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The Whys and Why-Nows of Procrastination

"Better late than never" is the standard excuse for procrastination. Our Cover Story is reported (in more or less timely fashion) by John Blackstone:

To start this story about procrastination, we could begin with Marty Nemko, letting some time go by at the piano.

"I'm always trying to cram in as much as I can," he laughed, "and sometimes, it makes me late."

He counsels people who have trouble getting things started . . . but we'll get back to him, in a minute.

Because we could start with a list of prominent procrastinators.

President Bill Clinton was called "punctually challenged" by Al Gore. Robert Redford, Mariah Carey and Naomi Campbell are just a few of the famous known to have "time issues."

And then there is Barbara McKay-Smith.

Among her family and friends she is infamous for being late, a busy mother of two who admits she is hardly ever on time.

"Well, I guess it's all a matter of, what is 'on time'?" she said.

But before we get around to telling you more about Barbara . . . meet Diana DeLonzor. She has written a book for people who don't want to be late anymore. She knows the problem well.

"I was late for everything, and I had been all my life," she said. "I was suspended three times in junior high for tardies. I was late for weddings, funerals, and everything else in-between."

But, let's put off getting advice from Diana for just a minute, to talk about . . . standard time.

Standard time was adopted back in the 1800s to help the trains run on time. But now it turns out even train time can be subject to procrastination.

It was recently revealed that New York commuter trains pull out one minute after their scheduled departure time . . . hidden help for those who are always running just a little late.

But now that the extra minute is public, true procrastinators know they have one more minute to push it.

Diana DeLonzor calls them "deadliners": "Somebody who is drawn to that adrenaline rush of the last-minute sprint to the finish line."

She was once one of them.

"My heart beat faster, my blood moved through my veins faster," she said. "And I enjoyed that rush. AndI realized that's why I was late."

And being late amounts to more than a few wasted minutes.

"Chronic lateness cost the American public over $3 billion in lost productivity every year, and it causes a lot of stress in relationships," DeLonzor said.

The key to curing lateness, experts say, is to understand its origins.

"It could be fear of failure, it could be hedonism," said Nemko. "Some people are simply lazy. We're not allowed to use the word 'lazy' these days."

In his work as a career counselor, Marty Nemko says he often has to figure out why clients just can't get started.

One of his clients, Jeffrie Givens, works at a computer but wants to be an opera singer.

"What would be going through your mind at that point, that would keep you from practicing that aria?" Nemko asked.

"I might say I've practiced enough," Givens replied. "I might say 'I'll do it later.' I might say, 'I'm not in the mood, I'll try again tomorrow.'"

Barbara McKay-Smith knows exactly why she's late: There is always one more thing she wants to do.

"When I think to myself, 'Oh look, I still have ten minutes before I need to be out the door,' I always think, 'Well, that's ten minutes that I can use to put in a load of laundry, to straighten up the kids' rooms.' Invariably found 15 minutes' worth of things to do."

Which means her kids, and her husband, Mike Yoder, spend a lot of time . . . waiting for her.

"I don't want to be late, and I live with someone who's late all the time," Yoder said.

Does it drive her family crazy? "Constantly," she said.

"It's pretty chronic," Yoder laughed.

"Fortunately, you're laughing," Blackstone said.

"I have to laugh at it," he said.

Laughing is one response. The Procrastinators Club of America boasts several thousand members . . . and millions of potential members who just haven't got around to joining yet.

In fact, procrastinators often don't get around to doing even those things they like to do.

"There's something like hundreds of millions of outstanding frequent flier miles held by the American public, and one big question is why don't people use them more often," said Suzanne Shu, a marketing professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

Shu discovered people put off even pleasurable things, like vacations, because they figure there will be more time sometime in the future.

"People would hold onto those frequent flier miles for that perfect occasion," Shu said, "and they would expire before that perfect occasion came along."

"Procrastinators play games with time all the time," said Lenora Yuen, a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. "They tend to think that time is going to operate under their direction. There's always the sense that there's going to be more time."

Yuen is one of the first to make an academic study of lateness. She counsels her patients to make more reasonable goals, and not to go it alone.

"You really want to establish, not an ideal goal, but a minimal goal for you," she said. "What is the smallest goal you could strive for, and still feel some sense of accomplishment?

"It really helps if you speak about it to another person. Making a public statement is one of the most powerful things you can do," Yuen said.

"People say they want to do things but then they don't do them. So, how do you turn those intentions into reality?" asked Jordan Goldberg, who is chairman of, a Web site where procrastinators can tell the world what they intend to do, who will check that they do it . . . and how much they'll pay if they fail.

One person put ten dollars on the line each week to commit to not goofing off and work a full eight-hours and develop good work habits," was created by Yale behavioral economists who discovered, not surprisingly, that money is a great motivator.

"If they have money on the line and a referee, we've seen success rates in the 70 to 75 percent range," Goldberg said. "If they don't, it drops considerably - down to 30-35%."

As an added motivation, if users fail, will send their money to a charity they hate.

"A lot of people write in and say, 'You know what really motivated me? The thought of giving money to the George Bush library, or the Bill Clinton library, depending on your political views," Goldberg said.

So for procrastinators, there is help . . . if they want it.

"At this point I just accept it for what it is and I do my best with it," said McKay Smith.

"This is who you are?" Blackstone said.

"It's my disability," she replied.

And there is hope.

"My life, since I overcame chronic lateness, has run so much more smoothly," DeLonzor said. "My friends and family are much happier with me. I get chastised much less often."

We could go on, but . . . we're out of time. We'll just have to continue with this . . . sometime later.

For more info:
"Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged" by Diana DeLonzor (Post Madison Publishing)
Marty Nemko's Blog
Suzanne Shu (UCLA Anderson School of Management)
"Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About it NOW" by Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen (Da Capo Press)

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