Beat Procrastination Now!
From: Dr. Bill Knaus, The Procrastination Workbook. New Harbinger. 2002.
Make today your day for giving up your membership in the procrastinator's club. You'll get more done, and you'll have more fun.
Join me as we explore the world of procrastination to develop ways to effectively follow through on what is important to do. You'll soon find you have many sound reasons to feel optimistic.
In the pages ahead, we'll explore procrastination as a fascinating, complex, universal part of life. When you decide to stop procrastinating, you can better make constructive changes if you have a sound understanding of this complex habit process, and how to break it.
We'll start by examining what procrastination is, and, later, what it is not. We'll look at two general types of procrastination, the social deadline and personal development kinds. Next, we'll examine procrastination complications, and why procrastination can be challenging to overcome. After that, you'll learn about a three-phase program to curb procrastination. Finally, we'll look at the procrastination end-game . This end-game boils down to what it emotionally takes to sustain the effort to follow through and to free your time for doing what you truly want to do.
As you work to follow through on what is important for you to do, I won't wish you luck. That's what gamblers hope will happen. Waiting for luck to arrive is both a passive and a losing game. Instead, I wish you the will to persist in your efforts to free yourself from the procrastination stumbling block that stands between you and the accomplishment and happiness that you deserve.
What is this thing called procrastination? Procrastination is an automatic habit leading to a needless delay of a timely, relevant, priority activity until another day or time. In brief, you procrastinate when you habitually put off a timely activity with a deadline, or where needless delays can affect your health, happiness, effectiveness, relationships, sense of worth, or other important personal matters. This common human nemesis affects practically everyone, and some with such persistency that the procrastination process they experience substitutes for many potentially worthy accomplishments.
Not all that we delay is procrastination. We routinely make value choices. We decide what is more meaningful or important to do. You'd like to start your own business, but you have a child with a serious health problem. Bringing in a pay check and having healthcare coverage through your employer, holds greater value than starting your business. You may head a corporation and have an exciting new product possibility. Before producing the product, you do market research, conduct engineering studies about producing the product, and examine present and future competitive threats. This is what is known as "looking before you leap."
Procrastination starts with an anticipation, and ends with a delay. This human condition always involves a negative perception about the anticipated activity, always involves substituting something less relevant, and practically always involves procrastination thinking to support or justify the delay. However, there is often time ambiguity associated with the process, and this is where some folk start to get themselves into trouble. You might, in some circumstances, be able to start later, but will you? Are other priorities likely to emerge? Are unexpected interruptions likely? Can you trust your memory?
More than a simple act of avoidance, procrastination involves a process of interconnected perceptions, sensations, thoughts, emotions, and actions. What follows is a typical interactional procrastination process where you:
- Have a timely activity before you.
- View the activity as boring, unpleasant, uncomfortable, threatening, or confusing.
- Magnify the onerousness of the task as you filter out the real incentives for acting now.
- Experience an emotional or visceral reaction.
- Seamlessly shift your focus to a substitute activity such as daydreaming or reading.
- Tell yourself that you'll get to it, perhaps tomorrow. Then, when tomorrow comes, you make up another excuse.
- When under sufficient pressure, you either finish or quit.
- You swear to yourself that you'll do better next time.
- In a related circumstance, you repeat your automatic procrastination habit.
Procrastination is like a magnate with a powerful pull that can sometimes prove tough to resist. So, what can you do to curb procrastination? 1. Accept that procrastination is an automatic problem habit, and that the habit can be broken in areas where it is important to do so. 2. Accept that the “later is better” belief is an illusion. You can tell this illusion by its result—you repeat the procrastination pattern. 3. Accept that it takes time and effort to decrease the impact of this negative avoidance process and to direct your efforts toward what you want to accomplish—even in areas where you would traditionally procrastinate.
You can meet the challenge of progressively mastering procrastination. However, the prime solution for curbing procrastination, is cognitive and behavioral where you, 1. Keep your eye on the priority you want to accomplish. 2. Undercut the procrastination process by forcing yourself to act to do what is important or timely to do. 3. Refuse to capitulate to the various forms of procrastination thinking that support delay. This process of curbing procrastination impulses gets easier with practice, but it is also easy to slip back. So, watch out for relapses. Learn your early warning signals. Address them as soon as you recognize them.
In the process of countering the procrastination habit sequence, expect lapses and relapses. A procrastination habit involves a pressuring, relapsing process that maintains its magnetic pull. Remedies to contain and override this process can strengthen your ability to resist, and can weaken the effects of the pull to where it is increasingly ineffectual. By recognizing that you can progressively master procrastination, not cure it, gives you an advantage over those who optimistically continue to believe that later is better and someday they’ll stop procrastinating.
DEADLINE AND PERSONAL PROCRASTINATION
We live by the calendar and the clock. In an organized society, we have due dates for many of our social responsibilities. We file our taxes on or before April 15. We go to vehicle inspection stations at specified intervals. Libraries have due dates for returning books, as do banks for receiving payments on loans. When you live by the calendar and the clock, you have a way to measure punctuality and delays. Procrastination, such as waiting too long to purchase an anniversary card or to buy a birthday gift, are examples of these measures. For some, procrastination can be found in personal maintenance areas. This involves putting off laundering clothing and mowing the lawn, etc. Truly, procrastination would not exist in a world where there were no responsibilities or deadlines. But there could be no survivable society without mutual responsibilities.
Delays, according to the calendar and clock, are forms of social deadline procrastination. Delays can inconvenience or bother others, as well as prove personally stressful. But, deadline procrastination is the tip of the procrastination iceberg. A bigger and more serious challenge involves personal procrastination. Here you habitually put off personally relevant activities such as facing a needless inhibiting fear. You stick with a job that you want to ditch. You put off getting better organized to avoid a deadline procrastination crisis. Most people don’t think of this as procrastination. But this procrastination process can be a major thief of happiness and fulfillment.
Unlike deadline forms of procrastination, when you decide to follow up on a self-development activity, then don't, you can give yourself an extension. You can convince yourself that you have lots of time. After all, you tell yourself, this is only about you. However, what's the point of giving yourself an extension when it comes to facing a major inhibition in your life, or putting off something of significant personal benefit?
