Procrastination is one of the things I have found really easy to help clients overcome. Perhaps this is because I was once a chronic procrastinator — for most of my life really. And while I still have plenty of room for improvement, most days I get a reasonable amount of tasks done, including some unpleasant or difficult ones.
One client of mine was procrastinating finishing writing his book. We did one session of Core Transformation together, and the next time I saw him he had not only finished it but also published it! I can’t take credit for that — he did all the hard work — but it was a great result from a single session.
That client had a single project he was procrastinating. Other people have a more chronic procrastination problem.
Procrastination as a moral failure
There are many ways to think about procrastination. The way I’d like to encourage you to think about it is as a moral failure — or stated more positively, as an opportunity to become a better human being.
What I mean by procrastination as a moral failure is that by it’s very definition, procrastination is not simply putting off a task until later, but the failure to do what you believe to be the right thing. It is a failure to live up to your moral standards. If you know you ought to be working on your thesis but you spent the day playing Call of Duty, you failed to do the right thing. This problem goes back at least as far as Plato who called it “akrasia” which roughly translates as acting against one’s better judgment.
The failure to do the right thing is why procrastinating brings up feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, and regret. We don’t regret putting things off until later if we think it is right to do them later, and we don’t feel bad about not doing things we don’t think are good to do. But when we fail to do what we believe to be right, we feel bad as a result.
Failing to do the right thing doesn’t make one a bad person however. Generalizing from “I failed to do X in a timely fashion” to “I’m a bad person” is quite a stretch, indicative of what psychological researchers call a fixed mindset. In a fixed mindset, one believes one’s abilities to be unchanging and easy to discover, whereas in a growth mindset one believes they can change their abilities with effort and better strategies.
Examples of this fixed mindset show up in the internal (and often external) self-talk of procrastinators:
“I lack focus.”
“I don’t have any motivation.”
“I just don’t have any self-discipline.”
In a fixed mindset, working in a disciplined, focused way, and paying attention to my motives (reasons) for action appear to be fixed qualities that I lack instead of things that I can work hard at or learn how to do better. If we instead have a growth mindset, then we might instead believe “I can learn to focus better if I work hard at it” and ask “what strategies can I employ to focus better?”
Procrastination is thus an opportunity for us to learn how to do what we believe to be the right thing to do, at the right time.
There’s another challenge though: procrastinators often have very high, unrealistic moral standards around getting things done, such as “I should always be working very productively.” Or they have very high standards about the end result, what is typically called perfectionism: “I should do everything to a very high degree of excellence.” These high standards can demotivate one to get started. The former can be a ruthless taskmaster, and the later an overly active critic.
Procrastinators usually also have a terrible time making decisions because they have terrible decision strategies. Many procrastinators engage in maximizing instead of satificing. Maximizing is when we look at every possible option and then try to choose the best one, whereas satisficing is when we look over the options and select the first available “good enough” option according to our criteria.
Maximizing has been shown to take much longer, produce more regret, more questioning “did I make the right decision”, and overall lead to much less happiness than satisficing…even in the context of really big life decisions like where to go to college, what career path to take, and whom to marry, let alone for tiny decisions like what brand of toothpaste should I select, and what should I order for dinner from this restaurant. Chronic procrastinators are always the last person to order at dinner because they can’t decide. As the expression goes, perfect is the enemy of the good. Gradual improvement through iteration is the key to success, not trying to select the best possible outcome all at once.
These high standards make it very difficult to ever feel satisfied that one has done the right thing, even when one has worked very hard, using ingenious and highly effective strategies. So chronic procrastinators must learn to lower their overly high standards or else they will never feel like they have done enough, which ironically causes them to achieve less than they are capable of! (Others have overly high standards and end up as “type A personalities” or “workaholics.” In fact, it is not uncommon for a chronic procrastinator to have a type A parent.)
There’s also the fact that the longer one puts something off, generally the bigger, more overwhelming, and more anxiety-producing thinking about doing the thing becomes. So procrastination functions as a downward spiral, a feedback loop that can quickly get out of control.
