Living with a procrastinator feels like torture to those who prefer to act promptly. The last-minute rushes and late arrivals that are normal for procrastinators are unnatural and stressful to do-it-nowers.

Fast movers ask the procrastinators in their lives to “get started early” and “just do it,” but their requests are inevitably ignored. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help the procrastinator reform and reduce his/her impact on you…

Reform the Procrastinator

Do-it-nowers usually do a poor job helping procrastinators change because they don’t understand why procrastinators put things off in the first place. The most common reasons…

Fear. Many procrastinators delay taking action because action could lead to frightening results, such as failure or rejection. These procrastinators might insist on reading every book written on a subject before starting a project…or find excuses to postpone packing for a move because they fear they won’t like their new home.

What to do: If you suspect that fear is your procrastinator’s root problem, help him understand that it is natural. Share stories about your own fears…ask the procrastinator if he wants to talk about his fears…and stress that courage is not a lack of fear—it is a willingness to move forward despite fear.

Also, ask “What if?” questions to lead the procrastinator through the possible outcomes. Understanding the possibilities is the first step to overcoming fear.

Inefficient work habits. Some procrastinators have never learned how to focus on one task until it is complete…break big projects down into smaller chunks…or get the ball rolling well before a deadline looms.

What to do: The best way to teach procrastinators proper work habits is by example. Team up with the procrastinator on a project or two so that he sees how smoothly and quickly a task can be completed when it is tackled head-on.

Example: “How about if I spend Saturday morning helping you organize your closet?”

If you and the procrastinator have a joint project and the procrastinator does not complete his share of the project promptly, explain why his delays are problematic even if he does meet the final deadline—they increase your stress levels…make it likely that any unexpected hiccup will lead to a missed deadline…and prevent you from getting other projects started early.

Poor estimation of time. Procrastinators are notoriously bad at figuring out how long things take.

What to do: Teach them “back-timing,” where you walk them backward from their final deadline until you reach the must-start line.

Example: The procrastinator needs to send a birthday gift. You say, “His birthday is the 30th. You need to get the package to the post office by the 23rd…and you always take a week to select a gift, so we’re back to the 16th. Today’s the 15th, so start tomorrow.”

Divergent priorities. Sometimes people fail to get things done because these aren’t their priorities. Example: A spouse might put off fixing a leaky pipe because it doesn’t really bother him.

What to do: Explain to the procrastinator how important this is to you. If the procrastination continues, explain the consequences of future delays.

Example: “If you don’t fix that leak, I’ll have to call the plumber and that will be expensive.”

Power trips and attention grabs. A few procrastinators move slowly because they have discovered that foot-dragging is a way to get the attention or power they crave.

What to do: Help the procrastinator find a healthier way to get the power or attention he desires. Point out the importance of his involvement. Sometimes, simply offering to help the procrastinator is all the attention that he needs. Or take attention away from him when he moves too slowly.

Example: A family might start dinner without a chronically late family member, then pay little attention to his arrival when he finally gets there.

Reduce the Impact

If your procrastinator refuses to reform, you still can lessen his impact…

Set false deadlines. Don’t tell the procrastinator, “The movie starts at 7:00.” Say, “We have to leave at 6:00,” and then you’ll get out by 6:30.

Focus on a single task. If you tell a procrastinator to get a dozen things done, he might freeze up and do nothing…or try to do everything at once and accomplish little. Do the prioritizing for the procrastinator. Give him one task and one deadline at a time.

Remove the distractions. Ask the procrastinator how you can help him focus on the task. Can you keep the kids out of the way or field phone calls? If the procrastinator becomes distracted by a different task, say you will handle that while he focuses on his goal.

Exception: Sometimes a distraction, such as TV or music, can help a procrastinator get things done. It can make dreaded tasks, such as paying bills or folding laundry, more bearable.

State the consequences so that the procrastinator knows the downside of not moving ahead.

Example: “I know you hate this remodeling job, and I feel rotten bugging you about it. Let’s agree that if it’s not completed by the end of the month, we’ll get a professional to do it.”

Provide rewards. When the procrastinator puts in an hour of honest effort well in advance of a deadline, suggest an hour doing something he enjoys.

Bring in an outsider. Have a friend or organization consultant help the procrastinator with a task. It is harder to procrastinate when someone from outside the family is present. If the outsider is an expert, it also reduces the odds that the procrastinator will stall because of uncertainty about what to do.