Because you can have wiggle room about when to meet a personal development challenge, many of these projects don't get off the ground. Unless you establish a reasonable deadline for starting, and start at that time, you can delay obtaining a valuable advantage such as improving your relationships and ridding yourself of stifling inhibitions.
THE MASKS OF PROCRASTINATION
Procrastination comes in different forms. We'll look at behavioral, health, self-doubt, change, and reactance procrastination. We'll end with a medley of other types. Each has a distinctively different twist, yet all share the same critical feature of a needless delay of a timely activity.
Procrastination erupts in many forms, which are useful to note. If you know what you are up against, you can direct your efforts toward addressing the forms that interfere with you actualizing your potential, and getting more out of life.
Discomfort dodging procrastination is the most common form. This procrastination process is most frequently triggered by an inappropriately low frustration tolerance, Here, discomfort triggers the avoidance sequence. If you view the activity as threatening, boring, uncomfortable, or uncertain, and duck it to avoid tension or frustration, you’ve fallen into the frustration avoidance trap. You can train yourself simultaneously to build frustration tolerance and your follow through skills by allowing yourself to experience the tension as you act to start the relevant activity that you are tempted to avoid.
Behavioral procrastination can be baffling. People behaviorally procrastinate when they plan, organize, and initiate actions then quit prematurely and don't gain the anticipated benefits. You can incur both a dollar and personal cost by starting and not finishing. You pay your money to a fitness center, then quit after a few weeks. Research from Behavioral Economics show that you are better off not starting something you won't finish. Yet how are you to know what you'll finish before you start?
In health procrastination, you put off making or maintaining important health-related lifestyle changes. If your cholesterol is too high, a lifestyle change in your diet and exercise habits can prove beneficial. What if you decide to start a necessary diet and exercise program at some vague time in the future? Is that not a form of procrastination? A sensible start date is for a specific day and hour.
Health procrastination can seem as baffling as behavioral procrastination. Why would one not take the necessary steps to boost opportunities for a healthier, longer, and perhaps happier life? Why would one not quit an unhealthy lifestyle? Part of the problem is that few build counter procrastination technologies into creating critical lifestyle changes such as losing weight and maintaining the loss, exercise, and the reduction of needless stress.
Health procrastination is common—perhaps more common than many think. For example, it is also a paradox that so many—as much as 70 percent—will, within three years following coronary bypass surgery, revert to old dysfunctional lifestyle patterns, stop taking medication, and, thus, increase their chances for a second bypass operation. A significant percentage of people with Glaucoma don’t follow through with using eye drops that could save their vision, and they go blind. This is often blamed on forgetfulness, and not procrastination. But, if you knew you could go blind if you stopped using eye drops, do you think you’d forget? An automatic procrastination habit can compete with adherence to necessary lifestyle changes, and breaking the habit can increase the chances for living a healthier and longer life.
Activity is a remedy for depression. Physical exercise is among the best antidepressant. Yet, people with depression, who have this knowledge, often put off taking even the baby steps that could start a pattern of positive change, through physical exercise, and free themselves from depression.
Self-doubt procrastination can keep you mired in self-downing and inhibition. We commonly see self-doubt procrastination in people who second-guess, hesitate, and down themselves.
Members of this self-doubt group habitually put off challenges unless they have a guarantee for success. When laboring under an illusion that their worth is based on what they do, members of this group fear failure more than most. To avoid failure, they avoid many successes. However, negative global self-worth is a fiction. It is normally based on a definition that your worth depends upon what you do and upon what others think of what you do. Alternative reasonable definitions are possible, including one that says that the self is too complex to fully measure, and so a simplistic definition of worth represents a counterfeit idea. Nevertheless, if you define your worth negatively (I'm stupid. Something is wrong with me.), this view can support procrastination in those zones of life that activate such thinking.
Change procrastination weaves through all forms of procrastination. We daily get involved in new situations where we can feel uncomfortable about a change. Many are tempted to procrastinate when they see something new and worthwhile on the horizon, feel uncertain, and look the other way. When you avoid a useful change to avoid a strain, procrastination is in bloom.
Change, even the most positive kind, normally involves periods of adjustment and accompanying stresses. When you anticipate changing a practiced routine, this anticipation can evoke stress. You might procrastinate. However, when you make accepting discomfort part of your change plan, you are less likely to distract yourself by worrying about how tense you feel, or of avoiding the sort of stresses that typically accompany productive efforts. This can be paradoxical. Have you, for example, ever accomplished something of merit without effort? If so, then what is to fear about effort? What makes discomfort so oppressively difficult to tolerate?
Reactance procrastination is a subtle but potentially handicapping for of procrastination. It can be a disabling extension of a natural human tendency to want to maintain a privilege or advantage. Reactance can result from believing that you will be unfairly inconvenienced or lose a privilege, and you resist that perceived restriction on your freedom. You can experience reactance when someone tells you that you can’t do something that you formally enjoyed. If the government outlawed the use of the automobile and ordered you to use using public transportation to save fuel, you might be up in arms. You might agree with the need to save natural resources and keep the environment clean. At the same time, you might resist the loss of a privilege you view as a right.
An irrational reactance extends into procrastination. In reactance procrastination, you resist taking priority actions because you see them as wasting your time, and a threat to your privilege to do something else. You may think, feel, and act rebellious regarding conditions that you believe threaten this freedom. Refusing to take medication to prevent Glaucoma, for example, can be a form of reactance if you view this as an inconvenience that interferes with doing what you want to do, which is to avoid the unpleasant feeling of the eye drops.
In the world of procrastination, we put some things off because we see them as inconveniences that interfere with our freedom to do something pleasurable. Because you enjoy certain fattening foods in generous amounts, you might resent following a medical recommendation to lose weight by cutting down on extra taste treats.
Reactance can occur in matters that link to deadline activities. You'd rather play golf, but the time has come to complete your taxes. You resent filling out the tax forms partially because of this inconvenience, and head for the course.
In curbing reactance procrastination, first put the idea of a loss of privilege into a broader perspective. Look for tradeoff benefits. Match the long-term benefits of following through, against the long-term benefits of delay. For example, restricting your diet can lead to a longer, healthier, life. Filing your taxes can help you to avoid a bigger consequence, and, on a positive note, you'll get a rebate quicker.
