Procrastination is a common issue — one that people often equate with simply being “lazy” or having poor time-management skills. But there is often more to the story.
William McCown, associate dean of the College of Business and Social Sciences and professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, cites a case example of a man in his mid-30s with a degree in chemical engineering who was procrastinating about applying to graduate school. The client reported just not being able to “get it together.” Through therapy, however, the man discovered that he had an emotional block. His parents supported his choice to get another degree, but their own lack of formal schooling often led them to make detractive comments, such as the father stating that when his children thought they were as smart as him, he would just die. The client came to realize that comments such as these sometimes incited him to self-sabotage his career.
According to Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” His research indicates that as many as 20% of adults worldwide are true procrastinators, meaning that they procrastinate chronically in ways that negatively affect their daily lives and produce shame or guilt.
According to McCown, a pioneer in the study of procrastination and co-author (along with Ferrari and Judith Johnson) of Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment, procrastination becomes problematic when it runs counter to one’s own desires. “We all put things off,” he notes. “But when we put off things that are really in our best interest to complete and we do it habitually, then that’s more than just a bad habit or a lifestyle issue.”
McCown finds that clients with chronic procrastination often come to counseling for other presenting concerns such as marital problems, depression, work performance issues, substance use, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. He has noticed, however, that younger generations are starting to seek counseling explicitly to work on procrastination.
McCown says that among Gen Xers and particularly among baby boomers, tremendous stigma existed around procrastination. But that largely changed with the Great Recession, he contends, because people realized that having a procrastination problem hurt them at work — a luxury they could no longer afford.
Managing emotions, not time
A growing body of research suggests that procrastination is a problem of emotion regulation, not time management. Julia Baum, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, agrees. “Poor time management is a symptom of the emotional problem. It’s not the problem itself,” she says.
Nathaniel Cilley, an LMHC in private practice in New York City, also finds that chronic procrastination is often a sign of an underlying, unresolved emotional problem. People’s emotional triggers influence how they feel, which in turn influences how they behave, he explains. However, clients may incorrectly assume that procrastination is their only problem and not connect it to an underlying emotional issue, he says.
People procrastinate for various reasons, including an aversion to a task, a fear of failure, frustration, self-doubt and anxiety. That is why assessment is so important, says Rachel Eddins, a licensed professional counselor and American Counseling Association member who runs a group counseling practice in Houston. “There’s not one answer to what procrastination is because [there are] so many things that lead to it,” she says.
Procrastination can also show up in conjunction with various mental health issues — ADHD, eating disorders, perfectionism, anxiety, depression — because it is an avoidance strategy, Eddins says. “Avoidance strategies create psychological pain, so then that leads to anxiety, to depression, and to all these other things that people are calling and seeking counseling for,” she explains.
Sometimes, procrastination may even mask itself initially as another mental health issue. For example, overeating in itself is a procrastination strategy, Eddins says. She points out that if certain people have a hard task they are avoiding, they may head to the refrigerator for a snack as a way of regulating the discomfort.
If a client comes to counseling because he or she is binge eating and procrastinating on tasks, then the counselor first has to determine the root cause of these actions, Eddins says. For example, perhaps the client isn’t scheduling enough breaks, and the stress and anxiety are leading to binge eating. Perhaps food acts as stimulation and provides the client with a way to focus, so counselors might need to explore possible connections to ADHD. Maybe the client is rebelling against harsh judgment, or perhaps the root cause is related to the client experiencing depression and feeling unworthy.
One approach Eddins recommends for finding the root cause is the downward arrow technique, which involves taking the questioning deeper and deeper until the counselor uncovers the client’s underlying emotion. For example, if a client is avoiding cleaning his or her house, the counselor could ask, “What does it mean to have a messy house?” The client might respond, “It means I can’t invite people over.” The counselor would follow up by asking, “What does that mean?” These questions continue until the client and counselor get to the issue’s root cause — such as the client not feeling worthy.
Eddins and Cilley both find imaginal exposure helpful for accessing clients’ actual memories and experiences and discovering the underlying cause of procrastination. For instance, if a client is procrastinating over writing an article, Cilley may have the client imagine sitting at his or her desk and staring at the blank computer screen. Cilley would ask, “What’s going on in this moment? Where are we? What is around you? How are you feeling emotionally at the thought of writing this article?” The client might respond that he or she feels anxious about it, which means the underlying cause is emotional.
“Imagination is really great with drumming up emotions,” Cilley notes. “The emotion starts to come into the session when [clients visualize what they are avoiding].”
