Choices are never easy, especially when it comes to life's big ones. Phoebe, 39, came to see me one day, distraught after learning from a doctor that she might not be able to conceive. "How long have you been trying?" I asked. "On and off for eight months," she told me. Even though she had always wanted a baby and had been married for seven years, she confessed that she'd had a lot of trouble committing to getting pregnant. She didn't understand why; in fact, she'd had a similar problem deciding whether or not to marry her (very) long-term boyfriend, to the point that she almost lost him.
Of course, getting married and starting a family aren't decisions you enter into lightly, but Phoebe had a major case of life procrastination. That's what I call voluntarily putting off something you truly want to do, despite knowing that you'll probably be worse off because of the delay.
People tend to think of procrastination in terms of concrete to-dos—waiting until the last minute to turn in a work report, say, or paying bills late. But it can also take hold when making life decisions both small and large, from Should I join a gym? to Do I ask for a raise? These missed opportunities can damage your career or relationship and also give you a nagging, frustrating feeling that you're stuck in a rut of your own making.
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Research shows that about 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, but many more of us occasionally put off until tomorrow what we need—and even want—to do today. Yet for the most part, we don't realize that it's happening or that, in the process, we're undermining our own happiness. Procrastinators tend to be far more stressed than those who don't have this habit; they get sick more often, too. If you can suck it up and act, however, you'll find your day-to-day a lot more pleasant and rewarding: Your mind will be released from all that ruminating and second-guessing, paving the way for other opportunities. After all, life is richest when filled with milestones and accomplishments—not with regrets of what you should've and would've done, if only.
So why would a woman push off a marriage or baby she really wants? Why would someone stay in a job she no longer likes? It's not that they're lazy or overly laid-back. Life procrastinators may dread failure. They may have a fear of success, an urge to be defiant, a perfectionist streak or a need to take risks—all of which can get in the way when trying to make a decision. Take my diagnostic quiz to see if you are a life procrastinator, then keep reading to discover what's driving your indecision and find real-world solutions that will finally set you free.
'I don't want to fail'
If you're so afraid of being bad (or, worse, just OK) at something that you'd rather not try it at all, here's a news flash: You're a perfectionist. Perhaps you hardly ever work out because you'd feel terrible if you killed yourself at the gym but couldn't lose the last 10 pounds or hone that six-pack. Carrying this to the extreme, you may also believe that you are only lovable and worthwhile if your performance at everything is nothing less than outstanding.
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Try this: The next time you're hemming and hawing over something you could crash and burn at, take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and tell yourself, Done is better than perfect. Chances are, no one will notice if the results aren't up to your exacting standards; they'll just be impressed that you got results, period.
'I'm afraid of being successful'
On the flip side, some of us become paralyzed by imagining that if we excel, we will be expected to keep performing at that level. Or we freak out that the achievement would change our lives in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Concerns you may have: If I ask for that promotion and get it, who's going to help out with the kids if I have to put in more hours at the office? Are my work friends going to stop inviting me to lunch?
Try this: Accept uncertainty. The reality is that any choice you make (even if you decide to keep things status quo) will have upsides and downsides. Imagining the potential negatives (My friend at work will be so jealous) and telling yourself that it will work out (She'll deal, or else I'll find a new confidant) can help you stop obsessing and start doing. Worried that you'll be less available for your loved ones? That's a classic fear of success. Keep in mind that if and when you accept a new position or job, you can set boundaries at the outset. Thing is, you can't do that unless you apply first.
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'I don't want to be told what to do'
You aim—fine, you need—to be in charge. You probably grew up with an authoritarian parent who was very controlling. Unfortunately, now you're asserting yourself by delaying things that must be addressed, like making basic updates to your circa-1950s kitchen. Your story is: "Hey! No one can order me around!"—even though no one really is—"I'll do it on my terms!" Which may be never.
Try this: When you find yourself resisting a change, ask yourself how you're really feeling at heart. Indecision often masks anxiety, sadness or anger. Perhaps your parents were always fighting about money, so even though you have the cash to renovate, you feel stressed-out about spending it. Figuring out which emotion is stopping you from acting can make a decision clearer because it becomes more obvious that the conflict over taking action is coming from you. In other words, you are fighting only yourself.
'I get a rush out of doing things last-minute'
Some put-offers aren't anxious at all: They thrive on the excitement of scrambling to hit deadlines, often because they find the daily grind boring—and boredom terrifying. A thrill seeker who wants to go on some fantasy vacation, such as a boat cruise in the Galapagos, may delay purchasing tickets but keep checking to see how many spots are left until, finally, she is forced to commit because the trip is almost booked.
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Try this: If you're always telling yourself that you're at your best when under pressure, prove it (in a small, innocuous way). Do a task—like tossing in a load of laundry or completing your expenses at work—at the last minute, as usual. Then one day perform that same chore ahead of schedule. You'll most likely notice that your overall routine seems a little saner and that you have more free time on your hands when you knock stuff off early. Even better: You'll have a full underwear drawer—and a cool trip to look forward to.