Let's take a brief look at a few other types of procrastination. Lateness procrastination occurs when you habitually show up late for meetings, appointments, and social events. Learning procrastination, and its sub-variety academic procrastination, refers to avoiding study. Organizing procrastination involves putting off taking steps to develop mechanical systems to streamline efficiencies. Organizing procrastination involves needless duplications of effort, lost materials, missed deadlines, and other frustrating consequences that grow from ongoing inefficiencies. Decision making procrastination includes equivocating about choices without coming to a conclusion, or without acting on a priority, rational, choice. We see the promissory note variety of procrastination in New Years resolutions procrastination where you promise yourself that you'll follow through, then don't keep the promise that you made to yourself.
Although these forms of procrastination occur for different purposes, and in different areas of life, they have a common feature. They all involve a needless but automatic postponement of a relevant and useful activity.
Is there anything positive to be said about procrastination? Yes. Procrastination can be a symptom that says that something is wrong with a situation. Your family persuades you that you need to run the family sporting goods store. You'd strongly prefer to study landscape architecture. You wonder why procrastination surfaces when it comes to tending the store. Under the circumstances, you may profit from going for a landscape architecture degree.
Procrastination always involves sidestepping a priority activity by engaging in a diversionary one. This reaction practically always includes excusing the delay. From there, procrastination can include multiple avoidance processes.
When people distract themselves from following through on what is useful and important to do, they may engage in various practices that include action, mental, and emotional diversionary ploys. Your awareness of these processes opens opportunities to override them. However, whether addressing the processes or not, the answer for getting relevant things done is the same. You take the behavioral steps to follow through whether the steps feel good or not.
When you procrastinate, you always substitute something less timely and relevant than what you are putting off. This is an action diversion. You will practically always give yourself an excuse to justify the delay. This is a mental diversion. By recognizing action and mental diversions, you open opportunities for yourself to substitute constructive follow through activities for procrastination diversions. The following describes these diversionary processes.
When you procrastinate, you always engage in an action diversion. Instead of studying for tomorrow's test, you go to a party. Instead of dealing with an unpleasant conflict, you shop. Instead of filling out your tax forms, you nap. In short, you do practically anything but the priority activity. These action diversions are the classic sign of procrastination.
Action diversions are reactions to uncomfortable feelings. They often daisy-chain where one diversionary activity links to another and so you may temporarily forget the project you are delaying. This process often aligns with this template: 1.You are aware of discomfort associated with the activity, 2. You experience a sense of emotional resistance. 3. You react by doing something different. 4. You continue doing various forms of substitute activities. This diversionary process can lead to short-term forgetting.
Action diversions provide a specious reward for procrastinating. A procrastination avoidance reaction contributes to a specious reward in the form of immediate relief. This is specious because the quick fix is a distraction. By engaging in the diversion, you are likely to feel a temporary sense of relief. The problem remains. Repeated many times, the relief from such diversions can reinforce the avoidance activities.
Mental diversions are a common part of a procrastination habit sequence. These mental diversions typically follow viewing a timely activity as uncomfortable. Here you excuse the delay by telling yourself that you'll get to it later. This type of diversionary thinking is like a knee jerk reaction.
Diversions can feel temporarily rewarding. Telling yourself that later is better, can yield a specious reward in the form of relief. You will have made a decision that you will finish at a future time. That feels good! Then, when the designated time comes, you repeat the pattern. Over time, whatever immediate relief you may feel, is typically followed by a larger degree of feeling pressured and stressed.
The excuse making, or mental diversion phase of this pattern, normally falls into five groupings: mañana, contingency mañana, catch 22, the backward ploy, and Wheedler thinking. Your awareness of these habits of the mind, opens opportunities to avoid the traps and change the mental pattern.
- When you view a timely activity as uncomfortable, boring, or uncertain, you may simultaneously engage in procrastination thinking such as the mañana diversion. The mañana diversion is a classic mental diversion, where you tell yourself that later is a better time to start. You tell yourself that you'll get to the task, perhaps when you are rested. Then, when "later" comes, you put it off again. Here the habit includes filtering out memories of prior poor results due to such delays, the magnification of the onerousness of the discomfort you expect to experience, a welling emotional sense of resistance to action, and an inappropriate intolerance for the frustration you associate with the activity. You can start to address this diversion by asking and answering the question why later is better, and by refusing to accept speculations, such as you'll be better prepared at a later time.
- The contingency mañana ploy adds a conditional twist to this automatic habit process. You decide that you want to lose weight. You decided to diet. But, first you need to research what to do. Then you put off doing the research. Since you put of the research, you have an excuse not to start a weight-loss campaign. Emotional diversions represent a contingency mañana ploy with an emotional twist. They involve the idea that you must feel inspired, or emotionally ready, before acting to do something unpleasant. We can easily expose the fallacy in this thinking. Why would anyone want to use moments of inspiration to do things that can be uninspiring to do? You can deal with this diversion by skipping the middle step and going straight to the activity that you believe will do you the most good.
- The backward ploy is a cousin to the contingency mañana ploy. This is the idea that you have to understand the relevant factors that contributed to your procrastination before you can do anything to change your life for the better. So, you lie on an analyst's couch for several years while trying to ferret out how your past links to you present procrastination. You now have an excuse for not acting (your analysis is incomplete). But you are also procrastinating by delaying action until you are more enlightened. Changes in perception can be brought about through new actions, which, in turn, can lead to new insights. Thus, action in the present moment is likely to be more instructive than weaving through faulty memories and recollections of selective perceptions.
- Catch 22 is a fatalistic form of procrastination thinking. When this procrastination belief system is active, you quit before you start. Here is how it works. As a condition for asking for a raise and promotion, you decide to get an MBA degree. At the same time, you believe you are not bright enough to get the degree. Based upon the belief that you are not smart enough to get the degree, you don't try. Because you believe that you need the degree to ask for a pay raise, you don't ask for one. Catch 22 procrastination is especially common with people suffering from depression. If you believe that you are helpless and that your future is hopeless, then you are likely to avoid taking corrective actions because you've predetermined they would be futile. You can directly address a catch 22 line of thought by taking an experimental approach where you start the avoided activity at its simplest phase, and find out what you can do through the directed problem-solving actions that you take.
