By Jerry H. Gelbart, M.D.
“Tomorrow Never Comes” – My 8th grade math teacher
I won’t say his name. He put the fear of G-d in me. If homework wasn’t done on time, and especially if you made up an excuse, he would physically put you up against the wall, or worse, tease and shame you in front of the class. My homework was on time. Although his tactics were drastic by today’s standards, he put an end to my pattern of procrastinating. Millions of other people are not so “fortunate,” and they continue to be handicapped with this solvable problem.
To determine whether procrastination is a problem for you, answer the following questions:
Do you put off until later what you can do now?
Are you intentionally managing your time?
Does “putting off” cause you anxiety that the task may not get completed adequately?
Has “putting off” resulted in negative consequences for you or others?
Do you feel like you need the anxiety produced by “putting off” to successfully complete the task?
If you intentionally put off something important, knowing it will get done, you later do it, there’s no anxiety about it, that’s not a problem; if you intentionally manage your time you probably don’t have procrastination issues.
Whereas some therapists may tell you that procrastination, as well as the associated anxiety, are part of a work style, I disagree. Procrastination and anxiety are not necessary in order to be productive, and these patterns cause suffering for the bearer in several respects. First and foremost are the anxiety and stress, which have negative effects mentally and physically. Our immune, cardiovascular, musculo-skeletal, gastrointestinal, and other body systems react negatively to anxiety and stress, both in the short-term and long. Mentally, it can cause trouble sleeping, thinking clearly, panic attacks, and fatigue. Please see my short video called “Body States” for more information on the effects of stress on the body.
Procrastination also causes the bearer poor self-esteem, low self-confidence, and the belief that they are defective. This leads to shame, contributes to the avoidance of tasks, and prevents functioning at full capacity. Let’s listen in to the “voice in the head” of a procrastinator:
“I should do _________. I can do it later. I have time.” (Finds something else to do, i.e. surf the net, talk on the phone, some other project).
Two weeks later:
“I should start on ________, but I still have plenty of time.”
One week later:
“I should __________. But it’s so overwhelming, where do I start?”
“What if I don’t get __________ done on time? What if I do a lousy job?”
“Geez, I’m gonna have to pull an all-nighter to get this done on time. Why do I always let this happen? What’s wrong with me?”
Sound familiar? I know this causes anguish. You do have a choice. I have helped many people break these patterns. The result is feeling empowered, confident, and rewarded. Admitting you have a procrastination problem is the classic “First Step.” From there it gets easier.
Research shows that there are phases we go through in order to change behavior:
Phase 1, Pre-contemplation: Procrastination is my work style and it works for me because I still get done what I need to.
Phase 2, Contemplation: Procrastination might be a problem for me because it causes me to feel anxiety and shame, which is bad for my physical and psychological health – but I don’t know how to NOT procrastinate!
Phase 3, Preparation: I have decided that I should both stop procrastinating and that I have the capacity to stop procrastinating. I am putting together a plan of action that works with my personality, finances, and lifestyle that will be conducive to not procrastinating. I will seek out and accept help from others.
Phase 4, Action: Putting into action the plan for not procrastinating.
Phase 5, Maintenance: I have learned to not procrastinate, and I feel less anxiety and shame as a result!
Relapse: Sometimes I slip back into procrastination, but when this happens I know how to bring myself out of it with specific skills and tools. I don’t let the shame of relapse prevent me from getting back into action and then maintenance.
If you are ready to cross into new territory now, read on!
What causes procrastination? There are 3 key forces involved: anxiety, reward, and time management. You can address each one.
Procrastination is a symptom; anxiety is the problem. The anxiety comes from how you are judging yourself, and your fears about how others will judge you. Anxiety, like fear, causes avoidance. Avoidance is putting off, i.e. procrastinating. The procrastinating reinforces the negative judgments, which fuel the procrastinating – resulting in a very frustrating and painful cycle.
There are networks in the brain that are constantly judging: good/bad, friend/foe, carrot/stick. These networks function to keep you safe, from people who might harm you, and also from being rejected by your tribe. With anxiety, these networks are hyperactive. They are overly focused on judging yourself, worrying about how others would judge you, and how to avoid being shamed. You can’t shut it off.
Most of this judging is distorted ‘black or white’ thinking. I call it “Toxic Judging.” Toxic Judging gets programmed from our childhood environment, and is also influenced by our genetics. As a priority for survival, avoiding sticks (pain) is more powerful than working toward carrots (reward). Avoiding embarrassment becomes more powerful than the potential rewards of completion. To stop procrastinating you have to consciously shift that balance. This means decreasing fear (anxiety) in your mind and increasing reward. Lets start with the way you talk to yourself.
