Whilst it’s common for all individuals to put off tasks that they find mundane, effortful, or challenging, procrastination can become a problem if it’s excessive and interferes with an individual’s social, academic, or job performance.
Procrastination simply means to avoid or delay something, particularly a task that requires immediate attention. Typically, it involves avoiding an aversive task such as work, chores, or studying, and favouring a more pleasurable task (e.g., browsing the internet, socialising, eating, etc.).
What drives procrastination?
Unhelpful rules and assumptions: Procrastination is driven by unhelpful rules and assumptions that individuals have about themselves and the world (e.g., “I can’t work when I’m feeling tired”; “I have to do things perfectly”; “I’m not capable of doing this”; “People will judge me if I don’t do this well”). These rules typically produce discomfort about completing an activity or goal (e.g., anger, boredom, anxiety, self-doubt, depression, etc.), and when people can’t tolerate this discomfort they procrastinate to avoid the feelings.
Procrastination excuses: Procrastinators typically generate excuses about why they are better off postponing a task (e.g., “I can’t concentrate today”; “There’s other things to do first”; “I have lots of time”). Individuals then engage in other, pleasurable or distracting, activities instead of the more important activities. Because the uncomfortable emotions are mostly avoided, and the task that was avoided becomes more urgent and unpleasant, the individual is more likely to procrastinate the next time they have similar unpleasant tasks to do.
What is the impact of procrastination?
Not only is procrastination associated with the immediate problems mentioned above, but it is also associated with guilt and self-criticism, long-term distress and decreased well-being. Severe procrastinators are at greater risk of mental health issues (e.g., by heightening levels of stress and anxiety). In addition, procrastination has been associated with poorer performance at school and work and is linked to substantial levels of worry about finances and failure.
Treatment for procrastination:
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for procrastination. This involves the following strategies:
- Be aware and non-blaming: Recognise urges to procrastinate and your ability to sit with these urges, without blaming yourself for how you feel.
- Change unhelpful rules and assumptions: Identify any unhelpful rules and assumptions that are triggered by a given task. Try to change these rules or assumptions to alternative helpful rules and assumptions that help you to approach the difficult or unpleasant task (e.g., “It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect”).
- Practise tolerating discomfort:Sit with the uncomfortable feelings that come up when you think of doing the unpleasant task. Recognise that these feelings will come and go like a wave.
- Dismiss procrastination excuses and encourage:Learn to identify your excuses to justify procrastination and challenge these excuses by examining the evidence (e.g., “Is it absolutely true that I can’t make even a small start on the task?”) and testing these with an ‘experiment’ (e.g., spend 5 minutes on a task to test whether you are too fatigued to work on it). In addition, convert self-criticism into encouraging self-talk (“It might not be perfect but I can do this”).
- Carry out practical strategies:Put strategies into place that will help you get the task done, such as “I’ll do just 5 minutes”; give yourself a small reward after 20 minutes of work; prioritise tasks; break the task down into manageable components; create a schedule; or visualise doing the task first).
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for procrastination, or to book an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists who provides treatment for this issue, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.