- Our thoughts can reflect a Wheedler view. The Wheedler is a mental character who connives and cons, and does so in different disguises. Here is a typical whiny Wheedler procrastination line of thought: "Don't do it, you will make yourself feel bad. This is too much for you to do. You are going to be overwhelmed." Here is a sample easy-going Wheedler line of thought: "Take it easy. No need to rush. You have better things to do with your time." The Wheedler can also sound demanding: "Don't do it. You shouldn't have to." You can contest Wheedler thinking in whatever disguise it appears. You can ask, for example, what does "don't rush" mean? How does this "don't rush" instruction apply to this situation? Then refuse to accept any lame excuse you may give yourself as to why a needless delay is okay. That is one way to Beat the Wheedler.
Procrastination diversionary thinking is an automatic habit process that normally goes unmonitored. But, once you are aware of this diversionary thinking process, you are in a stronger position to disengage from it. However, to break this well-practiced habit of the mind takes: 1. Realistic self-monitoring, 2. Recognizing the pattern, 3. Objective self-questioning, and 4. Acting to follow through even when your thoughts and emotions motivate a diversionary direction.
When you have deadlines, extensions are possible. People do get ill. Unforeseen events do occur. For such practical reasons, you can get an extension on your taxes, library book, and report. If you are a student, you can get a makeup examination. Thus, when you know you know you can make up an excuse to get an extension, you can give yourself some slack in both deadline and personal development areas. The “slack” reinforces procrastination.
Even the most practiced procrastinator will temporarily act to catch up, only to revert to the same thread-worn pattern of needless delays. Bursts of energy, when they do occur, are typically short lived. This can seem baffling. If you can rise to the occasion and cut through a procrastination habit to get something relevant done, why not do this all the time?
When you consider the magnetic power of procrastination, it is easy to understand why bursts of energy are short-lived. But, there are other conditions of the mind that link to procrastination that adds to the complexity of this common drama. They suggest why procrastination is easy, and why positive personal change is challenging.
Procrastination can be a symptom, defense, form of resistance to change, problem habit, or combination thereof. These multiple, but correctable states, add another layer of complications.
Procrastination can be a symptom of an underlying or coexisting condition, such as an inappropriately low tolerance for frustration, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, helplessness thinking, self-doubt, weak organizing skills, or other. The most common trigger for procrastination is that of an inappropriately low tolerance for frustration that triggers discomfort dodging activities.
If you suffer from a recurrent depression or anxiety, you are likely to be more vulnerable to procrastination. Here, procrastination may be both a symptom of depression or anxiety, and a catalyst for depression and anxiety.
Procrastination can be a defense against a fear of failure. If you believe that you cannot succeed at the level that you think you should, a common procrastination practice is to either make a half-hearted effort, or do something different. Fear of success can have the same impact. You believe that if you succeed, the pressure will increase for you to do more. So you avoid the activity. The cognitive behavioral solution is simultaneously to address your self-doubts, and the procrastination process.
Procrastination, whether a symptom, defense, or problem habit, is a pressuring, relapsing automatic problem habit that can be addressed, and progressively mastered.
When procrastination represents a form of resistance to change, this usually relates to minor changes, such as shifting from one activity to another. You are playing a video game and the anointed time has come to make a phone call you are neutral about making. You prefer to stay on the inertial path where you continue to play the video game, rather than shift gears and make the call. You may even have an unpleasant visceral reaction as you contemplate the shift in activities. So, you continue the game, make the call later, and excuse the delay by saying something like you had a family emergency.
The Procrastination Problem Habit
As creatures of habit, we primarily live our lives through our routines. Without much forethought, we tie our shoes, get dressed for work, eat meals at predictable times, watch favorite television shows, visit friends, and so forth. We rarely put off our practiced routines—including procrastination!
Most of our automatic routines are functional. Nevertheless, there is a darker side to the habit picture. In response to when we feel bored, uncomfortable, or uncertain, many of us have an automatic preference to procrastinate, and do so without much forethought.
Like stealth, the procrastination habit normally repeats itself in zones of life that evoke this pattern. Darwin's first principle gives us some insight into this habit process. He thought that ". . .serviceable actions become habitual in association with certain states of the mind, and are performed whether or not of service in each particular case." (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.) When it comes to procrastination, Darwin's view of how a habit can be automatic, yet not aid survival, applies.
Procrastination is a reinforced habit. Otherwise, it would disappear. Part of its stability comes from the rewarding effects of the sort of relief that can follow short-term tension avoidance actions. Let's look at how procrastination tension avoidance works: You face an unpleasant task, such as writing out a check to pay a bill. Writing the check is rarely time consuming or stressful. But you'd rather do something else. So, in the spirit of reactance, you decide that later is better, and you do something different. Following this "later is better" decision, you experience some immediate relief. The relief reinforces your decision to delay.
When people experience unpleasant physical sensations about an anticipated activity, and divert their attention from the activity, they get some relief. It's almost as if a primitive part of the brain takes over to prevent further discomfort. Seamlessly shifting from the priority to something viewed as "safer" or more comfortable, can seem to the primitive brain like a better path. Nevertheless, in a time-oriented culture, this path eventually can overflow with procrastination, complications.
Although you can rationally tell yourself about the values of following through on what is timely to do, these words often fall flat. The primitive avoidance part of the brain is a poor listener when it comes to rational explanations. That is because at the most basic level, we react to pleasure and pain. These sensations of pleasure and pain powerfully direct behavior. For example, you can feel relief from tension, by diverting to some alternative activity. This diversion helps strengthen a procrastination habit. Yet you can make the procrastination habit process conscious, and learn to manage it, rather than getting whipsawed by it.
HOW TO STOP PROCRASTINATING
To overcome procrastination, consider adopting and practicing a do it now philosophy. The do it now philosophy is to do reasonable things in a reasonable way within a reasonable time to increase your chances for personal benefit, effectiveness, and happiness. This is an ideal to strive toward, that most will never fully actualize. However, with persistence and progressive mastery over procrastination, you can get closer to that illusive goal.
The do it now philosophy can, at first, prove challenging to undertake. That is because you are going up against a well-practiced automatic procrastination habit. Still, by repeatedly working to catch yourself at the initial phases of procrastination, by first tolerating the urge to divert, and by acting to face your procrastination habit, you can boost your personal effectiveness. You won't be perfect at this—practically no one achieves perfect efficiency or effectiveness. But you can make visible progress and learn to sustain the progress that you make.
