Procrastinating means putting off unpleasant tasks that one should get done. People who procrastinate will delay cleaning, organizing, working on and filing taxes… They get further and further behind. They often get hit with fines from unpaid traffic tickets, embarrassed when friends suddenly drop in and the house is a mess, and punished when needed projects aren’t completed on time. If you are being undermined by the procrastination habit, this handout may help you. Let’s first talk about why one may procrastinate. It is useful for you to try to diagnose the problem.
___ Insecurity / perfectionism? Perhaps you procrastinate because of fear, or perhaps perfectionism? You might be fearful of cleaning because you may throw something valuable away. You may feel you won’t do it right. You may feel simply nervous about starting.
___ Resentment? Do you have a general low level of simmering anger about ‘have to do’ tasks? Do you secretly enjoy putting things off, perhaps imagining some authority figure being dismayed?
___ Intolerance for discomfort? Some procrastinators seem to believe they should never be uncomfortable. They believe in ‘doing what you want to do’ all the time. While you may not feel this consciously, perhaps subconsciously that belief is there. Are you willing to jump right into things that you know will be unpleasant, or do you feel anxiety or resentment about facing them?
___ Distraction? Are you prone to try too many things at once, losing your focus and forgetting what you were working on? Do you have to go back when you read, and re-read something because your mind wandered?
How do you procrastinate?
The psychologist, Dr. William Knaus has identified three methods of procrastinating:
* Action: you do something incompatible with accomplishing your chore, like go to a movie or play with the dog. You handle the discomfort by getting busy, but on an irrelevant task. Your problem is impulsiveness, a habit of doing whatever comes into your mind. Your challenge is to learn that just because some action comes to mind, doesn’t mean you really need to do it.
* Emotional perfection: You want to feel like doing it, and you want for the ‘inspiration’ to strike. When I started writing this handout, I didn’t really feel like it, I just sat down and began to write. It sometimes shocks people to learn that most successful people are aware of their emotions, but they don’t let emotions govern what they are going to do. Their goals determine what they do, and if they don’t feel like doing it, that is simply unfortunate.
* Mental rationalizations: You tell yourself something like, “Oh, I will do that tomorrow,” all the time knowing in your heart that you won’t. You want to start, but only when you get this other thing done. You tell yourself that you will have more time later to really do a good job. You need to learn that such thoughts are simply distractions, and you don’t have to obey them. Go ahead and say, “I will get to that later, when I have more time,” and then go ahead and do something right now about it. I have written several books, and it was generally never the right time to do the writing. I just grabbed a few minutes, and wrote a few words.
Tackle Procrastination Intelligently
You probably have faced something in a timely way, have you not? Discover what things you do accomplish without putting them off? How do you do that? What kind of mental processes support you when you do it now? What kind of emotional climate do you have inside? How do you make the decision to get right to it? Analyze your successes.
An inspiring vision of the future helps. Pretend a miracle happened. If you woke up one morning and your procrastinating habit were completely gone, without any effort on your part, how would your life change? What would you do first? Next? Write down a description of how your life would be different. How would others know that your procrastinating habit had been defeated,
without you even having to tell them anything about it? What would they see you doing?
How would that help your life? What would be the benefits of dealing with tasks and chores quickly? Now ask yourself, “If that miracle happened one small step at a time, what is the first thing I would do to defeat procrastination?” Depending on what kind of procrastinating you do, develop a first step that you can try today.
For example, if you are a perfectionist, the first step might be to do five minutes on a task, and then walk away. The perfectionist doesn’t start because he knows he doesn’t have time to do it completely. He fears not doing it perfectly. The fact is, if you want to deal with a fear, you have to face the fear. You have to do it incompletely and walk away. Come back later, do another five minutes, and again walk away. Gradually you can lengthen your time on task, but always quit before it is perfect.
But suppose you are a person who is distracted? That homework would be the wrong one for you. Instead, you might want practice some concentration skills. Focus your vision intently on the thing you are doing. Look directly at it, and gradually lengthen the time you are able to do that. When you read, do not let yourself go back, force yourself to keep pushing ahead. Ask for the Listening handout and practice deep listening. Practice some form of meditation once a day. You can and will improve your concentration.
Perhaps you believe that doing just what you feel like will give you happiness. If that is the case, rate your happiness over the last week on a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 = very disgruntled and unhappy, and 10 = the most happy you could be. Now do an experiment. Today, do several things that you actually do not want to do at the time, things that should be done, but are clearly unpleasant to you. By the end of the day, rate your happiness again.
What if you procrastinate because of fear? You don’t clean because you will have to throw away something you think you need? Well, throw away something small and then graph over the rest of the day how your fear responds. Rate the fear 1 – 10, just before you throw it away, just after, after 20 minutes, after 40 minutes, after an hour, and so on. What do you see in the graph? What do you learn?
And what about procrastination based on resentment? You may find some value in a pro-and-con analysis of holding on to resentments. Usually this habit starts in childhood when we are quite self-focused and not aware of larger issues. Perhaps you will want to think about the physical effects of resentment (high blood pressure, accelerated aging, greater risk of infections)? Or would it be more helpful to think of the social effects (alienation, unhappiness, loss of love, loss of respect from others)? Ask for the Forgiveness handout; or perhaps ask for the Helpful and Unhelpful Thoughts handout.
In any case, make a plan to weaken the procrastination, and then do one small thing that will help you. Don’t try to do it all at once. Go slow, but start.
Dr. Knaus suggests that you take three deep breaths. Breathe in to the count of three. Hold that breath to the count of three. Exhale to the count of nine (a much slower out-breath). Now pause a couple of seconds, and again breathe in to the count of three. After three breaths, you may feel more calm, you may not. But regardless of that, just begin doing the task. I believe you will find that it is not nearly as hard as you think it will be.
Finally, be prepared for relapses. Relapses are when your old habits come back. They don’t mean what you might think. A relapse is useful information, helpful in improving our ability to stay on the track. Each time you relapse, learn something about yourself from that, and be grateful. Then get back on the anti-procrastination road, the road to being more happy, successful, and peaceful.
Copyright © 2004 by Lynn D. Johnson. E-mail: LJOHNSON@solution-consulting.com