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A Cognitive Approach to Combatting Procrastination

February 27, 2007

One of the more common complaints I hear from my clients is “I wish I didn’t procrastinate so much.” Being stuck in a cycle of procrastination is distressing because it can suffocate us with guilt, lead to a burdensome list of tasks to complete, and worst of all, keep us from fulfilling our most meaningful goals in life.  I’ve found a three step cognitive therapy strategy to be particularly effective for understanding and changing procrastination patterns.

Step 1: Better understand your underlying belief pattern(s) by examining your thoughts about the project or goal.  Although underlying patterns are unique for each person, I find it helpful to consider three general profiles:

  • Perfectionist – This person procrastinates mostly because of the underlying beliefs that the end result of the project must be perfect for fear of being negatively evaluated.  This belief system puts undue pressure on the person.  It also inflates her or his self-importance.  The perfectionist often passes up perfectly good opportunities to make small chunks of progress by saying, “It’s not worth getting started if I can’t really spend the time to do the whole thing and do it right.”
  • Fearful Avoider – This belief pattern has thoughts like:
    • “This is going to be such a pain…”
    • “I don’t want to even think about that now…”
    • “I just can’t stand working on that project…”

To achieve a state of calm, this person may attempt to distract the mind by cleaning the house or getting involved with unimportant projects.  Sadly, the fearful avoider can get so good at developing uhealthy strategies, that she or he can eventually drift away from true life goals.

  • Overcommitted Wishful Thinker – This person sabotages plans by setting unrealistic goals.  In a way, this irrational belief system provides a safe escape psychologically in the short term.  “Because I have too many things to do (or this task is too difficult for me), it’s not a big deal that I don’t follow through with my goals.”  Though this pattern may or may not be distressing to the person who procrastinates, it is often very frustrating to others and can be viewed by others as being passive-aggressive.

Chances are that you are able to see more than one of the above profiles in yourself.  If so, that’s alright.  It means that there is more than one opportunity for improvement.

Step 2: Learn how your thoughts are distorted, irrational, or counter productive.  Cognitive therapy helps us check whether these underlying thoughts are really as true as they seem by looking for common disorted thought patterns.  For example, consider the Perfectionist profile above: The thought “It’s not worth getting started if I can’t really spend the time to do it right,” contains All-or-Nothing Thinking and Jumping to Conclusions.  In addition, the excessive fear of negative evaluation often contains Mind Reading and Self-Centeredness distortions.  For a more detailed examination of the cognitive distortions associated with different profiles, please take a look at the reference for Common Procrastination Profiles.  At first, it may be difficult to recognize your thoughts as distorted if you’ve been thinking these ways for so long, but it is safe to assume your thoughts are distorted if you procrastinate often.

Step 3: Learn how to challenge and change your thinking.  Once you have identified how your thoughts are distorted, it is much easier to challenge them.  If you are able to see the thought, “It’s not worth getting started if I can’t really spend the time to do it right,” as All-or-Nothing Thinking and Jumping to Conclusions, you could challenge the thought by saying “I not sure how much I will get done, but at least I’ll get started.”  If you have difficulty figuring out ways to challenge your thoughts, consider reading a book on the topic or seeking the help of a skilled cognitive therapist.  The key to this third step is practice, practice, practice.  Eventually, if you stick with the process of challening your automatic thoughts, your underlying thought patterns will change .  And I can assure you that if you change these underlying beliefs, you will procrastinate much less!

Finally, I wanted to share a tool with you that I’ve found quite helpful over the years for procrastination.  The Task Master Worksheet (adopted from David Burns’ New Mood Therapy book) helps us to identify and change many patterns simply by writing some things down as we go.  By looking at what we’ve already accomplished, we feel more invested and motivated.  And, by breaking down the over-arching goal into individual tasks on the worksheet, it makes the project seem less daunting.  In my opinion, the real genius of the worksheet though, is the focus on the predicted and actual amounts of stress and enjoyment with each task.  By keeping track of these data, we often become more aware of a Mental Filter of overestimating the difficulty of tasks and underestimating the sense of relief and accomplishment with finishing each task.  I strongly encourage you to try using the worksheet with one of your goals to combat procrastination.

I hope the insights I’ve shared are helpful for you.  As always, be kind and compassionate with yourself. Managing procrastination is a life-long process.

Jim Carter, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

Specialty Behavioral Health

San Diego, CA

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