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Procrastinate your way to retirement ruin

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By Joel Dresang

I remember a scene from “Leave it to Beaver” in which Wally explains to his brother that he is doing homework on a Friday night so that he can have the rest of the weekend to goof off. Beaver then wonders what if the world ended before school came on Monday? Wouldn’t Wally have wasted his Friday night?

Tax season is an opportune time to confront procrastination. Academic research abounds on the subject, sometimes reflecting on why scholars themselves push deadlines. “At last, my research article on procrastination,” is the title of one report.

But procrastination is more than just a punch line. The Center for Financial Literacy, at Boston College, calls procrastination “the number one barrier to making retirement more secure.”

The center has a useful new interactive video guide called “Curious Behaviors that Can Ruin Your Retirement.” Ruinous behaviors include our propensity to think short-term instead of long-term and our difficulty considering risk, especially as our brains age and we’re more apt to push aside negative thoughts.

Near the end of the video, the host points out that the 10 minutes or so it takes to play the program is more than most procrastinators put into retirement planning.

Having a plan is a big step toward fruitful retirement. Even taking the time to consider a plan helps. Each year, the Retirement Confidence Survey, from the Employee Benefit Research Institute finds that Americans who simply assess their retirement needs tend to be more confident in their ability to retire successfully.

The problem with procrastination is that it is not just delaying an action. It’s choosing to act in a way that sabotages your best interests. If you know you should do something and put it off, that’s worse than not doing it because you don’t know any better.

“Procrastination is not a simple matter of time-management or self-discipline but a complex psychological and/or neurocognitive issue,” say the psychologists who wrote the book, “Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now.”

Delays can be costly. Time is money, after all. Planning how you’re going to pay for the 20 years or more you’ll spend in retirement is not something you should do at the last minute. The consequences are far graver than preparing your tax return on April 14 or waiting to go Christmas shopping until Dec. 24.

In nearly 30 years as a daily journalist, I faced my share of deadlines and distractions and the driving desire to push work off until later. It remains a struggle, but I have found that I sleep better knowing that I am at least making progress on a project rather than procrastinating.

Intermingling some of my personal practices with common advice I’ve found in psychology articles, here are some tips to combat procrastination:

Set priorities. Consider what is in your long-term benefit. Then specify what you want to accomplish. If you come up with a list, pick one item at a time to work on. For instance, maybe you want to get an idea of how much you will have to live on after you retire. That’s a reasonable step toward setting up a retirement plan.

Break it down. Jobs can seem insurmountable until you divide them into conquerable chunks. If you want to know how much you’d expect to have in retirement assets, for example, you might a) list what to include – investment accounts, pensions, Social Security and so on; b) locate your most recent statement or estimate on each of those assets; c) understand how each will contribute to what you need for retirement. By tackling these smaller tasks one by one, you’ll progress toward completing your job.

Limit distractions. Focus on what you’re trying to accomplish. Anything that doesn’t directly, immediately contribute to your task is a diversion. If you’re looking for your latest Social Security statement, for instance, and you notice an article on protecting your Social Security information, set the article aside until later. Stick to the task at hand.

Set reasonable deadlines. Estimate the time you need for each chunk of the job. Concentrate on your task for intervals of 15 minutes, then take a short break. The 15 minutes helps you devote yourself completely to what you’re working on and tune out distractions. Keep track of your time to help you better estimate how long you need for future projects.

Reward yourself along the way. Celebrate the smaller accomplishments, and give yourself incentives at each step. Use the short breaks between the 15-minute intervals to get up and move around, grab a quick snack or skim your email. Provide bigger rewards for when you complete each chunk of the task.

Get help. Some psychologists suggest procrastination stems from individual fears of failing or succeeding or being controlled. If you partner with others, they can at least encourage you so don’t feel alone. Maybe they can even help you with what you’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes, just sharing a plan with someone can lighten your burden of responsibility.

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Procrastination is a natural response to anything that we think we won’t enjoy. Because it is so common, we should be prepared to acknowledge it and deal with it – especially in matters as crucial as planning for retirement. Between the tips above and some of the resources below, you soon could be like Wally Cleaver: Sleeping better knowing that you’ve done your homework – and feeling free to goof off.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted March 20, 2018)
Learn more
When it’s time to retire, by Joel Dresang
Retirement 101: Having a plan, a Money Talk Video by Tom Pappenfus
You need a budget, by Tom Pappenfus
Knowing the number, by Brian Kilb
Having the confidence to retire, a Money Talk Video by Art Rothschild
Retirement investing: Where to begin, a Money Talk Video by Kyle Tetting

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