Addressing irrational thoughts
“You can do all the time-management skills in the world with someone, but if you haven’t addressed the underlying irrational beliefs fueling the anxiety, which is why they’re procrastinating, they’re not going to do [the task they are avoiding],” notes Cilley, an ACA member who specializes in anxiety disorders.
As described by Cilley, the four core irrational beliefs of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) are:
- Demands (“should” and “must” statements such as “I should go to the gym four times a week”)
- Awfulizing (imagining a situation as bad as it can be)
- Low frustration tolerance, which is sometimes referred to as “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” (belief that the struggle is unbearable)
- Self-downing (defining oneself on the basis of a single aspect or outcome, such as thinking, “If I mess up one work project, then I am a failure”)
“When we’re having procrastination problems, a lot of times we awfulize about the task and have abysmally low frustration tolerance about the energy required to do it,” observes Cilley, a certified REBT therapist and supervisor and an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. “And we disproportionately access how bad it would be to do it or to be put through it and minimize our ability to withstand or cope with it.” Put simply, sometimes when people think something will be too difficult, they don’t do it.
Another common reason people procrastinate is a fear that they could fail, and they interpret failure to mean that something is inherently wrong with them, Cilley says.
For example, imagine a client who comes to counseling because he procrastinates responding to work emails out of fear that he will answer it incorrectly and his co-workers will realize he is a failure. To first identify the root cause, Cilley would ask a series of open-ended questions to the client’s statements regarding procrastination: I am avoiding responding to emails at work. What would it mean if you responded to the emails? I’m afraid I would do it incorrectly. What if you did respond incorrectly? My boss would think I’m an idiot. What would that mean to you? That I’m no good at my job. I’m a bad employee.
A self-label of “bad employee” causes the client to filter everything through that lens, including minimizing the good that he does, Cilley points out. In addition, the man will act as if he is a “bad employee,” which reinforces this label and makes him more prone to procrastination, Cilley says.
One technique that Cilley uses with clients to challenge unhealthy thinking and break the vicious cycle is the circle exercise. He draws a big circle, and at the top he writes the client’s name. At the bottom, he writes the negative thought in quotes — “I’m a bad employee.” Then, he places six plus signs and six minus signs inside the circle and asks the client to think of six things that he or she does poorly at work. The client might respond, “I procrastinate on tasks, I show up late, I make mistakes when I respond to emails” and so on. Next, Cilley has the client name six things that he or she does well. For example, the client could say, “I care about the work I do, I stay late if needed, and my co-workers can depend on me.”
If clients respond by saying that they don’t have any positive qualities at work, then Cilley will ask them to think about what positive things another co-worker would say about them (even if the clients don’t believe the statements themselves).
Next, Cilley circles one of the statements in the minus category and asks the client if this one negative statement erases the other six positive statements. To emphasize the flawed logic, he may also ask if one positive trait causes all of the negative ones to go away and makes someone a “perfect” employee.
This exercise challenges black-and-white thinking and helps clients separate their identities from their actions or the task they messed up on, such as sending an incorrect email, Cilley explains.
Even after clients identify their irrational beliefs and create rational coping statements (positive beliefs used to replace the negative and irrational ones), they still may not believe the rational ones. When this happens, Cilley uses an emotiveness exercise he refers to as “fake it till you make it.” He asks clients to read the rational beliefs out loud 10 times with conviction — as if they were Academy Award-winning actors and actresses who wholeheartedly endorse and embrace the beliefs.
If clients are going to rebut thoughts such as “I am a failure” and “I can’t do anything right,” then a monotone voice won’t help them change their thoughts or calm down, Cilley notes. “Anyone can go up on stage and read a speech,” he says. “The emotion and conviction behind your voice is what moves the audience, and that’s what we have to do to ourselves when we’re trying to convince ourselves of the rational beliefs.”
Even though clients may not initially believe what they are saying, by the eighth or ninth time they repeat it, they are finally internalizing the beliefs, Cilley says. On the 10th time — when clients are starting to actually believe what they are saying — he records them repeating the rational beliefs. Clients are then instructed to listen to this recording three times per day throughout the week as a way of talking themselves into doing whatever they have been procrastinating over, he says.
Cilley has also used role-play to help clients put stock in more rational thoughts. He does this by adopting the client’s irrational belief (e.g., “I am a failure” or “I am unworthy”) and then asks the client to try to convince him of more rational thoughts. By doing this, the clients start to convince themselves. Even though clients often laugh at this exercise, Cilley has found it to be one of the quickest ways to change clients’ irrational thoughts.
REBT and other short-term therapy techniques are not just effective but also efficient for clients who procrastinate, notes Baum, a rational emotive and cognitive behavior therapist and supervisor, as well as an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. With procrastination, clients often want to see results quickly, she says. They want to finish the work project, clean their house or get to the gym next week, not next year. REBT helps clients quickly “take responsibility for their behavior and recognize that they have agency to change it,” Baum emphasizes.