So what is the structure of procrastination, and how can we intervene to change it?
Procrastination requires inner conflict
Procrastination is a classic example of inner conflict: part of me wants to do this, part of me doesn’t. There is no such thing as procrastination without inner conflict! If you are completely congruent about not wanting to do something, you simply don’t do it. And if you are completely congruent about doing it, then you simply do it.
Core Transformation is a highly effective method for resolving inner conflicts at the deepest possible level. Using Core Transformation, I had quite possibly what was the deepest and most profound spiritual experience of my life working with a part of me that used to cause me to procrastinate. I was actually sitting on my couch with my copy of the book, leading myself through the steps when my wife (then girlfriend) came home, and then a few minutes later I “saw God” — while I was sitting on the couch in my living room! It seems like such a silly thing that would lead me to such a profound experience. But before working a lot with Core Transformation, I always had some inner conflict going on, with various anxieties and inner objections plaguing my experience all day, every day. Maybe you can relate.
In my experience of working with clients using Core Transformation, chronic procrastinators often have not just one or two objecting parts. It’s common to find that a procrastinator has 4 or 5 parts of themselves that constantly are objecting to absolutely everything. That was certainly the case for me. Experiencing so much chronic inner conflict makes it very difficult to get anything done! It’s also exhausting, which lowers energy and motivation for doing things.
When we learn to end inner conflict, we stop procrastinating as a natural consequence.
If you wanted to teach someone how to procrastinate, first they’d have to be really vague about the action they wanted to accomplish, never making the next steps clear and specific.
To end procrastination, get really clear about the task at hand. David Allen in Getting Things Done says to ask yourself, “what is the next physical action step that I would have to take to move this project forward?” In NLP we call this a sensory specific outcome. Basically, if you could make a mental movie of someone doing the task, then you are being specific enough.
By being very specific anxiety is reduced, because the action is clear. “Call Jones about scheduling a meeting for Friday” is specific vs. “figure out meeting time” is vague. If you’ve looked over an item on your to-do list more than a couple times and not taken any action on it, or worse yet if you are trying to keep all your actions and projects in your head, then chances are the actual action you need to take is still undefined. Defining the specific next action step often requires 60-120 seconds of difficult thinking — it is not trivial! In fact, defining the action is itself an important part of the work.
Procrastination is maintained through vague language. Even the word “procrastination” deletes what actions one has chosen to do instead of what one feels one should do.
Often procrastinators have no idea exactly what they have been doing at any given time during the day, and can’t tell you what exactly they did that day, or week, or month. Keeping a time log or working in 25 minute, single-tasking sprints can be helpful for getting an awareness of what one is doing and has done.
In this way, procrastination is an opportunity for developing honesty. By admitting, at least to ourselves, what choices we have been making and how we have spent our time, we can become more honest with ourselves instead of lying and denying that we did choose to not do the right thing.
Whenever we are honest with ourselves about a painful truth, it is best if we balance honesty with equal amounts of compassion however. More self-criticism and self-hatred will not do us any good, because as I will discuss later, self-hatred is a key aspect of the problem of procrastination. We can be compassionate by recognizing that procrastination is a strategy we have been using because it was the best thing we could come up with at the time to deal with our situation.
So procrastination is an opportunity to become more honest with ourselves, as well as more compassionate with ourselves.
I’m great at envisioning a HUGE project and brainstorming lots and lots of actions. Of course, this ability comes with a downside — I can go from feeling fine to totally overwhelmed in seconds.
Many procrastinators are similarly great at big picture thinking…which is then too big to be actionable. Chunk it down. Plan out how much time you have available today, estimate how long each thing will take on your list, and then put everything else onto a to-do later list (a next actions list).
Similarly, I’m great at multi-tasking…or at least I think I am. But unless you are literally juggling, or maybe playing the drums, multi-tasking is just a euphemism for being distracted and inefficient. Learn instead to single-task.
