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The Simple Reason You Wait Until the Last Minute to Do Your Christmas Shopping

Dec 20, 2016

With single-digit shopping days left before Christmas, anyone who isn't completely done with holiday gift-buying is officially a last-minute shopper. And if you're one, you're in the majority. According to a new survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers, 76% of adult shoppers say they plan on making holiday purchases right up until Christmas.

Many people have perfectly logical reasons for not being done with holiday gift buying as time rapidly runs out. You may be hoping that better sale prices appear, waiting for a particular product to finally be in stock, or responsibly holding off spending money until the funds are actually in your bank account. But for others—maybe even you—there isn't a straightforward reason for waiting. If you're in this boat, you are simply a holiday shopping procrastinator, and you're probably well acquainted with this annual agonizing tradition.

Few good things come of procrastination. In terms of holiday shopping, waiting until the last minute means shipping windows for online delivery close, inventories of desirable gifts shrink, and the likelihood of buying worthwhile, thoughtful gifts decreases.

In my experience as a consumer psychologist, I've talked to countless holiday shopping procrastinators, and the truth is that procrastination does not stem from laziness or thoughtlessness. (Not always, anyway.) Often, there are more complicated, less selfish reasons for not getting the job done until the last minute. Habitual holiday shopping procrastinators generally fall into one or more of the categories below.

YOU'RE OVERWHELMED

One of the most common reasons people delay doing anything is because they're so overwhelmed they don’t even know where to start. Running out of time is a good excuse for failure, as many shoppers seem subconsciously aware. Julie, a woman I once interviewed for consumer research purposes, says her annual gift from her husband is always something he grabs at the drugstore on Christmas Eve. He delivers his “gift” along with an excuse that his job consumed all of his time, plus an IOU to shop with her on the 26th.

This style of procrastination is actually very common with people who genuinely care about how they and their gift-giving prowess are perceived. These are folks who would rather be seen as frazzled bad planners than thoughtless gift-pickers.

YOU'RE A PERFECTIONIST

One reason people feel overwhelmed is that they're searching for the absolute perfect gift for each recipient. It's a nearly impossible task, and it can be paralyzing as a result. Perfectionists make projects more difficult by having unrealistic expectations of what they should accomplish. "Experience avoidance," the psychological term for what is generally considered "head in the sand" behavior, protects the egos of overwhelmed and perfectionist shoppers alike. They're able to bypass feelings of failure because they've given themselves an excuse for failing.

The solution for procrastinators whose delays are the result of perfectionism or feeling overwhelmed is to come clean about how difficult gift shopping is and admit you need some help. Don't stall, and don't go it alone. Instead, ask for suggestions, expectations, and guidance.

YOU THINK YOU WORK BEST UNDER PRESSURE

When something feels like a chore—say, a college term paper, or a trip to the mall—there's a natural tendency to make the task more exciting, and therefore more bearable, with the addition of an adrenaline rush by way of a severe time shortage. The problem with this strategy is obvious: People rarely get great results when they’re high on panic and crunched for time. A better strategy is to enlist the services of an expert. Most department stores have personal shoppers, and gift guides blanket the Internet. Head to a store you know the recipient likes and ask for help, or check out gift suggestions from a special-interest publication or blog the recipient favors. And take these steps well in advance, rather than on, say, December 24.

YOU'RE OVERLY OPTIMISTIC

Some people are simply bad planners. Some are indecisive and have trouble pulling the trigger. Still others have trouble conceptualizing how much time a project will take, or are overly optimistic about how quickly they can complete a task. People with this style of complex thought behavior typically lean toward impulsivity rather than careful planning, and the results are often predictably poor when it comes to things with firm deadlines like holidays.

What works best with time-challenged people is to break up big projects into bite-sized chunks and schedule completion dates in writing. For example, plan to get only kid toys one day, and only wrapping supplies another day.

YOU SECRETLY DON'T LIKE THE RECIPIENT

Most people know that gifting can be a deeply meaningful expression of human connection and appreciation. On the other hand, there are those who denigrate gift giving as "only for suckers" and rant that the holiday tradition is just another way for marketers to squeeze more money out of us. Those in the latter camp may indeed buy into some grand marketing conspiracy theories, but they also may simply lack the personal connections that make gift-exchanging feel worthwhile.

Procrastination, you see, is sometimes a form of passive-aggressive rebellion. This is especially true for people who had overly authoritarian parents, and who learned young that it’s easier to put something off than to confront their anger or distress. Some people pout and procrastinate as a way to avoid confronting people or experiences that seem disappointing. They put off shopping because, deep down, they feel the recipients are unworthy of sincere and meaningful gifts, and they criticize gifting in general as a projection of their own inauthentic relationships. The better—though potentially painful and awkward—solution is to examine gift expectations and work out a plan to stop exchanging gifts with these people.

YOU'RE GENUINELY THOUGHTFUL

If you’re not a serial procrastinator, and this is truly one of the few years you’ve found yourself stalling on gifts, you are probably “incubating.” By that I mean that your unconscious mind is working through options and ideas. One consumer named Max described for me how he could not decide if he should give his daughter a much more generous than usual gift one year. “I didn’t feel like I was stalling," he said. "I just couldn’t seem to find the time to buy it, and in the end I decided it was the wrong thing to do and I got her something else.”

In this case, what may seem like procrastination is actually thoughtfulness, and it helped the giver make a better decision rather than rushing through it. The truth is that the best thing you can do to help yourself through a difficult decision is to feed yourself information as early as possible. After you educate yourself and thoroughly ponder the options, relax and let your unconscious mind do the work.

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