Learning to tolerate discomfort
Often, people procrastinate to avoid discomfort, Eddins notes. This discomfort comes in many forms. Maybe it’s procrastinating on beginning a complex task at work out of fear of failure, or avoiding having a difficult conversation with a friend.
The first step is helping clients become aware of the discomfort they are avoiding, Eddins says. “When we suppress our feelings, that’s when the procrastination and avoidance habits emerge,” she adds.
Eddins often uses the “name it to tame it” technique. She will first ask clients what they are feeling when thinking about the task they are avoiding. Clients may not have a word for this discomfort, so she will ask them to identify what they are feeling physically, such as a tightness in their chests.
Baum, a member of the New York Mental Health Counselors Association who specializes in helping creative professionals and entrepreneurs overcome procrastination, helps clients learn to cope with feelings of discomfort through imaginal exposure. First, Baum teaches clients coping skills such as breathing exercises to use when they experience discomfort. She also helps them identify, challenge and replace irrational thoughts that contribute to emotional distress and self-defeating behaviors. Then, she asks them to imagine walking through the scenario they have been avoiding.
For example, a man procrastinates about going to the gym because he feels ashamed of being out of shape. The client thinks to himself, “I’m out of shape. I won’t fit in at the gym. I’m no good because I let myself go.” These thoughts and his fear of others judging him prevent him from going to the gym despite the health benefits.
To address this emotional problem, Baum would have the client imagine walking into the gym and getting on the treadmill as others stare at him. During this exercise, she would guide the client to breathe slowly to keep his body calm and have him practice rational thinking, such as accepting himself unconditionally regardless of the shape he is in or what others may think. This will help him overcome his shame and productively work toward a healthy fitness routine.
Eddins also uses a mindfulness-based technique called “surfing the urge” to help clients. She instructs clients to stop when they feel the urge to procrastinate and ask themselves what the urge feels like in their bodies and what thoughts are going through their heads. For instance, clients may notice having an urge to get up and grab a snack rather than work on their task. This technique helps them learn to sit with their discomfort and face the urge rather than distracting themselves from it or trying to change it, she explains.
The power of rewards and consequences
Cilley finds rewards and consequences a useful motivational tool for those clients who are good at identifying irrational beliefs and who already possess coping and emotion-regulation skills yet are still procrastinating when faced with certain tasks (or even their therapy homework). For example, clients could reward themselves by watching their favorite show on Netflix after they complete the task. The ability to watch the show could also become a consequence — they would withhold watching the show until they complete the task.
Counselors may need to help clients determine appropriate rewards. McCown, a clinical psychologist at the Family Solutions Counseling Center in Monroe, Louisiana, finds that clients sometimes want to use grandiose rewards that really aren’t helpful motivators. For example, a client may decide that he or she will take a trip to Europe after finishing writing a novel. McCown notes that the likelihood of this motivating the client to make progress on the novel isn’t as strong as if the client used smaller rewards, such as going out with a friend or taking a walk to celebrate completing 300 words of their novel.
If clients are having trouble enforcing rewards or consequences themselves, counselors can become the enforcers — but only as a last resort, Cilley says. For example, Cilley had a client who was procrastinating when it came to taking steps toward starting a side business because he feared he would do it imperfectly, and that would make him a “failure.” After learning how to identify his irrational thoughts and how to regulate his emotions, the client still needed one final push to start his business. The client was a gamer, so both he and Cilley agreed that if he didn’t start his business that week, Cilley would change the client’s PlayStation 4 password so that he couldn’t play video games until after the business was launched.
“You want to make sure you have a good working alliance with the client and that they feel safe to be vulnerable and that [you] can laugh about this [with them] because it’s kind of unorthodox. But sometimes that’s what works for some people. They need that accountability,” Cilley says. “Just laughing about how silly the consequence is in therapy can make it more of a fun challenge.”
Giving yourself permission
Eddins finds that shame is a big factor with people who procrastinate. “Somehow we learned that shame [is] a way of motivating — ‘If I’m just hard on myself, then maybe I’ll get it done’ — and that for sure backfires and leads to procrastination,” she says.
For some people, their inner critic is shaming them constantly with “should” statements (e.g., “I should work out four times a week”). Procrastination is their way of rebelling against this harsh judgment, Eddins explains.
Self-compassion is one way to address critical thoughts and shaming, Eddins says. For example, the critical inner voice that declares a client lazy if he or she doesn’t go to the gym could be changed to use more motivating statements such as “It feels good when I go outside and move my body.”