I use The Pomodoro Technique: set a timer for 25 minutes and work on just one thing during that time. When the timer goes off, step up out of the chair and away from the screen for a 5 minute break, then set the timer again. After 3 or 4 such work sprints, take a longer break.
The Pomodoro Technique or other “time boxing” is very helpful for practicing single-tasking and execution of simple tasks. It’s a practice and a discipline, and anyone can learn to do it, but it is challenging. It will require effort over time. I’m still not all that great at it after practicing for several years! But when I do it, I get so much more work done.
Addiction, compulsion, and shame
When we procrastinate, we are putting off something we don’t want to do because just thinking about doing it makes us uncomfortable. Instead, we choose to do something pleasurable to attempt to temporarily make those bad feelings go away. This strategy of course totally fails because usually we still have to do the thing eventually, but now we have less time, or it’s overdue, and more things have come in to do since then, etc.
So “procrastination” is often a euphemism for pleasurable behaviors one feels ashamed, guilty, or regretful for doing. When people “procrastinate” what they are actually doing might be getting high, watching pornography, playing 10 hours straight of video games, eating an entire carton of ice cream, cleaning compulsively, watching an entire season of a television show, looking at every cute cat picture on the internet, reading celebrity gossip, watching hours of comedians on YouTube…instead of something more important that we feel we should be doing. Social media was basically designed to facilitate procrastination.
Often it is full-on, hours at a time, done with tremendous emotional energy. Usually people don’t call their behavior “procrastination” if they very calmly check their email for 5 minutes instead of getting started immediately. Even “structured procrastination” (doing something else useful instead of the thing you really ought to be doing) is not what most people do when they feel bad about procrastinating, because then one is doing a slightly less good thing in place of the best thing.
No, procrastinating is typically an uncomfortable, anxiety-fueled, intensely compulsive and shameful yet pleasurable behavior that goes on and on, never satisfying because it never accomplishes the thing you ought to be doing instead of the thing you are doing. So we say “I procrastinated” instead of saying “I went on Facebook for 5 hours today during my only free time instead of working on the important thing that is due tomorrow.” Because if we admitted what we actually chose to do, either terrible things might result, or we’d simply feel bad about what we actually did, and the whole point of procrastinating is to avoid feeling bad.
Feeling good is not required to do things
Procrastinators often experience intense feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, and regret, and have self-talk like this which accompanies such feelings:
“I can’t do anything.”
“I can’t control myself.”
“I’m never going to amount to anything.”
“I’m going to be fired.”
“I’m going to be found out.”
The first thing to realize is that you don’t have to feel good to do something. That’s a lie! In fact, if you want to feel good, you should aim to do something good first. Then the good feelings will come as a result of accomplishing something worthwhile.
In addition, one can work with the unpleasant feelings themselves. Core Transformation is useful for working with these feelings, as is IEMT (Integral Eye Movement Therapy), and various NLP interventions from Steve Andreas, Nick Kemp, and others. But be careful with methods like this because they can end up reinforcing this false idea “I must feel good before I can do good” when in fact it is the opposite: “to feel good, do good.” That said, reducing the intensity and frequency of these bad feelings can help to break the cycle of trying to avoid the bad feelings by doing indulging in a guilty pleasure. Because if the bad feelings aren’t there, we have nothing to avoid.
Self-criticism and self-hatred
Having wasted one’s time doing harmful things instead of good things, people typically then engage in self-hatred of various kinds.
Procrastinators almost always have very negative inner critical self-talk, inner nagging, and inner bullying such as…
“I’m a fucking idiot — why didn’t I just do the thing.”
“God why I do I do this to myself?”
“Come on loser, just fucking do it already.”
“Why can’t I do anything?”
If you don’t have any inner critics or negative self-talk, you probably don’t procrastinate either. Sometimes this inner criticism becomes so harsh that it leads to suicidal ideation and thoughts of death. When one loses a sense of self-efficacy, this can become a very similar state to that of learned helplessness, aka depression.
