by Melissa Kulick, Ph.D.
If the topic of this article has caught your attention, I’d go ahead and read it now if I were you. For most people who identify themselves as procrastinators, deciding to come back to it later is a likely set-up for never getting around to it.
Despite the fact that procrastination is so widely practiced, I find it can also be incredibly misunderstood. Procrastination is often written off as laziness, but it is not that simple. True procrastination involves avoidance and is the result of any of a number of underlying factors or causes, which will be discussed below. If you are looking only for a quick how not to guide for overcoming procrastination, a number of practical tips can be found at the end of the article. I do not advise, however, skipping to this section. Experience has shown that if you don’t identify and address the underlying causes of your procrastination, you will probably procrastinate in applying these strategies, as well.
What Procrastination is Not
Before jumping into a detailed discussion of what procrastination is, it will be helpful to distinguish it from what it is not. There are legitimate reasons for putting an action or activity off and it becomes our responsibility to be honest with ourselves as we assess our motivations. Among the reasons we might delay action for reasons other than procrastination are:
1) When you lack the skill or knowledge to complete a task. You could, however, then procrastinate seeking the required knowledge or informing an appropriate other person of your situation.
2) When you have a legitimate illness or physical problem.
3) Ignorance – When you genuinely lack the awareness of the task or awareness that you have permission to work on it.
4) Situations where there are problems matching personal priorities with those of others. Again, this is where communication is required, and you could procrastinate in delaying this action.
5) Taking of a legitimate break following an appropriate period of activity.
6) Delays based on self-knowledge of your most and least productive work times during your day.
What Procrastination Is
When we talk about procrastination, we are referring to unhealthy putting off or avoidance of tasks, especially those that would be positive or helpful for us to accomplish. To understand (and ultimately overcome) our procrastination, we need to begin to explore what may be the motivation(s) – both conscious and unconscious – behind our choice to procrastinate. (Yes, we are making a choice, whether we experience it as intentional and deliberate or not.)
Why We Procrastinate
The motivations involved are fears and/or negative self-statements related to our self-worth. These fears and self-statements mainly stem from a number of commonly held, though irrational, beliefs. Albert Ellis, a pioneer in the field of rational emotive psychotherapy, proposed a lengthy list of such irrational beliefs. Among those that may impact procrastination are:
1) That it is a dire necessity for us to be loved or approved by virtually everyone we know.
2) That we should be totally competent, adequate, and achieving in every respect if we are to be considered worthwhile.
3) That it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way we’d like them to be.
4) That it is easier to avoid than to face certain difficulties and responsibilities.
5) That our past behavior determines our present behavior.
6) That there is one right and perfect answer to our problems or situations and that to not find this right answer is catastrophic.
These can be incredibly powerful, foundational, beliefs. If you found yourself nodding in agreement as you read any of these, keep them in mind as we go on to discuss the various fears that may underlie our procrastination
I referred earlier to procrastination as a choice. In many ways, when we choose to procrastinate, we are making a decision based on a cost-benefit analysis; we are determining that what we see as the potential cost of taking action outweighs the expected benefit.
Among the possible reasons for procrastination, fear is a strong motivator of action (or inaction), and can come in a number of forms. It is the combination of fear and issues related to self-worth that fuel most, if not all, of our procrastination.
1) Fear of Failure – Holding a belief that our performance determines our worth (especially if we doubt our ability) can create a resistance to risking taking action (and thereby risking our perceived worth.)
A variation of this fear is Perfectionism. In this case, the only perceived measure of success is perfection, and this can apply both to the finished product as well as to an expectation that the effort involved be smooth and even effortless. Anything less than flawless and/or easy is seen as failure – and you become a failure, particularly in your own eyes
2) Protecting an Image of Competence – There are two forms this can take:
Novice Phobia – The fear of putting yourself in a new or novel situation and in the position of being a learner, and therefore not perfect or immediately competent. If I can’t do it right or perfect the first time, I won’t even try it. The anticipated cost, again, is a loss of perceived (by self and/or others) worth.
Fantasy of Competence – Avoiding facing a challenge directly by failing to prepare adequately for it, putting out a full effort, or giving yourself an adequate amount of time to complete it. This strategy, called self-handicapping, allows us to continue believing that we would have done a fantastic job if only we’d tried harder or had more time.
3) Fear of Success – Fearing unwanted anticipated consequences of success: that significant others in your life will be envious or threatened and reject you; that you will continue to be expected, by yourself or others, to maintain or achieve success; or that you or others will want even more from you. The cost of action, of course, is the negative consequences for you.
Another way that the fear of success can lead to procrastination is as a direct expression of a lack of self-worth. We avoid taking action that would be helpful to us because we do not believe we deserve to have, be, or achieve whatever the action would allow us to. This is a form of self-sabotage. We undermine ourselves. This is also expressed as not seeing ourselves as worth the effort that may be involved in certain activities, regardless of the size of the task (e.g., brushing our teeth.).
4) Rebellion – One other motivation for procrastination stems from a desire to resist authority. Procrastinating in this case allows you a sense of power and control. The perceived cost is that working means submitting to someone else and giving up power.
