Updated: Sep 17, 2019
In Procrastination and Procrastination Pt.II, we explored the different aspects of procrastination. In this blog we will look at a cycle of how procrastination works.
The idea is that if we truly understand what it is that we are doing when we procrastinate, it will also show us what needs to be done to overcome our procrastination.
We will then take stock and reflect on whether you want to commit yourself to changing this habit, and take action to break this cycle.
The Procrastination Cycle
Firstly, to start off procrastinating you need to approach a task or goal to which you have committed. This might be just thinking about doing the task, planning to do the task or actually attempting the task. This task or goal could be from many different areas of your life, for example, work, household, study, health, financial, social, family, relationships, self-development, and decision making.
When you approach a task/goal either mentally or physically, your monkey brain hooks you in with one or more unworkable thoughts. These thoughts might relate to needing to be in charge, pleasure seeking, fearing failure or disapproval, fearing uncertainty or catastrophe, low self-confidence or depleted energy. Once you're hooked, these unworkable thoughts start to guide how you think and feel about doing the task, making the task appear less appealing to you, and hence arousing some form of discomfort about doing the task. For example, if your task is to do some household chores, and you have an unworkable thought about pleasure seeking, you are going to think things like “fun should always come first, I don’t want to do these mundane things”, and you will feel bored and frustrated about doing the housework.
If you experience discomfort when you approach or think about approaching a task or goal, it is going to make you less likely to want to do it. In addition, if you are also someone who can’t stand feeling uncomfortable, that is you can’t tolerate unpleasant feelings and detest discomfort, you are going to have even more problems with following through. Your urge to avoid these feelings or dodge discomfort is going to build if you feel both uncomfortable about doing the task and hate these feelings of discomfort. All this means that overall you will be discomfort driven, that is, whether you follow through with a task will be heavily influenced by wanting to stop or avoid any discomfort you are experiencing about the task.
In addition to being discomfort driven, you will start to think of excuses that justify and make procrastination OK in some way. You often pick out some truth about the situation, and conclude that you are better off doing the task at a later date. For example, “I am too tired, I am better off doing it tomorrow when I am rested”.
The more discomfort driven you are and the more convincing your excuses are, the more likely you will actually procrastinate by engaging in other activities that divert your attention away from the task/goal at hand. The types of procrastination activities you might use as a substitute are, pleasurable tasks, lower priority tasks, socialising, distractions, and daydreaming.
The positive consequences you may experience from procrastinating, such as relieving the initial discomfort you had about the task/goal, feeling good for having stuck with your rules and assumptions, and having gained some pleasure from the procrastination activities you carried out, will just strengthen your procrastination because it had a pay-off. As such, you will be more likely to procrastinate next time.
The negative consequences you may experience from procrastinating also make you more likely to procrastinate next time round, because they make the task/goal even more unpleasant for you and hence you will want to avoid it even more. These negative consequences may include, feeling more discomfort because you haven’t achieved the task, keeping your unhelpful rules and assumptions intact because you haven’t challenged them, criticising yourself as an attempt to motivate yourself which actually backfires and demotivates you, tasks piling up and with it more demands and time pressures, and possibly
Putting It All Together
At the end of the day, procrastination is about needing to avoid some sort of discomfort about doing a task, that arises because of certain unworkable thoughts our monkey brain hooks us into about ourselves and how the world works. Also, if we are able to excuse our procrastination and feel it is justified, this makes it even more likely that we will procrastinate, rather than suffer through and tolerate the discomfort.
And finally the pay-offs and costs that arise from our procrastination, just keep us stuck in this habit. We are more likely to procrastinate next time because we got both something good out of our procrastination, as well as made the task even more unpleasant by putting it off, hence compelling us to avoid it again.
Take a moment to look at the Procrastination Cycle below, which puts all the things just mentioned into a diagram for you to follow.
I've put together an Example Procrastination Cycle, below, to help get your head around these ideas.
I would suggest that you work through your own Procrastination Cycle, for the task/goal you have decided to work on throughout this series of blogs, using some of the things you have already looked at in my last two blogs to fill in the gaps.
What Stops People Procrastinating?
Looking at the procrastination cycle, you may wonder what stops people procrastinating? I mean we all face tasks that are uncomfortable that we would rather avoid. Also, what makes us procrastinate in certain areas of our lives and not others? Or what makes us procrastinate at certain times and not others? Some of the things that might stop people from procrastinating are:
They don’t have any truck with the unworkable thoughts we have discussed as being linked to procrastination. They may instead think things like: “things don’t have to be all my way, and doing things I don’t like or because others tell me is just a part of life”; “fun and achievement are equally important, some short term boredom for long term gain and later fun is the way to go”; “things don’t have to be perfect, on the whole I do ok at things and people aren’t out to judge me all the time”; “I can’t know exactly how things will pan out, but better to take action than remain stuck, and I will be able to deal with any consequences that come my way”; “on the whole I can do things if I put my mind to it”; or “I can do things when my energy is low, it may take a bit more effort, but often I feel better”.
They may have some values that emphasise the importance of being a conscientious person, which may override any unworkable thoughts they may also have. For example, they may believe that “working towards achieving something will give me a sense of fulfilment”.