Step back from the voice in your head. Is it supportive and encouraging? Or does it put you down? If you procrastinate, that voice is probably very negative and cynical. It is very black or white, all or nothing. It speaks in terms of being strong or weak, success or failure, normal or defective. The real world is not so black or white. This is the Toxic Judging. Even after you get something done does it focus on what you didn’t do? This language creates fear and discouragement. It is not the language of growth and change. You can free yourself from this by paying attention to what you say to yourself in your mind, stepping back from it, and reframing it the way you would talk to a friend.
With some work you can change that voice in your head. Practicing mindfulness trains you to be aware of your distorted thoughts in the moment, and to not beat yourself up for having them. Mindfulness puts you in a frame of mind that is Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving (“COAL”). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you how to challenge and neutralize the distortions (See practice worksheet). There are also medications that can be used to reduce the strength of the networks that fuel the toxic judging.
To settle down your mind, in addition to challenging your distortions, you have to tell yourself that you are safe. There are no fires that have to be put out immediately. There is no lion in the room about to eat you. Take some time to notice your worries and fears, your “what if’s” and catastrophizing about the future. Applying your mindfulness will take you out of the future into the present.
As you practice these techniques, you will catastrophize and beat yourself up less and less. Add some coping skills to lower anxiety levels, such as breathing exercises or guided imagery, which are easy to learn. You have to practice these techniques when you are calm; they can’t be learned when you are anxious, frustrated, or emotionally dysregulated.
We are coming from a past of huge anxiety and minimal reward. We begin to shift the balance, to low anxiety and huge reward. Most procrastinators try to push forward through the intense anxiety. This is unnecessary torture. This is working from fear. Instead, when you want to tackle your work, plan 10 – 30 minutes to first bring down the anxiety levels and get grounded, then start the task.
No one likes this next part: lower your expectations about how much work will get done at first. Plan 15 minutes to 1 hour, with a big reward for after. In the beginning, the work expectations have to be very low, and the reward very high. You have been steaming along with these patterns for years; just like a large ship moving in the ocean, if you want to turn it around, extraordinary forces are required.
If I am trying to get myself to exercise, I plan for myself a big reward (i.e. 15 minutes in the sauna and jacuzzi) for a small work effort. At first it might be 5 minutes on the elliptical machine. Then 8 minutes, then 10, etc.; over time the requirement to get my reward goes up. It comes easier and easier as I establish the routines. When I think about going to exercise I focus on the immediate rewards I’ll get, plus the long-term health rewards.
You want to develop rewards that excite you - that you will want to do - and ask a (very) small work price. When you approach your work keep your focus on the reward that’s coming after, and how little you have to do to get it. This way you are doing your work via motivation networks rather than battling the fear networks. Your dopamine levels will be higher while you work and when you get the reward your dopamine levels spike even higher (You got the carrot!); this breaks the pattern.
Choosing rewards can be tricky. Reward means it has to be earned. Self-care routines, such as healthy meals, sleep, unwinding time, relationship time, and spirituality, should not be used as rewards. Rewards can be cheap or expensive. Examples of cheap rewards:
Extra time with musical instrument
Sitting by a fire
Getting a massage from a partner or friend
Examples of more moderately priced rewards:
Going out for a meal, or round of golf
Buy music or a book
Pay for a massage
Token system to save up for something (ie. clothing, trip)
To summarize the steps:
Plan a small task. What and when. Plan your reward.
Before approaching the task, take time for calming/grounding (reducing sticks). Try the cognitive restructuring worksheet.
Focus on the big reward you will be giving yourself, how good it will feel, and how little you have to do to get it.
Do the small task. If anxiety levels increase, go back to step 2.
Give yourself a big reward (eat the carrot)! Feel good about it.
Music can help with each step. Create different playlists. For example, one playlist would be for the relaxation step. Another would be music that motivates you and helps you get focused.
Another playlist could be songs that you play for “reward” when you’ve accomplished something.
This all comes together through intentional time management. In order to schedule and follow through with your grounding time, work time, and reward time you have to be in the present and act with intention. Often a coach or therapist can help you get organized. The judging and catastrophizing will keep throwing you off course. Don’t be discouraged!
Expect frustration and difficulties as you try to change your approach. Trust in our human ability to adapt. You don’t need to be shamed in front of the class to wake up. The human brain (including yours!) can be gradually re-wired by working with these techniques, and you can be more grounded, self-confident, and productive.
Thanks to Brittany Gelbart for her great suggestions!