What follows is a four-phase program to support the do it now philosophy. The first phase involves self-acceptance. In the second phase, you gather information and map your procrastination patterns. The third phase involves using this information and taking action steps to curb procrastination. The forth phase is linked to the previous three. It involves exposing yourself to situations where you would normally procrastinate, and where you work through the problem when exposed to it. Then, you are ready for the procrastination end game.
Adopt a Philosophy of Self-acceptance
People who habitually procrastinate in some important zones of their lives, are often masters of excuses. This excuse making can deflect self-blame. After all, if you are going to do something later, doesn’t this take you off the hook for now, but, at what cost?
The above plan is rarely effective. It can link to a sense of helplessness that can link to self-doubts, self-downing, and low frustration tolerance.
A self-doubt and self-downing process includes a condemning form of blame. Such negative thinking rarely helps to improve persistence and effective performances. The process can fuel procrastination. If you find yourself in a self-doubt and self-downing trap, here is an alternative perspective that you might consider developing:
- Blame, in its simplest form, means to assign responsibility for a fault or a wrong. This is a normal part of society's checks and balances. But as most soon discover, blame has an expanded meaning. Blame often involves extensions. These blame extensions normally involve ideas that you are unworthy, bad, or villainous for your actions. Although you are ultimately responsible for following through on what is truly important for you to accomplish, blame extensions for having an automatic procrastination habit are about as effective in bringing about a change as blaming yourself for a migraine headache.
- Practice Dr. Albert Ellis’ three dimensions of acceptance. These dimensions are unconditional self acceptance, acceptance of others, and life acceptance. Acceptance of self involves viewing yourself as an evolving changing person who cannot be pigeonholed into a single, negative or positive label. Acceptance of others involves recognizing their complexity and rights but reserving your right to effectively respond when their interests interfere with yours. Life acceptance involves yielding to the reality that accidents, unexpected benefits, and factors that come about through chance and probability, are what they are. By striving for these acceptance ideals, you are likely to reduce needless stress associated with unrealistic expectations and perfectionism, and procrastinate less. The three dimensions of acceptance represent an active and constructive process.
Acceptance does not mean liking something unpleasant or threatening. Acceptance is a recognition of a reality, including that life often involves uncertainties, and some efforts will lead to unexpected and unwanted consequences. An acceptance attitude of mind helps promote tolerance for uncertainty. This form of tolerance can lead to a stronger ability for dealing with ambiguity. Acceptance of error can deflate perfectionist ideal for flawless performances that propel retreat. In an acceptant state of mind, you better position yourself to change many of the things that you don’t like about what you do. Consider what the First Century AD Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Your past is gone, your future is uncertain.” If you take this message to heart, you know you cannot change what is done, but that the corrective actions you take today, can help benefit you today, as well as shape a positive future.
- Get tough on the procrastination habit, but act kindly toward yourself. Most people who procrastinate are hard on themselves, and soft on the problem. This is like keeping your eyes looking inward, and preoccupying and distracting yourself with helplessness feelings about procrastination. Rather than concentrate on yourself, concentrate on interacting with your environment and taking steps to move yourself forward.
- Take failure out of the equation. Failure, in its simplest form, is the absence of a success. You are likely to avoid getting into an emotional quandary if you stick to that basic definition. However, failure, like blame, has extensions that can include a sense of worthlessness. Declaring yourself a failure for not overcoming procrastination, is silly. How, for example, can a complex human being be only one thing, a failure? Fortunately, from a personal development perspective, you can eliminate failure. You treat what you do as an experiment where you learn what works and what doesn't. The experiment helps show any difference between what you originally thought, and the outcome. Still, we can find social conditions where "failure" is inevitable. Not everyone can be promoted into the same job where there is only one such job available. You work in sales and don't sell the product. You will likely need to find a different job. Even under conditions where there are conventional definitions for "successes" and "failure," you can still evaluate your performance and not your entire self.
Gather Information and Think Through What You Want to Do
By developing your awareness of when and how you procrastinate, you position yourself to draw upon knowledge and information that those who trod this path before you have learned. Perhaps you can boost your procrastination awareness and put this knowledge to productive use.
- When you feel tempted to procrastinate, use this temptation as a signal to become an objective self-observer, and use a procrastination log to gather information. There are several steps you can take to sharpen your observations of the process you follow when you procrastinate. When you have an impulse to delay, you can start recording and logging what you tell yourself about priority situations, and note the diversionary actions you take. The procrastination log is a valuable tool to help identify the perceiving, thinking, emotion, and action paths you follow as you procrastinate. It is equally important to record what you think and do when you follow through. It is often important to both decresse4 the negative (procrastination), while increasing positive follow through actions. By matching procrastination thinking and actions against your constructive follow through actions, you put yourself into a position where you can better judge then decide on a procrastination direction or one that can yield a productive advantage. This awareness exercise provides information to identify the "where," "what," and "how" of procrastination.
- When you see your choice point–to delay or follow through--do a short-term and long-term benefits analysis to assure yourself that a personal change you have in mind is truly meaningful to do. The system works in this way. Let's say that the change you contemplate involves quitting smoking. Write the short-term benefits of both smoking and quitting. The short-term benefits of smoking can include heightened concentration, feeling more relaxed, and avoiding the nasty withdrawal symptoms that accompany quitting. Comparatively, the short-term benefits of quitting smoking may be few. Next, write the long-term benefits of smoking or quitting. The long term benefits of smoking are probably no different from the short term benefits of smoking to relax, to avoid withdrawal pangs, and to slightly boost concentration. The long term benefits of quitting can include (1) Avoiding pressuring comments by family and friends that you "need to quit." (2) Reducing your risk of contracting a smoking-related disease, (3) Boosting your chances for extending your life, (4) Banking the several thousand dollars you spend each year for tobacco products, and then using it for a fabulous vacation, as a rainy day fund, or for a retirement fund. This type analysis can help you to motivate yourself to deal with procrastination over breaking a problem habit. You can apply the same analysis to the form of procrastination that causes you the most trouble.
- Reflect on your procrastination decisions. The procrastination decision to defer typically involves an urge to avoid something unpleasant. You see a situation as inconvenient, threatening, uncertain, conflicting, boring, or other. You sidetrack yourself into doing something different. You justify this delay by telling yourself that later is better. This diversionary action\decision can give you a temporary sense of relief. But, that relief is likely to be followed by a nagging sense of incompleteness as the task continues to loom unattended.
