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Review of "Procrastination"

By Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen
Da Capo Lifelong, 2008
Review by James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA on Mar 24th 2009

Do you sometimes wait until the last moment before starting activities? Are you concerned about having to catch up with tasks that should have been completed earlier? And do you become anxious and worry about finishing work assignments? Everyone procrastinates from time to time and under unique circumstances. For some people, however, procrastination seems to be a way of life. This is the book they should read to understand and conquer the problem.

Psychologists Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen have studied procrastination for many years, the first edition of their book appearing in 1983. This second edition, published in 2008, includes new information which reflects the impact of technological advances on getting things done in a timely manner (e.g. the intrusion of cell phones, email, and the internet) as well as contemporary research bearing on the causes of and cures for procrastination. There is no simple definition of procrastination but in function, it is putting off, avoiding, and not initiating meaningful tasks and activities. You procrastinate when you wait until April 15 each year to submit a tax return, face costly repair bills by not attending to routine automobile maintenance, finish a company report at 2:00am the day it is due, and come unprepared to meetings. Whatever the outcome of chronic procrastination, there are many negative consequences that affect personal wellbeing, job performance, and life with family and friends.

Burka and Yuen discuss extensively the influences on procrastinating behavior, emphasizing personality "traits," early learning experiences, and biological underpinnings. They write, for example, that people who procrastinate in a problematic way do so because they fear failure, are conflicted about achieving success, try to hide ambition, and have poor self-esteem. Other people procrastinate when they are depressed, have a disorder such as OCD, can’t handle stress, or live an unhealthy lifestyle. Consider too that procrastinating behavior also can be explained by environmental distractions, poor organizational skills, having "too much on your plate," and a tendency toward impulsive problem solving. Not all of these causal factors have the same explanatory strength but the book certainly gives you a comprehensive and cogent analysis of them.

The book advocates many strategies for dealing with procrastination, first by identifying the internal and external events that produce such behavior. Toward that end, the authors provide the reader with a Procrastinator’s Inventory that defines six categories responsible for a "personal way of postponing." They then recommend interventions that focus on what one "thinks" about when procrastinating and what actions to take as alternatives. Because my belief is that the primary cause of procrastination is delaying and avoiding activities we don’t like, I enjoyed the many practical tips Burka and Yuen present: pick behavioral and realistic goals, separate tasks into manageable units, schedule time more strategically, reward success, and concentrate on long-term gains over short-term benefits. These and other suggestions surely will benefit anyone concerned about procrastination.

This book succeeds on many levels. It is a useful self-help guide for general readers and the lay public. Mental health professionals and those specializing in performance enhancement (e.g., executive coaching) will find innovative ideas and sage advice. Other attributes are that the authors write clearly, give numerous case illustrations, and use humor effectively. There is a science to understanding and changing procrastinating behavior, which Burka and Yuen present convincingly, bringing to life solutions to a problem that affects so many people.

© 2009 James K. Luiselli

James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.