Procrastination. I am yet to meet someone who can honestly say that they have not been guilty of the art of “putting things off” at some stage of their lives. I am sometimes guilty of this too (take this blog post as an example!). I was a presenter at the last Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) Bimonthly meeting held in Cape Town where I spoke about the “Cognitive Conceptualisation of Procrastination.” That is a mouthful, but I wondered how many Psychologists present were taking a few “notes for self” in addition to thinking about how we can treat procrastination more effectively in therapy.
Procrastination can be best described as chronic avoidance. What we don’t often consider is that there can be severe consequences to procrastination. The most obvious consequences are personal distress (we beat ourselves up about what we should be doing!), financial losses (never getting around to that budget) and career consequences (poor productivity is certainly not linked to a promotion or business growth). What we often forget are the significant (and potentially life-threatening) health consequences to procrastination. For example, avoiding that visit to the doctor about certain symptoms that are concerning or putting off the implementation of a healthy eating plan when you are bordering diabetes.
If you Google “Procrastination,” you will find a large amount of readings and tips on how to overcome chronic avoidance. From a CBT perspective, it goes deeper than implementing a few techniques and strategies into your daily life. After all, if it were that simple, wouldn’t we all be cured of this frustrating behaviour?! In order to treat procrastination, you need to understand where it comes from. With CBT, we know that it is linked to our thought processes (usually irrational, unrealistic and unhelpful). What we don’t realise, is that procrastinating can often be a short-term reward (doesn’t it feel great to move from your tax return to Facebook?). We are often not aware of the thought processes that are influencing us, because we are too busy procrastinating! We don’t always know what negative emotions (anxiety, depression, shame, unhealthy anger) we are feeling when doing a difficult task, because we are too busy avoiding it! Part of the treatment from a CBT perspective would be to access these emotions and thoughts and look at restructuring them.
Procrastination effects us all. We learn to justify putting things off, for example, “I work much better under pressure.” While perfectionism and a fear of failure can often lead us to procrastinate, an important aspect to consider is that often we do not want to do the hard work (we need unreasonable amounts of motivation to get going). We don’t want to tolerate how uncomfortable it is to do a difficult task (low frustration tolerance).
Procrastination can be a full-time job. When goals are vague, we need to commit to something more concrete. Consider “When, Where and How” and you will be more likely to follow through. Yes, we might work better under pressure, but at what cost of distress and were you really satisfied with the end result? Recognise the rewards of doing a task (long-term rewards) and don’t be tempted by the short-term rewards to avoid it.
(If you’re interested in reading more about CBT for Procrastination, please refer to the Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, December 2012, Vol 30 No 4)