivated to do it.

Prof. PYCHYL: Yeah. I think that the reminders are very important there. That many people that are procrastinators can also be chronically disorganized. And so they need something to help them--remind them that that's their intention because they have good intentions but they literally forget them. And it won't surprise me if we start looking at functional MRI studies of the brain that we won't see that some people who really suffer from chronic procrastination have problems with what psychologists call executive function...

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. PYCHYL: ...their frontal lobe just being able to organize things. Now these are people I'm talking about how are really chronically disorganized, do it may be that there are people that we're talking about there who have to overcome this basic inability to organize things by using what Bruce said, real notes around the house, things to remind them. And we see this with people who are aging, for example, that they can't remember steps to things. They have to have a list there. And these are good tools for making change.

CONAN: Bruce Tuckman, I wanted to thank you very much for being with us today.

Prof. TUCKMAN: Thank you for having me, Neal. I really enjoyed it.

CONAN: Bruce W. Tuckman, a professor of education at the Ohio State University. He joined us from the studios of member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio.

Let's get a quick caller on the line. This is Wendy. Wendy calling us from Boise in Idaho.

WENDY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a graduate student and I'm taking a little bit of comfort in hearing so many people are in my boat. I'm a chronic procrastinator. I find that I'm getting worse, and as I have more time, it's amazing all the little trivial jobs I can find to fill that time and put off the project. And I would like to ask Tim for tips on what you refer to as protecting the intent. Making lists for me just seems to be one more thing to do to procrastinate on the project itself.

Prof. PYCHYL: That's certainly the case that many people will say, `Oh, what you need is a day planner or some way to manage your tasks,' and it's not true at all, as you say. List-making can make you feel good about your day because you put everything off until tomorrow. One of the ways you can start is you can have more increase of social control of the task. Like if Bruce had been able to talk a little bit more about his course, you would have heard him talk about the fact that in his course, he closes the window for students to be able to complete an assignment or not. But with a dissertation, the window just stays wide open. And so that kind of freedom leads to all the kind of problems that you're running into.

And so what you can do with your adviser or supervisor is start to download some of the control that way to say that that person expects a draft next week or expects a certain subtask, that bite-size stuff that Bruce was talking about. So you can download it that way to someone--letting other people have control.

But in terms of protecting that intention, another issue is that self-knowledge is saying, `OK, when I start to feel uncertain and I start feeling anxious, I don't want to just focus on how I'm feeling, but that's a signal to me that I'm about to procrastinate.' And so that's one of the ways we can start to self-regulate, to have the self-knowledge to say that anxiety's not just the emotional state; it's also a signal to me that things are going to come off the tracks now. So what I have to do is keep my--the seat of my pants on the seat of my chair just to get through these feelings and then I'll be able to stay on task--'cause a lot of us literally run away from the desk when we start feeling completely overwhelmed.

CONAN: Wendy, I did have a trick that did work sometimes with lists in that I back-dated them so that I could have some things to check off. You know, `Woke up, cup of coffee, brush teeth, wrote novel.'

Prof. PYCHYL: (Laughs)

WENDY: Oh, great. I'll try that. Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck, Wendy.

WENDY: Thanks.

CONAN: As a syndicated advice columnist, Amy Dickinson knows full well the consequences of procrastinating, that daily deadline does not care about whose dog ate what. And Ms. Dickinson joins us now from NPR's bureau in Chicago.

Amy, always nice to have you on the program.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Syndicated Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: From a scale of one to 10, 10 being the worse, how much of a procrastinator are you?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I--now, of course, I feel sick. You guys--you make it sound like such a bad thing. I think I'm around an eight.

CONAN: An eight?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes.

CONAN: What kinds of things do you put off? You get your column in on time.

Ms. DICKINSON: I do. But I literally--here's why I get the column in on time. I picture somebody picking up a newspaper in the morning with a blank page where my words should be. That's why I get it in on time. I procrastinate--for instance, the bill paying, I totally get that. And I have a trick. For people who don't pay their bills on time, choose the bill with the smallest amount. Let's say you owe $13 to your ISP provider.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: Pay the bill of the smallest amount. And there's something about working--this is how I do it anyway, I work--once I pay that bill, I go, `Oh, I wrote a check,' or `I went online and I took care of that,' and then you start--it kind of unlocks that kind of ice floe.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, listening to that, Tim Pychyl, what kind of procrastinator is Amy Dickinson?

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, it's interesting. There's two basic kinds of people. There's those people who approach success, and there's people who avoid failure. When Amy says she imagines a newspaper opening up with that blank spot, I'm thinking, `Well, what she's using to motivate herself is this kind of fear of failure,' like, `Whoa, there it is, a possible self, a big blank page.'

