Don't delay if you want to stay healthy - and sane

New research in the United States suggests that procrastination is not only a Deadly Sin - it's a disease of the mind.
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IF YOU still haven't given up smoking, taken up running, fixed up your diet and have generally failed to abide by those New Year's resolutions we make to keep mortality's ravages at bay, then there could be a lot more wrong with you than you think.

There is more to procrastination, it turns out, than mere idleness and indiscipline. Procrastination is a disease of the mind. A sudden eruption of scientific study in recent years has yielded the news that it is a close relative of depression and attention deficit disorder; that procrastinators tend to be besieged by feelings of low self-esteem and are abnormally prone both to bouts of paralysing anxiety and illogical fits of resentment.

The research has shown, what is more, that the illness has acquired epidemic proportions. Susan Roberts, a behavioural psychologist who has written a book called Living with Procrastination, said that about a quarter of the adult population of the US and Canada report having severe problems with procrastination. "When we say 'severe' we mean people for whom procrastination causes great discomfort and distress. We've found that such people are more hassled by daily life than others, that incidents of depression and anxiety are much higher among them than in the rest of the population."

There was a time when procrastination was considered a virtue. The Romans' "procrastinare", meaning "to defer until tomorrow", was taken by them to be synonymous with judiciousness. When exactly procrastination came to be generally perceived as a vice is not known, though the first written evidence comes from a published sermon in 1682 by a certain Reverend Anthony Walker from Essex. The 17th century Essex Man declared procrastination to be "sinful", "dangerous" and a "great evil".

The blending of the Protestant work ethic with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the concomitant mania for productivity, consolidated the Anglo-Saxon view that procrastination equalled sloth, equalled Deadly Sin. In the Catholic nations, by contrast, where the confessional option breeds more tolerance of earthly indulgence, the philosophy of manana tends to remain as beguiling as it did in the days of St Peter. Or, at any rate, St Augustine, with his celebrated, "Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet".

But in a society as fiercely driven by the pursuit of wealth and achievement as the United States, it is little wonder that failure to work at full steam translates into self-flagellating depression. Which inevitably, in the land of opportunity, has yielded a thriving cottage industry of experts peddling solutions. Books and specialist therapy courses abound. In exchange for $19.95 (pounds 12.50) plus postage, a Dr Jerome Murray will send you an audio-cassette titled "Protect your future from the thief of procrastination". Dr Murray promises that if you follow his step-by- step rules you will be empowered to "turn self-defeat into self-realization".

"Since the start of the 1990s procrastination has been taken more and more seriously," said Dr Roberts, who has been treating patients afflicted by the condition for more than 20 years. "It is now recognised as a true mental health problem and is being seen more as a psychological problem and less as a moral issue."

Science has yet to determine the precise nature of the link between procrastination and depression, but Dr Roberts offered the observation that procrastinators tend to be extremely hard on themselves. "It's been considered to be a weakness of character for so long that it falls back into itself and turns to depression."

As for the overlap with people who suffer from attention deficit disorder, Dr Roberts said her experience had shown it to be "phenomenal" because what they share is "a need for an intense sense of urgency before they can be stimulated to act".

Which does not bode well for those pitiable souls still struggling to get going on their New Year's resolutions. There are, after all, still 341 days to go until Christmas.