In addition, if critical thoughts start to surface when clients are trying to complete a task, they can use a self-compassionate voice to remind themselves that they will feel better after they take a break, Eddins advises. In fact, the act of giving oneself permission to take a break, practice some self-care, and rest and relax can sometimes break the cycle of procrastination, Eddins says.
A 2010 study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam were less likely to procrastinate when studying for the next one. The researchers concluded that self-forgiveness allows people to move past the maladaptive behavior and not be burdened by the guilt of their past actions.
At the same time, Eddins advises counselors to be careful with the technique of giving permission. Clients with black-and-white thinking may interpret that as the counselor telling them it is OK to be “lazy.” Instead, she recommends that counselors use this strategy within a context that the client will accept.
Eddins had a client who put off meal planning each week because it was stressful. When Eddins asked why it was stressful, she discovered the client was preparing up to three different meals each night to accommodate each family member’s personal preferences. Eddins knew that if she told this client to give herself permission to cook only one meal each night, the client would engage in black-and-white thinking: “Well, that would make me a bad mom.”
So, instead, Eddins said, “No wonder you are exhausted. You are trying to do everything for everyone else but not for yourself. This doesn’t work for you. You have permission to take care of yourself and do what works for you. And that does not make you a bad mother.”
Strategies for success
Procrastination does offer momentary relief and reward, which only reinforces the behavior and continues the cycle of avoidance, Eddins notes. So, the more times that an individual avoids a task, the more difficult it becomes to stop the cycle of procrastination.
In counseling, clients can learn strategies that are more effective than avoidance. One therapeutic technique that Eddins likes involves breaking tasks into smaller ones that are realistic and obtainable. For instance, an individual who hasn’t formally engaged in exercise in the past year might be tempted to set a goal of working out four times a week. This person has created an ideal “should,” but because the goal is overwhelming, he or she is likely to continue avoiding exercising, Eddins points out.
Should this happen, Eddins might explore why the client is procrastinating on the goal: “Tell me about the last time you worked out. When was that?”
When the client responds that it was a year ago, Eddins would suggest establishing a smaller goal to ensure success and build motivation. For example, the client could start by exercising one day a week for 10 minutes and build from there.
“I want [clients] to take the smallest possible step because I want to [help them] build success,” Eddins says. “That is actually reinforcing in the brain because … it gives you that sort of reward and that success, and then that allows people to achieve the goal.”
McCown points out that “the rehabilitation of a severe procrastinator is almost like working with a severely depressed person: Once they are able to … do anything, they will feel better about themselves, and they’ll have more self-efficacy.” That’s why it is important to get these clients to succeed at some task, even if it is a small and relatively meaningless one such as going to the grocery store or getting the car washed, he says.
Counselors can also help clients who procrastinate to create specific — rather than generic — goals, Eddins says. For example, a goal of “meal planning” would become “planning four meals for dinner on Sunday afternoon.” The counselor can then collaborate with these clients to identify the specific actions they will need to take to meet that goal: What typically happens on Sunday afternoons? What could get in the way of this task? How can you make time on Sunday afternoons? What do you need to prepare in advance? What steps will you take to complete this task?
Some clients, especially those with perfectionist tendencies, may resist setting a small goal or task because they don’t see it as “good enough” or as an effective way of achieving their larger goal, Eddins says. In these cases, counselors may need to address the client’s black-and-white thinking and the role it can play in procrastination, she adds.
Counselors can also help clients identify optimal times to complete tasks that they have been procrastinating on, Eddins says. For instance, clients might tell themselves they will complete an unpleasant task right after getting home from work. But if the counselor knows the client doesn’t like his or her job and will likely need some time to decompress after getting home, the counselor can point that fact out and note that it increases the likelihood of the client avoiding the task, she says.
Shifting clients’ focus to what they will do — rather than what they won’t do — is another way to motivate clients, Eddins says. For example, counselors can encourage clients to think along the lines of “I’m going to come home, get a glass of water, put on my tennis shoes, go out for a 10-minute walk, and then come home and fix dinner” rather than “I’m not going to sit on the couch this evening and watch television.” Trying to avoid procrastination or its underlying emotional root makes procrastination more active and powerful in one’s mind, Eddins points out.
All of these strategies can aid clients in addressing the deeper emotional problems connected to their procrastination. McCown stresses that procrastination won’t go away by itself. “Joe Ferrari phrases it quite beautifully: ‘It’s not about time.’ It’s often something deeper,” McCown says, “and I think counselors are in a great role to figure out whether it’s just simply a bad habit or whether it’s something a little more serious.”
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