- Watch out for diversionary actions. If you didn't divert your attention away from a timely and relevant activity, you would not be procrastinating. By using the contents of your procrastination log, or through reflective thinking, you may recognize a pattern where you substitute a "safe" activity for a priority activity in order to avoid temporary discomfort. To address these diversions, it makes sense to be aware of what they are, and how and when they occur. What are your prime diversions? Do you take a nap, play video games, watch television, start a fight with your mate, go for a drive, daydream, or bog yourself down with trivia? The next step is to refuse to mindlessly follow diversionary urges. Instead, force yourself to redirect your actions toward accomplishing the timely goal.
- Listen to your self-talk. Do you tell yourself something like, "This is a waste of my time, so I won't do it now?" Do you hear yourself saying "later will be better" because then you'll be prepared to follow through? Hone in on this procrastination thinking. Evaluate what you hear. Look for flaws in this procrastination logic. How, for example, is later better when it comes to dispensing with a pressing, boring, threatening, or unpleasant activity? Does delay lead to stretching out the misery and reducing opportunities for accomplishments, happiness and comfort? If you believe you can take a simple proactive action step now, why not act now!
- Map out your procrastination avoidance sequence. When you put off a timely, relevant priority action, you always do something else that is less timely, and, perhaps, irrelevant. This procrastination habit sequence often follows a predictable process: 1. An awareness that an activity is likely to be onerous, boring, uncomfortable, or anxiety provoking. 2. Deciding to delay to avoid the discomfort or feeling of resistance to the anticipated action. 3. Telling yourself you'll get to it later, but not right now. 4. Engaging in substitute activities, such as reading the newspaper, phoning a friend, rearranging furniture, starting an argument, or slugging down a drink. 5. When tomorrow comes, you repeat this sequence. Once you see the pattern, you can change it.
Let's look at the procrastination process in another way. Pretend you are on a horse. You approach a choice point where you can act on a timely priority, or go a different way. With a procrastination habit dominating, you let go of the reins. The horse goes where it wants.
The horse is like the powerful primitive brain. It opts for pleasure and to avoid discomfort. Thus, the horse heads for the field to graze, the stream to drink, and the barn to sleep. The horse's normal inclination will be to follow the path of least resistance, but that may not be where you want to go.
What happens when you take the reins and direct the horse to go where you want it to go? At first you may experience a strong feeling of resistance. Through effort, you channel the horse's energy and strength into a direction that you've decided is best to go. This takes a focused effort. It is one that you will repeat throughout your life, if you decide to take charge of the horse and your own destiny. It is at this point of decision that you use your higher mental processes to guide your destiny. The following action tactics can help you to keep a grip on the reigns.
Unless you take steps to go beyond the phase of an enlightened awareness, you will rarely get far in any campaign to overcome procrastination. Here are some action steps to put to use to boost your efficiency and effectiveness and sense of self-efficacy (A grounded belief that you can organize, regulate, and direct your actions to accomplish worthy goals.)
- Design a metacognitive framework for positive change. Metacognition, in its most basic form, means thinking about your thinking. This process can be expanded to include: (1) Setting and defining goals in measurable terms. (2) Planning how to achieve the goal. (3) Organizing your resources. (4) Talking yourself through the paces. (5) Revising your goals, plans, organizing scheme, and actions. These five steps involve thinking about what you are doing, and guiding yourself along the steps. By practicing this metacognitive process, you act to stop casting procrastination as a shadow over opportunity. Instead, you progress toward what you want to accomplish.
- Set clear and measurable goals. One of the consistently profitable approaches associated with accomplishment starts with setting clear, measurable, and attainable goals. A goal, such as "to pay my bills by the 29th day of each month," is measurable and achievable. Avoid committing to unclear goals such as to overcome procrastination, or to be happy. These are ethereal goals. How do you get to be happy? Without a measure, a goal of "being more efficient" is also ambiguous.
- Create a realistic action plan. Goals without plans usually lead to procrastination. A plan is a design for determining where you are and what you can and will do to achieve your goal. A plan describes the steps in the process. Backward planning can give you a new perspective on the planning process. In backward planning you look back at the coming year, not forward to it. Imagine that it is a year from this date. For example, you are looking back over a very productive year. You weren't perfect in overcoming procrastination but you did make progress. From this imaginary future time, trace back how you accomplished an important goal. Suppose you decide that it is important to regularly exercise. A fitness center offers the opportunities you seek to structure this activity. In working backwards, you can say, (5) I worked out for a year, and am in better shape than before. (4) I continued with my schedule and unless I was ill, I refused to cut myself slack and put of going to the center. (3) Before that, "I entered the gym for the first time, and began the program. (2) Before that, I phoned the fitness center and set up an appointment." (1) Before that, I accepted a feeling of discomfort as part of the process of going from where I am to where I'd like to be. Since the backward plan ends with the first step, you know where to start.
- Take a “bits and pieces approach.” The most complex challenges have a simple beginning. In this sense, most challenges can be broken down into bits and pieces. Even a person with a Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics started by taking simple steps in that direction. Few would expect themselves to finish such a degree in a day or a year. For many time-intensive activities, you can have significant gaps in your knowledge before you begin. Filling the gaps can involve researching information for a lecture, report, or business plan. To start, assign a time to the task. As best as you are able, break the task down into segments. Then start at the logical beginning. This can be as straightforward as making a call, booting your computer, opening a book, or getting out a pen and paper.
- Get and stay organized. Develop an organization system that works for you, and that you can work. The following tips illustrate a way to organize for positive change: (1) Schedule time for recurrent events (bill paying, cleaning, automobile oil changes, etc.), then follow the schedule. (2) Put important objects in their place (keys, reading materials, bills). (3) Eliminate time-hog activities that consume much time that yield little return (Toss mail and email advertisements and other materials with little relevance.) (4) Delegate. For example, hire someone to clean. (5) When feasible, order items by catalogue or email and have them delivered. (6) Schedule time for matters that require concentration when you are least likely to be interrupted. While organization and time-management systems do not, by themselves, curb procrastination, these mechanical techniques can be part of the solution.