And so I think that with that in mind, rather than taking a visualization that an athlete might make to say, `I can imagine tomorrow writing the most brilliant column that everyone has to talk about,' she's imagining just the opposite. And I think that's kind of common among procrastinators--is that what they're doing is avoiding failure, and as we heard Bruce talk about, this self-handicapping, that leads you to put things off, to build an excuse for anything that might not be as good as you hope it would be.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: But the thing is I feel like I have learned to cope with my procrastinating by developing discipline where it's necessary. The problem is I then completely lack discipline when it's not necessary. I feel like I have two lives. Procrastinators probably feel this way. There's the life you're living when you're doing the task you're supposed to do. Then there's your whole life that's all about avoidance. And it's how you spend that time. I've chosen to try and spend my avoidance life in a pretty positive way, and I think that's just through a lifetime of putting stuff off. I now get--I'm very busy in the--during the avoidance times, I tend to be very, very busy with things that I actually want to do, not just cleaning the fridge type stuff.

Prof. PYCHYL: You know, there's another way, too, to think of that, that willpower, it's been discussed recently, is like a muscle. And so when you're exercising all that willpower to be self-disciplined in producing your column, just like the muscle that you've just kind of finished lifting a whole bunch of weights and then someone says, `Can you help me lift up this?' And you say, `No, I'm sorry. I'm exhausted.' And the same thing happens to us in terms of our willpower for those self-regulation tasks. You've been working to keep self-discipline in this area of your life, and you're literally just too exhausted to do it in other areas of your life. So it's quite natural. So those people who find that self-discipline is an effort are going to be more exhausted to apply that to every area of their life and it just makes sense.

CONAN: We're talking about avoidance, deferral and procrastination. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Ron, Ron calling us from Farmington, Michigan.

RON (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RON: I think three things enter into mind anyway: fear, perfectionism and making a decision. And the fear comes from `Am I making the perfect thing that I can do right now?'

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RON: And so I'll hold off because I'll find out what it is later. And making a decision is extremely difficult for most people.

CONAN: And perfectionism is, `Well, it's not good enough yet.'

RON: Yes.

CONAN: `I can make it better.'

RON: Right.

CONAN: Seventeenth draft.

Prof. PYCHYL: Maybe. But you know, there's a few flavors of perfectionism. There's the perfectionism that's self-oriented. We just do things really, really well for ourselves, but we don't find that to be related to procrastination. The other flavor of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. That's the kind of person who has this cartoon figure on his or her shoulder that says, `That's not good enough.' Those people who internalize the values of others, they're more likely to be the procrastinators. And so when we see perfectionism related to procrastination, which we do--and I agree with the caller completely on this fear of failure--it has everything to do that we've internalized other people's values of what's perfect and what's good enough. And when we start doing that, we run into problems of procrastination.

CONAN: Amy, that's, I think, the Jeff Bridges character from "Wonder Boys," the Michael Chabon novel, who couldn't finish his novel because he couldn't stop writing it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Right, the thousand-page novel.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: The Michael Douglas character. Yeah.

CONAN: Michael Douglas, excuse me. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: I keep getting my characters...

Ms. DICKINSON: I've got one of those in my desk.

CONAN: In fact, I could study those movie guides a little bit more. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: You've got one of those novels in your desk?

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

CONAN: I think we all do.

Ron, thanks for the call. Good luck.

RON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Eva in Charlotte, North Carolina: `I am the empress of organization partly because when faced with an unpleasant or scary task, I frequently procrastinate by organizing something--my art supplies, old lecture notes, the storage room at church. Christmas? Bah-humbug! I'll finally get into the holiday spirit around 3 PM Christmas Eve.' And that's a type that you've described already, Tim Pychyl.

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, definitely. You know, we end up sharpening every pencil on our desk and we alphabetize our spice racks, we do all these things. And that's kind of that irrational decision over irrationally short periods of time. So--a rational decision over an irrationally short period of time. So you say, `It'll only take me a minute to do this. It'll only take me a minute to do that.' And then six hours later, you say, `Well, there's no time for the task I was on.' And I think it's that self-knowledge that's lacking to say, `No, I'm going to nip this in the bud and just get this done.' It's like Amy said. Pay those small bills, get that pump primed and get going.

CONAN: And now...

Ms. DICKINSON: Let me make a suggestion, could I?

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. DICKINSON: Because as somebody who puts things off--I have a holiday letter; I send it to maybe 50 people. It's a letter. It's about me. So last year, I only got up to the letter M by the end of January. I sent out these letters. No one at the end of the alphabet got one. This year...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Hey, this year I'm starting with Z...

Prof. PYCHYL: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...and I'm working back. I mean, what I'm saying is, if you kind of, you know, upend the way you normally do things, sometimes that can help really shake it up a little.

CONAN: Tim Pychyl, thanks very much for being with us. By the way, as a professor of psychology who studies procrastination, you must've gotten the best excuses ever.

Prof. PYCHYL: I do. I get them all the time. But you know what? I'm probably the most open to them because I understand that there's a speech act involved where I've got all this power as a professor, so they sort of have to tell me the white lie because they're not going to tell me they're procrastinating. So we just get on with the learning. It's OK.

CONAN: Tim Pychyl is a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, in Canada. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. PYCHYL: My pleasure. Take care, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson will stay with us. We're going to take a couple of more calls on the subject of procrastination. What do you put off and why? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And to see how you measure up, by the way, you can go to our Web site at npr.org and take Bruce W. Tuckman's procrastination test. Again, that's at npr.org.