The problem is that motivation through self-abuse doesn’t work. If it did, you would be the most productive person on the planet! We must instead work to change inner critics to inner allies. Core Transformation is one very useful method for that, and there are also other useful methods for changing our inner critical voices to be more helpful. Steve Andreas has written two books on the subject, both packed with many useful techniques (see Transforming Negative Self-Talk and Help with Negative Self-Talk, volume 2).
Procrastination as an opportunity to develop integrity
One definition of integrity that I like is “doing what you say you will do.” Procrastination, as with most self-regulation problems, is a problem of integrity.
Procrastinators tend to either say to themselves and others that they will do things and then not do them, or they instead avoid making any specific promises at all so that they won’t break any more promises which they feel they cannot keep.
Whenever we say we will do something and we don’t, we break our promise which then leads people to trust us less, or to trust ourselves less. If we consistently do this over time, our promises become empty words, no longer linked to our actions.
Words can be descriptive, but we can also do things with words, what philosopher J.L. Austin called a “performative utterance.” For example when two people commit publicly to marriage vows by saying “I do,” they are not stating a fact or talking about something, but doing something. The utterance of the words “I do” in that context is the act of becoming married. It’s like this magic power we all have, but we fail to use it. At any time we can use our language as magic words that do things to reality.
But in order for our words to have this power, we must actually do what we say, what I call “I Will power.” If I say “I will do X” then I do it, my words are congruent with my actions and I gain that much more power, more trust in myself as well as others trusting me more. And if I don’t do it, I lose power. So to gain in power, we can make small promises and keep them, and gradually over time make slightly larger promises and keep them, etc., developing our ability to make and keep promises. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t double down! If you fail to keep your promise, make a smaller one, not a bigger one. If you double down and lose, you are toast.
Usually “willpower” is conceived of as an internal struggle, where I must overpower part of myself to accomplish something another part of me wants. But when we conceive of it that way, we simply reinforce the structure that generates procrastination! This sort of inner battle demotivates us to actually take action and thus leads to less making and keeping of promises.
One method I’ve come up with for making and keeping promises this is something I call “The Integrity Strategy” which involves asking a simple series of questions about what I want, what I am capable of, and finally, what I will commit to doing. This simple method allows us to congruently decide upon what I would like to have happen (not necessarily what I would find pleasurable to do), then pause before committing to do it, taking my promise very seriously…even for very tiny things like washing the dishes, or sending out an email, etc. But by starting small, we can build and become strong.
I’ve used this exact method many times to come out of a deep depression and sense of helplessness, and it works beautifully. We can also teach our inner critics to ask us these kinds of questions instead, which is generally more motivating than nagging, bullying, or other more harsh verbal violence.
Procrastination is therefore an opportunity for developing integrity, for doing what I say I will do, keeping my word sacred.
Procrastinators often say “I lack motivation.” “Motivation” is a vague, unactionable term. Instead we can think of “what is your motive, your reason for acting?”
There are two basic reasons for doing anything: either the action is inherently pleasurable in which case we don’t need “motivation”, or I want the outcome of having performed the action.
Using mental contrasting, as in the integrity strategy, to practice doing difficult tasks motivates us to act. First ask what you would like to have happen, as if you could snap your fingers and it would just be done — would you want that result? If not, don’t do it! But if you do, then ask yourself whether it is feasible for you to do — can you do it? What are all the steps involved? Then and only then ask yourself, will I do it? Don’t rush this step. Think about it, feel your body — does any part of me object to doing this? Do I have the time and energy to really follow through, even if it is much harder than I expected, because my integrity is on the line here. Take the little things seriously.
Also you can relax unneeded effort during the doing of the task to make it easier — use mindfulness and relaxation, don’t “push yourself.” This will also reduce resistance to doing the same task in the future. Taking regular breaks can also help, ala the pomodoro schedule. Easy does it.
Are you procrastinating a specific Big Scary Thing, or are you a chronic procrastinator? If you’d like to become a better human being and learn to do the right thing more often, you can chat with me to see if we are a good fit for coaching. Just click this link to schedule a free 15-minute consultation. Or you can always get in touch by email or on Facebook.