- Use a check-off list method. List your priorities in a pocket notebook where you can maintain lists. Check off the items as you do them. (For some, the act of crossing off the finished items from the list is rewarding.) If you are inclined to "forget" to use the system, try a reminder system. An elastic band on your wrist can serve as a reminder. However, avoid over scheduling yourself. People are not perpetual motion machines.
- Use a catch-up, keep-up, and get-ahead system. Create three filing systems. On the first, put "catch-up," the second, keep-up, and the third, get-ahead. The catch-up file includes previously procrastinated activities that remain timely and important to do. The keep-up file contains current activities, such as you might have on a daily "to do" list. The get-ahead file includes activities that if you were to get a jump on, could advance your interests and make your life easier later. Spend time every day with your catch-up file and whittle it down to where you don't need it because you stay up-to-date. Emphasize the keep-up file to prevent its contents from flowing into your catch-up file. Daily make time for your get-ahead file. This is where you work toward achieving what you envision. You can use this process to boost your efficiency and effectiveness, free your time, and enjoy your life unencumbered by excess procrastination.
- Use self-instructions to guide your actions . The self-instruction technique is useful for short-term projects. To use the self-instruction technique, start by identifying what you want to accomplish. Then, spell out the steps for how you are going to go on to achieve the result. (You can start this mapping process with a bits and pieces approach.) These are your procedures. Organize them in sequence. In private, say the procedures aloud to yourself. Then whisper them. Then say them silently to yourself. Next, talk yourself through the paces following the prescription you previously verbalized.
- Consistently use the five-minute plan. The five-minute approach is a way to break the inertia generated by a procrastination habit. It can be a surprisingly effective way to start intermediate and longer term projects. First, commit yourself to five minutes to get started. After those five minutes, decide whether to commit yourself for another five minutes. You continue deciding at five-minute intervals (or another interval that works for you) until you decide to stop. ( It's often easier to maintain momentum after you've initiated a preliminary action) Then you take the next few minutes to get set up so that when you return to the activity you have a jump on the project.
- Apply the PURRRRS plan to nip procrastination in the bud. When you first experience a procrastination urge, P. Pause. U . Use your resources to stop the procrastination sequence. One resource is to refuse to continue automatically along the procrastination path. R . Reflect upon what is happening. Ask yourself questions such as, (1) How am I stopping myself from addressing the priority? (2) What do I do to sidetrack myself? (3) What do I want to accomplish? (4) How can I improve my ability to do it now? R. Respond by initiating preliminary actions such as challenging mañana thinking, talking yourself through your preliminary plan as you act out the steps of the plan. R. Revise, or make modifications in your plan based upon the feedback you get. S. Stabilize this do it now approach by repeating PURRRRS whenever you feel tempted to procrastinate.
- Apply Albert Ellis' ABCDE method to curb procrastination. Suppose your procrastination slips under the radar and the time has passed to use PURRRRS. Use a rational emotive behavior therapy ABCDE technique to get back on track. To use this method: (1) List what you are putting off (The activating event, which is the A). (2) Separate your two forms of beliefs (B): a. do it now rational belief and b. irrational procrastination beliefs. (Rational beliefs are purposeful and directed toward accomplishment. Irrational beliefs include procrastination thinking or Beliefs that can lead to avoidance. (3) Consider this: If you were to follow your rational beliefs, what emotional and behavioral consequences ( C ) would follow? If you were to follow your irrational procrastination thoughts, what emotional and behavioral consequences would follow? (4) At the level of disputation (D), question your procrastination thinking, such as "later is better." You can use a basic Socratic approach. First you define your terms. (What does "later" mean? What does "better" mean?) Next you ask yourself for examples where "later is better" led to a positive outcome. Then you consider where the "later is better" idea led to consequences, such as stress. You compare the results and come to a conclusion about the different beliefs. For example, you are likely to find that you have some positive "later is better" examples, such as putting off work that involves physical exertion and concentration when you are stricken with a serious case of the flu. However, such events are likely to represent an argument by exception. More often, you'll likely have a longer list of consequences when you following procrastination avoidance actions and thinking. This disputation exercise can help you to refocus your attention on what you want to get done without being meaningfully interrupted by procrastination thinking and diversionary actions. (5) As they appear to hold better promise for a positive outcome, you act on your rational do it now beliefs. As a result, you produce a positive follow through change. This change represents the Effect (E ). This ABCDE approach involves putting the procrastination process into perspective, and refocusing your efforts to gain a greater sense of command over what you do. As you gain skill in the use of this method, your procrastination percentage will predictably drop as you effective percentage rises.
- Make a contract with yourself. The contract establishes what you'll do, when you'll do it, the rewards for following through, and a penalty for not following through. Set a time. Fix a reward that is equal with the task. If the task is making three overdue phone calls, do something you find pleasurable shortly afterwards, such as read a newspaper. This reward approach is based on a positive and intentional use of the Premack Principle, which is that one high probability activity can act as a reward for another. So, if you follow an efficiency action with, say, reading a favorite newspaper or having a desired cup of coffee, reading the newspaper or drinking the coffee serves as a reward for the counter-procrastination action you took. For a penalty, choose an onerous one that you agree to impose upon yourself if you don't follow up within the time you've designated. Suppose you agreed with yourself that you'll contribute $200 to a group that preaches something that offends you. You can avoid the penalty by making the call. Avoiding a penalty by doing the task, can feel rewarding. This dual reward system can be a spark to get a specific thing done.
- Use the "do it when you think of it" technique. We all have short-term tasks that get put off, such as canceling a dental appointment. If you need to cancel an appointment, do it when you think of it. This frees your mind for other things. It also eliminates nagging self-reminders and excuse-making for the last-minute cancellation. A slight positive change in throwing off daily details, can make a big long-term difference. If you can't do it when you think of it, write it in a pocket notebook and read the notebook at designated times of the day when you are free to respond. Or, you can record what you thought to do, and play the tape back at anointed times. Then, do it the first time that you can.
- If possible, engage a support group. So far we've looked at what you can do to self-regulate your actions so that you can make positive changes in your life. You can go it alone. Nevertheless, when confronting a complex procrastination habit, you may need all the help you can get. Who are the people in your life you can call upon if the going gets tough? These are friends, acquaintances, and family members who are willing to back your efforts and offer practical suggestions. Some may be willing to call you at random intervals to check your progress. Generally, you would wisely select tolerant and encouraging people.
