Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Have you ever procrastinated? Put something off for another time that you really needed to do right now? How did you feel about putting something off? Many people feel mixed emotions when they procrastinate: a sense of relief that they don’t have to do what needs to be done and guilt because they really should be doing that thing right now.

What do people procrastinate about? Anything! We can put off that phone call, pay bills late enough to get a penalty, delay cleaning out that closet until it is unuseable, forget to change the oil in our car, and the list goes on. Technology has contributed positively to many areas of our lives but it can also make procrastination worse. Cruising the Internet and checking email has become an all-too-common distraction for the procrastinator. It has become so common that we now have the expression "the procrastination superhighway."

There are very few people who have not procrastinated at one time or other. About twenty percent of the population chronically procrastinates. In other words, their entire lives are ruled by putting things off. These numbers tend to be higher in the college population. Estimates for student procrastination run as high as seventy percent.

Society often looks upon procrastination as an annoyance, something trivial. Research has shown that it can be much more than that. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl, Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Canada, has found that procrastination can be "associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem.... and be an extremely disabling psychological condition."

Although some people think that procrastination is merely a result of laziness, psychologists don’t agree. We see procrastination as a learned behavior. This is good news because if it has been learned it can be unlearned. How is procrastination learned? It is learned by a process called "negative reinforcement." When we avoid something that results in a reduction discomfort, we are more likely to avoid it again. After that, each time it is avoided the habit of avoidance becomes stronger. Continual avoidance keeps a person from learning skills to eliminate procrastination.

There is a ton of information about coping with garden variety procrastination in books and blogs. If the procrastination is severe, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been quite effective in helping people. One method Dr. Pychyl and his colleagues tried was to have people forgive themselves after they had procrastinated. The technique decreased procrastination for females but not for males.

If you are familiar with the Domino Effect, you know that there are basically three areas that need to be addressed to change the behavior (domino four) of procrastination. One area that needs to be identified is which emotions are associated with procrastination. Strong emotions can contribute to putting something off. If people feel guilty for delaying a project, they will probably punish themselves and what better way to be punished than to not finish the project. Depression is another emotion that may also play a part. The behavior associated with depression is lifelessness. Not having enough energy can be a precipitating event for putting something off.

Physical sensations can also be a contributor. If you feel anxious about starting a task, you can get rid of the discomfort of anxiety by simply doing something else. Other physical discomforts can also make procrastination more likely.

Self talk is probably the most significant factor in procrastination. It is often associated with perfection. A perfectionist is someone who needs to have perfect outcomes. Procrastination may be the end result of being convinced that starting a task will not lead to a perfect result.
Psychologist Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D. Is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at De Paul University in Chicago. He is another person who has researched and studied procrastination. He and his colleagues have found that five cognitive distortions are shared by many procrastinators.
  1. They estimate how much time they have left to accomplish the task. "I have plenty of time to do this task so I don’t need to start immediately."

  2. They underestimate how long it will take to finish the task. "This is an easy one and I’ll be able to finish it quickly."

  3. They overestimate how motivated they will be to do it later. "I’ll feel much more interested in doing this later."

  4. They don’t believe working on the task will make them feel better. "I’m really feeling stressed right now so working on this task will only make me feel worse."

  5. They believe that a poor mood makes working on a task too difficult. "I’m don’t really feel in the mood for doing this right now. I’ll wait till I feel better."

How does CBT help people overcome these unhealthy thoughts that are contributory to procrastination? The standard approach would treat these thoughts – and others – as myths to be challenged. For example, "I have plenty of time to do this task so I don't need to start immediately," would be challenged by looking at the facts. How much time is really available? How much time did it take last time? How much time would someone else estimate for the task? The goal is to convert the procrastination myth to facts.

In The Worry Free Life, I teach people a CBT technique called Voice Training. The "Voice" is merely your worry that has been externalized. Putting the worry outside of yourself makes it easier to change your destructive thoughts into constructive thoughts. There are five steps in Voice Training:

  • Voice Awareness: What is the Voice saying to you?

  • Voice Interrogation: What are the core beliefs that are underneath the Voice messages?

  • Voice Analysis: What is the relationship between Voice messages and my emotions?

  • Voice Fighting: Using a 5-step procedure for changing lies (Voice messages) to truth (reality).

  • Voice Maintenance: Using strategies to manage relapse.

You can get more information on procrastination from these references.

The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-by-step Program by William Knaus
Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It by Jane Burka & Lenora Yuen
Counseling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings by Clarry H. Lay and colleagues

Don’t Delay by Dr. Pychyl
Social Science Statistics Blog by Institute for Quantitative Social Science

Procrastination Research Group by Dr. Pychyl, Psychologist
Structured Procrastination by Dr. John Perry, Philospher
Procrastination by Cambridge University

Procrastination Flowchart (click on flowchart to enlarge) by Project Sidewalk
Two Monitors for Procrastination by ProcrastinationBlog
Procrastination Blog by Late Larry

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