We'll also be talking after the break about Bob Dylan as a disc jockey.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Tomorrow is election day in Iraq. Iraqis will choose a new government from several thousand candidates. There are indications that voters in Sunni-controlled areas where the insurgency is strongest will turn out in greater numbers than they did last January.

And in a speech earlier today, President Bush said he accepts responsibility for the decision to go to war in Iraq despite faulty intelligence. However, he said he will not be deterred by critics of the war who demand a quick US troop withdrawal. You can hear details on those stories and of course much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION, what to do when the workplace turns into a Tower of Babel. Employers are dealing with a work force that speaks many different languages, and some of the solutions may be more trouble than they're worth. Language at work, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, we are talking about procrastination. Here's an e-mail we got from Peter in Wilton, Connecticut: `I'm a high school senior and I've known I'm a procrastinator since fourth grade. I've come to notice that it's the process of beginning a task that makes me procrastinate, that "Once begun, the job's half done." Procrastination is no way a good thing. Mediocre grades, late papers are the direct result, though I currently have the biggest procrastination problem: Putting off college applications, which is what I'm doing right now.'

With us is Amy Dickinson at our bureau in Chicago. She, of course, writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune.

And, Amy, I think we've all been there.

Ms. DICKINSON: We have all been there. In fact, I have a good friend whose daughter this afternoon after school has to rush and get her last college application in. I've a good friend who years ago applied to a college and she was so late--this was in the early, early days of FedEx...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...she FedEx'd her application in, very unusual, and she wrote her essay all about procrastination. And she thought that this would be kind of charming.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: She said, well, not surprisingly, they didn't want a, you know, procrastinator at their school.

CONAN: Not a confessed procrastinator.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right, right.

CONAN: Yeah. Why is this societally permissible? I mean, this is learned behavior, the psychologists tell us.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think--here's the thing about excuses. Like, all these students talk about the excuses they come up with. It may be permissible to kind of let things slide, but what I don't like is fibbing, lying and making excuses. And the one thing--as a chronic procrastinator, I am proud to say I've never lied about it.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. My daughter recently faced this. She's in high school, and she came to me and she had put something off. I didn't even realize it, but she had something due the next day and she hadn't started. And I said, `Go to your teacher before school, do not wait till class time, and tell her the truth. Tell her you put it off, then you couldn't get started and ask her for more time.' I said, `Don't insult her by making an excuse because you don't have one.' And her teacher then sat down with her and they worked out a schedule. I mean, this is how you learn to do things.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Greg, Greg calling us from Mammoth Lakes in California.

GREG (Caller): Yes, hi. Similar to the last e-mail you received, a wonderful colleague, Lynette(ph), at work gave me a tip, which was `starting is half done.' And I've found that as long as I gave myself a little bit of time and I tell myself `It's OK not to finish it, just get started.' But once I start it, I really get into it and it's no longer something daunting, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if I don't finish it, I can see I can finish it and it's really helped me a lot. And I still drift from the shore, but nevertheless that tip has held me a lot.

CONAN: I used to set up barriers to keep me from starting. When I was writing a book, I had the barrier of I had to finish The New York Times crossword puzzle that day before I could start. So Fridays and Saturdays, some days I didn't get started at all. And I was talking to another writer, Pete Dexter. He said he had to run a complete rack of pool balls before he would start, so sometimes that would take him till 3:00 in the afternoon.

GREG: Yeah, all my tasks now, I take--and I start similar to the comment about taking off in chunks, by merely telling myself it's OK just to start. Just open it up and, you know, just start it and ignore trying to perceive what the end is or the entire task. And once I've started, then it becomes clear and I'm able to finish much easier.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's a great strategy. And that's what I meant by paying the bill for the smallest amount first. It's just a little trick. You tell yourself, `I'll just do one.' Sometimes I do that. I'll go, `I'll just do one part of this.' And then it's as you say. Once you get started, you realize, `Oh, I'm fine. Nothing bad is happening. I can complete it,' and you do.

CONAN: Hmm. Greg...

GREG: Well--yeah, last is just a thank you. NPR is wonderful, and it's one of my favorite things to listen to on my lunch hour.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that, Greg. And in Mammoth Lakes, you got plenty else to do during your lunch hour. We appreciate your taking the time to listen to the show.

GREG: OK, thanks again. Bye.

CONAN: So long. Bye-bye.

Amy Dickinson, your next column ready to go in?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. Sure. Sure. Sure, it is.

CONAN: Sure it is. So how do you divide your mind between that professional self--that always, terrified of that blank space in the newspaper, gets the work done--and the private self who isn't quite so disciplined?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, first of all, I think that my column is all about--it's an advice column; it's all about living in the world. And part of the way I live in the world is pretty poorly. You know, I don't function as high as a lot of people, but it gives me all this experience to use in the column. And I just--as I said, I try to take this very professional, disciplined approach to my work. The rest of my life, I'm kind of going to the movies, ice skating, doing a lot of things to avoid everything else.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson, thank you very much. We appreciate you taking the time to come in and join us today.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from our bureau in Chicago.

Coming up next, Bob Dylan gets a new job on the radio.

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