Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing tasks, actions, or decisions that need to be accomplished. It involves avoidance behaviours and putting off activities that are often necessary or important, opting instead for less important, more enjoyable, or less challenging tasks. Procrastination can manifest in various aspects of life, from work and academic responsibilities to personal goals and everyday chores.
“Typical behaviours related to procrastination include delaying tasks even when there is a deadline, choosing distractions instead of working on important tasks, feelings of guilt, anxiety, and stress, especially as deadlines approach, and reduced productivity, as tasks take too long to finish”, explains Cristina Martin-Garcia, CBT therapist at the Edinburgh Therapy Service.
Chronic procrastination can create a cycle where the avoidance of tasks leads to more stress, which, in turn, fuels further procrastination. While occasional procrastination is common, chronic and severe procrastination can have significant negative consequences. Understanding the underlying reasons for procrastination and developing strategies to address it, such as those based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), can help become more effective and less stressed in managing tasks and responsibilities.
Identifying negative thoughts
The process of procrastination often begins with negative thought patterns. These thoughts may manifest as doubts about your abilities, fear of failure, or concerns about the difficulty of the task. To address procrastination effectively, “you first need to recognize and acknowledge these thoughts”, indicates Martin-Garcia.
The therapist describes how brains are a machine for creating excuses. Often, the thoughts that are more on the surface are the reasons why we need to postpone the task. The person might be convincing himself that “I work better under pressure”, “I’m not in the mood”, “I have plenty of time”, “I’ll start tomorrow”, “I’ll wait for the right moment” or “I’ll do it when I feel more inspired. These are ways to justify what the person, consciously or unconsciously knows is an unhelpful behaviour.
However, the root of the problem might be something deeper. Martin-Garcia clarifies that other types of negative thought patterns and beliefs can be behind procrastination. “For example, perfectionism can lead to procrastination when individuals fear not meeting high standards and, as a result, postpone tasks. Similarly, the fear of failure or self-doubt can create anxiety about starting a task, leading to procrastination as a way to avoid these uncomfortable feelings”.
Pay attention to what you’re thinking when you find yourself avoiding a task. Are you telling yourself that you can’t do it, or that it’s too boring? Identifying these thoughts is the crucial first step in challenging them.
Challenging negative thoughts
Once you’ve identified your negative thoughts, it’s time to challenge them. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) encourages you to ask yourself a series of questions to assess the validity of these thoughts:
Is this thought based on facts or assumptions? Often, our procrastination-inducing thoughts are based on unfounded assumptions. For instance, thinking, “I’ll definitely fail this task,” is an assumption that may not be grounded in reality.
What’s the worst that could happen if I start this task? Consider the potential consequences realistically. Often, the imagined consequences are much worse than the actual outcome.
Have I successfully completed similar tasks in the past? Reflect on your past accomplishments. Remind yourself of the times when you successfully tackled challenging tasks. This can help counter the belief that you can’t do it.
Setting realistic goals
“Procrastination can be linked to the feeling of being overwhelmed by a task”, reminds Martin-Garcia. To combat this, break your tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Create a to-do list with specific, achievable goals. This not only makes the task seem less daunting but also provides a sense of accomplishment as you check off each smaller step. Celebrate these small victories to maintain your motivation.
Create a structured environment
A cluttered and chaotic environment can contribute to procrastination. To address this, you can create a structured and organised workspace. One effective approach is to designate a specific workspace. Having a dedicated area for work signals to your brain that it’s time to focus. Additionally, removing distractions, such as social media and television, can help you stay on track. Lastly, establishing a routine by setting a consistent schedule for work or study can train your brain to be productive during specific times.
Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator. Reward yourself for completing tasks on time or for making progress. These rewards can be simple, such as taking a short break, enjoying a favourite snack, or doing an activity you love. These small rewards can create a positive association with completing tasks and increase your motivation.
Procrastination can be frustrating, but it’s essential to practise self-compassion. Understand that everyone procrastinates at times. Instead of being overly critical of yourself, acknowledge that it’s a common struggle. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Self-compassion can help reduce the negative emotions associated with procrastination and promote a more positive mindset.
If procrastination continues to be a significant challenge in your life, consider seeking support from a therapist or coach who specialises in cognitive-behavioural techniques. They can provide personalised guidance and strategies tailored to your specific procrastination patterns.
In conclusion, overcoming procrastination with cognitive-behavioural techniques involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts, setting realistic goals, creating a structured environment, using positive reinforcement, practising self-compassion, and seeking support when needed. It’s a process that takes time and practice, but with dedication, you can significantly improve your ability to overcome procrastination and enhance your productivity and well-being.