- Have a plan to deal with procrastination lapses and relapses. After making progress, slipping back to old patterns is common. Make a plan in advance that describes what you are going to do when the going gets rough and you find yourself lapsing back into a specific procrastination pattern that you recently curbed. This is a sample maintenance plan: (1) Laminate a 2"X3" card for your wallet. On one side of the card, summarize your procrastination habit process. Summarize your approach for curbing procrastination on the other. Examine the card when you feel tempted to procrastinate so as to redirect your attention from starting a procrastination habit sequence toward a do it now sequence. (2) Arrange a bimonthly check-in with a support group "buddy" who has agreed to help. You report your challenges, how you are progressing, and any procrastination stumbling blocks that merit attention. (3) Create a progress chart, and put it in a place where it is visually available and you can easily add daily entries, and review progress. The chart can consist of numbers from one to 100 on the vertical axis, and daily dates on the horizontal. Each day you progress with a key priority, you record it on the chart. The chart is cumulative. If you notice that the chart is flattening out, you have an early warning system. If you keep accumulating points, this visual report can feel rewarding and you can encourage yourself to continue your progress. When you fill one chart, file it, then start another.
- Get your act together. Get rolling! Make a plan for how you will gear up for the change and start the change in motion. Pick a start date. Publicly announce your intentions. Make a deal with a "buddy" to periodically monitor your change program. Start at the anointed date and time. Expect and accept making adjustments to your plan. Chart your progress. Routinely remind yourself about the long-term benefits you gain and the long-term hassles you avoid. Press forward. Reinforce yourself for persisting. (Rewarding persistence can be more important that rewarding completion.)
PROCRASTINATION EXPOSURE TRAINING
In curbing an automatic procrastination habit, a prime challenge involves retraining the brain so that you redirect your efforts from arbitrary pleasure seeking and discomfort avoidance to approaching areas of personal gain that can yield advantage or pleasure. A useful training technique is procrastination exposure training. This involves exposing yourself to the tension involved in an anticipated action, until the urge to retreat feels quelled. Then you act to follow through.
Procrastination exposure training involves recognizing when you start to procrastinate. Then, before the process cascades into a full-blown procrastination habit sequence, you deal with the initial discomfort-dodging urges that can trigger procrastination. To implement your exposure program, take any timely activity that you have put off. Approach the task with the idea that you are going to work through the tension to get to the desired result. Allow yourself to feel any accompanying negative sensation, and the urge to procrastinate. Stick with the feeling. Show yourself you can tolerate that experience. Keep initiating actions to complete the timely activity.
When you allow yourself to experience procrastination-related negative sensations, you show yourself that you can tolerate that tension. You will soon see that such tensions are time-limited. Through this tension exposure process, you can teach yourself to build tolerance for tension, and use tension sensations as a signal to act productively, rather than as a signal to avoid productive actions. By showing yourself that you don't need immediate relief from tension, you position yourself to apply your higher mental resources to guide your actions.
Procrastination exposure training is not a one-time event. This training involves experiencing procrastination tensions often. It involves cuing yourself to use the tension as a catalyst for purposeful action. Perhaps sooner, rather than later, you can show yourself that you can tolerate the sort of discomfort that can trigger procrastination, and constructively act despite the tension.
When the procrastination habit kicks in, rationality switches off. Procrastination exposure training partially addresses this process. But, you can train your brain in other ways. Practice problems solving with rational-emotive and cognitive and behavioral methods, and you can strengthen neurological networks associated with this training.
There is current evidence that cognitive critical thinking skills strengthen with practice. These skills apply to counteracting procrastination thinking. Improvements in critical thinking skills link to positive changes in brain and mental functioning.
In using the above four-phase positive change approach, you are likely to find that you can work with some techniques better than you can with others. For example, you might decide to use a cross-out sheet method combined with a five-minute start-up plan and the PURRRRS system.
How do you know if you have made progress curbing procrastination? If you maintain a ten-percent improvement in your follow through skills, I'd rate this as positive progress. Over time, this percentage change can make a big difference.
THE PROCRASTINATION END-GAME
You can change procrastination thinking by examining and questioning both the process and its results. But, as a byproduct of changing the process, you change the results.
You have many ways to change the process. You can decide to force yourself to refuse to engage in diversionary activities. You can develop organizational habits that lead to greater personal efficiencies, effectiveness, and reduced stress. Although making and stabilizing such changes are normally challenging, by applying multiple techniques to a single procrastination area, you start yourself on the path to a new efficiency habit. This is the procrastination end-game.
The end-game involves grinding it out. That means resigning yourself to the fact that uncomfortable priorities require effort. Then, by repeatedly applying the do it now process, you are likely to discover that unpleasant avoidance-evoking feelings typically ebb as you live through them. If not, you still gain the benefit of knowing that you can live through the tension and override the urge to procrastinate through actions directed toward creating a positive momentum toward fulfilling your responsibilities, and achieving a reduction in stress accompanied by increased accomplishments and joy in living.
There is no easy way to curb procrastination impulses and behaviors other than acting and persisting with do it now thinking and acting. Acceptance of this grind it out reality, can lead to:
- Strengthening both a value for, and capability to, execute your responsibilities efficiently and effectively.
- Demonstrating and developing maturity of thought through competent action.
- Avoiding stress and behavioral consequences that can come from excessive delay.
- Having more free time for pleasurable pursuits.
- Gaining the advantages that come from developing a reputation as an effective person.
- Experiencing the self-confidence that comes from directing your actions to achieve purposeful and positive results.
- Boosting your tolerance for frustration which serves as a buffer against needless distresses.
While the procrastination end-game does not guarantee happiness or success, the process can dramatically boost your chances for a purposeful life filled with meaning and many worthy accomplishments. But if during the course of grinding it out you feel like quitting, remind yourself that Doing gets it done!
From: Dr. Bill Knaus, The Procrastination Workbook. New Harbinger. 2002.
Dr. William Knaus 2006
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About the Author
Bill Knaus, Ed.D. — One of the original Directors of Training, REBT. Fellow, REBT. Training Faculty, REBT. Originator of Rational Emotive Education. Taught at City University of New York: Queens College, Springfield College, & American International College. Former president, Advocacy Network. Author of over 70 popular and professional articles and 14 books including "Overcoming Procrastination" with Albert Ellis.