Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I've been putting off publishing this post.

But to follow some of the behavioural advice about solving procrastination problems, I realize that I have to just publish what I've got, and maybe finish it or tune up the posting a little bit later.

Procrastination is often paralyzing. The motivational force to initiate an action is just not there, or there seems to be a lot of "friction" keeping things stalled. So, time passes, guilt about inaction increases, or denial is engaged in, as though the task to do doesn't even exist. UNTIL -- the day before something is due, or until some deadline approaches -- then there is a frantic pressure leading to a frenzied, exhausting all-nighter.

Some people actually produce good work this way -- or at least they claim they do -- but I think for most of us we produce less work, both in quantity and quality, and we condition ourselves to experience the process of work as negative, frenzied, stressful, or exhausting.

I'm pretty sure that if people who do interesting work despite procrastinating were to actually work on changing or improving their procrastination habit, they would end up doing even more interesting work. It may not necessarily be true that some kind of manic-depressive pattern is a key to creative inspiration.

Yet we may also condition ourselves to require high external pressure as a motivator.

This cycle needs to be broken, in order to solve the problem of procrastination.

Simple behavioural tactics include always doing a little bit of work every day -- especially the types of work that you are putting off. The key is consistency and daily regularity, rather than amount. If there is more continuity of effort, it makes the task much easier. Not only does more work get done, it also gets done more enjoyably. Once again, it is like learning a language or a musical instrument ( tasks which really cannot ever be procrastinated).

David Burns has a chapter on procrastination in The Feeling Good Handbook. Someone recently recommended to me a different resource--see what you think of this website:



In response to some of the comments, here are a few more points to add:
-different people may have different reasons for procrastinating, or different patterns of procrastination. It is important to look at, and address, the underlying reasons, whatever they may be. Part of a "cognitive therapy" or "psychodynamic" approach would certainly involve examining this closely.

-Other phenomena, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD, may be strong contributing factors to a pattern of procrastination, and in fact may lead to procrastination being a more effective, tolerable, and comfortable strategy for completing tasks under these conditions. It is important to address these other issues. Medical and psychological strategies to treat anxiety, depression, OCD, etc. may be necessary in order for strategies addressing procrastination to be helpful.

-I do stand by the claim that daily work (as opposed to "last minute work") on anything leads to a deeper, more enjoyable, and more lasting effect on the brain and on learning, for the same reason that language learning requires daily work, and cannot be done on a last-minute basis. But I agree that there may be numerous reasons why this type of daily work could be difficult or not feasible for different individuals or circumstances.

-I suppose one exception to this would be if the "learning" has already been done, and if the individual's personal style is such that intensive bursts of activity are enjoyable. Some people may like to immerse themselves in one particular thing for days or weeks at a time (while procrastinating a whole bunch of other things, I guess), and this strategy may work very well for them. Some artists or authors like to work this way, for example. I don't think it would work well, though, unless the people were already skilled at the area in which they were immersing themselves.

-Another proviso about the "daily work" idea is that there needs to be some focus on joy in the activity itself. If the daily work is merely a burdensome, unrewarding chore, from beginning to end, then the mind gets consistently conditioned to hate the activity (this is one reason, for example, why many children learn to hate piano lessons or math -- they are made to practice or study joylessly and alone--though consistently-- by parents who may have well-meaning ideas about daily discipline, etc.). Finding ways to experience an activity with some element of joy is a particular therapeutic challenge -- conventional behaviourism neglects this. I think that more "Eastern" systems of thought and practice have a little more wisdom to offer in this area, with respect to finding ways to teach ourselves to experience, or rediscover, some joy and contentment in a seemingly or previously joyless moment or activity.


Anonymous said...

A Long time ago I read a description of Why some of us might procrastinate that I found really fit my pattern of procrastination. The book (cannot remember the author or book) suggested that we procrastinate so that if we fail, or do not do as well as we expected we were capable of, we have a great excuse to tell ourselves..."I didn't get an 'A' because I did it all last night". The subtext being, if I had worked on it for the amount of time others who do not procrastinate had, I would have done much better than I did.

In keeping with this theory, I find I may procrastinate when I am afraid I might not do well, or might not succeed. If I don't do well I do not feel as bad about failing.
Anon too

Anonymous said...

I think that I'm going to do a bad job of explaining this, but--anyway:

I am soemtimes confused about this idea of procrastination. Specifically, I wonder sometimes if certain behaviours are blamed on "procrastination", when actually it's something esle entirely...and I wonder if some of the behavioural interventions designed to address this soemtimes make the experience of "procrastination" worse...maybe?

I say this because in the past I have often believed that I "procrastinate", yet the efw times I have actually tried to change some of these behaviours, I have not found these interventions helpful. (and sometimes I think they make it worse).

As an example, if I write up a schedule for school work--and then attempt to spend a little bit of time each day working on an assignment, etc--I find that what happens is that I become a bit consumed by whatever work I'm doing, so that it ends up taking up all of my "free" time. This in turn creates stress, I feel overwhelmed by the amount of things to know/ to be read/ etc, it becomes hard not to become a bit obsessed with whatever work I'm doing (but uncomfortably so!).

Although this might not make sense, I find sometimes that if I procrastinate about doing work I actually end up feeling less stress oevrall (i.e., the stress is more "condensed").

So I wonder about this-- not to be oevrly contrary--I'm just curious sometimes about whether in some cases procrastination is actually less stressful than the alternatives.

Sometimes it is nice to believe that the only thing standing in the way of success is a bad rpocrastiantion habit. I sometimes think that procrastination is a nice scapegoat to have (e.g., it protects you from coming to the realization that, even when work is conscientiously completed, performance does not necessarily improve!).