To overcome procrastination you need to address the motivation for your procrastination and honestly confront the question of whether you have a genuine desire to change your patterns. You need to ask yourself if you are motivated by the Pleasure Priority and, if so, if that is how you want to live. If your real priority in life is to have a good time, and you’re genuinely okay with that, then you need to stop kidding yourself and give up unrealistic fantasies of achievement; that’s not what fuels you. If you’re starting from this place but are wanting to work toward more of a balance between having a good time and being successful, a place to start is to recognize the need to learn how to delay gratification and work toward a later payoff.
To allow yourself to let go of the fear of failure and the paralyzing effect of perfectionism, it is very important to make the distinction between what we do and who we are. Our actions do not determine our worth. It is also important to remind ourselves that >we can not control others perceptions, opinions, thoughts, feelings, or actions.
A novice phobia can be addressed by remembering that we are all novices at everything at some point. When we allow our actions to be controlled by this fear, we are trying to protect an unnecessary false pride. If we do away with this pretense, we won’t have to spend all that energy maintaining a front that only limits us in the long run, by depriving us of the chance to learn and grow.
If you find yourself protecting a fantasy of competence, put your abilities on the line – repeatedly. You can then assess your true capabilities. You may have to give up unrealistic expectations or fantasies, but these weren’;t going to be fulfilled, anyway, if you continued to avoid and procrastinate. This will allow you a realistic sense of your strengths and weaknesses (we all have them), which will then enable you to set realistic, accomplishable goals for yourself.
If you find yourself procrastinating as a way to express resistance or as an act of rebellion, know that this is an indirect, passive-aggressive, way of expressing or achieving control. Set a goal for yourself of learning to deal with interpersonal difficulties in a direct manner and of seeing where your choice lies in situations. You likely have valid experiences and emotions that deserve to be acknowledged and expressed.
If you realize you are battling a fear of success, know that you are fully entitled to success and fulfillment. It may be helpful to explore the messages you hold inside you that tell you otherwise, as they can be indicators of tender spots within you that could benefit from some compassionate attention. Also remember that you can’t control others thoughts, feelings, etc. If, upon honest examination, this fear appears to be reasonable in a particular situation, ask yourself what steps you might be able to take to address the issue directly and/or whether this is a symptom of unhealthiness in a relationship.
In the case of self-sabotage, at the risk of sounding trite, awareness really is the first step. Acknowledge that this is forming the motivation for your choices and actions, and work on believing that you <u>are</u> worth the effort and do deserve to have, succeed, achieve, take care of yourself, etc. Practice. Don;t let a novice phobia get in your way here, either. It will be natural for resistance to come up as you begin to try on this new way of relating to yourself. That;s okay. There;s an approach used in the 12-Step recovery programs that you can borrow, which is to fake it til you make it. I prefer a slightly different wording, however. Ask yourself what you would do if you actually believed you deserved success or happiness, and then let yourself do it.
Behavior can be a powerful tool in identity formation. Not only do our beliefs about who we are or are not impact our choices regarding the actions we will and will not take, but our actions can create a picture of ourselves that can aid us in our future efforts. This is one way in which acting as if can be very helpful. If you start, for example, doing the dishes after each meal or beginning to read an assignment the day it is given (regardless of any internal pull to put it off), and you see yourself doing this repeatedly, your internal image of yourself begins to shift from someone who lets dishes pile up in the sink or someone who leaves assignments until the last minute to someone who does their dishes right away; or someone who gets a jump on their assignments. These internal ideas of who we are, while they do not define us, can definitely affect the choices we make.
Low self-worth and procrastination form what can be a debilitating vicious cycle where we start out feeling bad about ourselves and so are unmotivated to engage in positive action on our own behalf and we procrastinate and this only reinforces and increases our negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, leaving us even less likely to act productively the next time. Break this cycle any way you can.
Self-compassion is going to be an important element as you work to change the habit of procrastination. Remember that procrastination as a style of approaching life tasks is an ingrained pattern that took a long time to develop, has been practiced repeatedly, and has been reinforced by (often lots of) internal messages. You should realistically expect that it could take some time to throw off such a well-rehearsed way of being. Many people find it helpful to address some of the obstacles they face in overcoming procrastination, especially their negative or restrictive internal messages and fears, over time and with a trained therapist.
Some Practical Suggestions
Sometimes we procrastinate starting a task because we feel overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of what we must accomplish. When this happens, the most effective approach is to break down the task into more manageable pieces, and this can be done by either dividing the task into individual steps and taking each step one at a time, or by breaking down the time spent working into small segments, contracting with yourself to work for even just minutes at a time. You can then consider renewing the contract once you’ve done that much.
Other things you can do include: creating structure by establishing a set time for a routine – by doing this you are building a new habit; modifying your environment to make it more conducive for working, or moving yourself to more favorable location; go ahead and do it when you think of it; make the most of momentum when you have it – keep going, even if it involves switching tasks; set up reminders for yourself if necessary; create a contract for yourself that includes both a work plan and a reward for yourself.
The most important thing is to start; start taking more responsibility for yourself (and seeing yourself as response-able) and start being more compassionate with yourself. Be both honest and gentle with you; you are a work in progress. And you are worth the effort.