They have a reward for completing the task or punishment for not completing the task that is large and closely follows the task (rather than being small or delayed), may make people persist despite their discomfort.
They may feel uncomfortable about the task or goal, but if they believe they can tolerate discomfort if required, the urge to dodge the discomfort is not as great.
They can’t come up with good excuses to make them feel OK about procrastinating.
How Do I Change Procrastination?
Understanding exactly what goes on when we procrastinate is one thing. How we change our procrastination is something else. The path to changing procrastination requires addressing three particular aspects of the procrastination cycle.
Dismissing Procrastination Excuses
We will look at how to dismiss the excuses you come up with that make your procrastination OK to you in my next blog. By addressing the excuses that make procrastination feel reasonable and justified, this will lessen the likelihood that you will procrastinate. Here we will also address the self-criticisms you use that demotivate yourself, finding more helpful ways to speak to yourself that are actually motivational.
Practical Techniques To Stop Procrastination
I will take you through practical behavioural strategies to help you stop your procrastination activities and start doing in a later blog. We will outline a variety of techniques you can try, some of which you will find helpful, others of which may not be right for you. Also, some techniques will be relevant to certain situations, but not others. The idea is that you will develop a repertoire of things you can try, and with some trial and error, you will be able to work out which techniques work for you.
Letting Go of Unworkable Thoughts & Tolerating Discomfort
We will look at tips you can use to address the unworkable thoughts and discomfort intolerance, that give rise to your procrastination in a forthcoming blog. Letting go of unworkable thoughts and increasing your tolerance of discomfort is easy to learn, but, like riding a bike, mastering it takes a lot of practice. We will review some tips for getting started on moving towards the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.
These tips may be enough if your unworkable thoughts are not particularly overwhelming. However, if they are strong and longstanding you may require more intensive work with someone like myself.
Remember, you have already taken the first step to overcoming procrastination by becoming more aware and recognising your procrastination. From what we have done so far, you have been able to stop and reflect on what it is you do when you procrastinate, rather than letting it continue on as an automatic habit.
Another step before you start practicing the strategies you will read about in forthcoming blogs is acceptance. Procrastination is a normal human behaviour. We know from our discussion of the negative consequences of procrastination, that judging yourself for procrastinating and feeling guilty and ashamed, just demotivates you and makes your tasks and goals even less appealing, and hence makes you more likely to procrastinate.
At Living Well, our strategy is to adopt a non-judgemental attitude towards procrastination, rather than buying into our monkey brain's admonishment that we “shouldn’t procrastinate, doing so makes us lazy good for nothings”, and taking a more accepting attitude like “everyone procrastinates, it is something I would prefer not to do as it is not helping my life, and so I will turn my focus to committing to changing this habit as best I can”.
When you notice judging, blaming, guilty or shameful thoughts about your procrastination, try to see them as just thoughts (not facts).
Acknowledge that these thoughts don’t help you, you don’t need to buy into them or listen to them, and just let them go by focusing instead on what you can do to change and make your situation better.
Am I Ready for This?
So now we have looked at what is in store in order to change your procrastination. It is always helpful before you embark on the journey of change to ask yourself the questions: “How much do I want to change?”; “Do I just want to talk and think about the problem, or do I want to do something about it?”; “Do I want to put in the effort required to make changes in my life?”; and “Do I want to start doing things differently?”
There is an old saying that, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got”. Change involves doing things differently, and that can be hard, so the question is:
“Are you willing to commit to change now?”
To help you weigh up how much you do want to change, it can be helpful to consider the following.
Being a procrastinator, what do I get out of it that is negative? What are the disadvantages? How does it hurt me?
Being a procrastinator, what do I get out of it that is positive? What are the advantages? How does it help me?
If I do change and no longer procrastinate, what will be good about that? How will my life be better?
What will be the benefits of change for me?
If I do change and no longer procrastinate, what will be bad about that? What will I have to give up?
What will be the costs of change for me?
Hopefully the hurt procrastination brings you and the good you think will come from changing, outweighs how much procrastination helps you and the bad you think will come from changing. During the times that it is hard to stick with your commitment to changing your procrastination habit, reflect on the ways procrastination hurts you and the good things you expect from change, as a way of motivating yourself to keep going and stay on track.
However, if the ways procrastination helps you and the bad things you anticipate from changing are winning out at the moment, it is going to make a lot of sense that changing this habit will be hard work, and you may not be ready for this. You may need to give it some more thought and think of ways you can overcome these obstacles.
I've worked through an example of what you might do to overcome the obstacles standing in between you and changing your procrastination habit below.
Use the columns to work through your roadblocks (i.e., the things identified above in the ‘how does it help me?’ and ‘what will be bad?” boxes). For each roadblock think of the types of things you may need to say to yourself (i.e., self-talk) and types of things you can do (i.e., actions) to overcome these obstacles and start addressing your procrastination.
• The cycle of procrastination involves the following steps: approaching a task/goal activates unhelpful rules and assumptions this generates discomfort about the task/goal then if you hate discomfort your urge to avoid the discomfort by procrastinating will increase, plus if you find good excuses for not doing the task
then you will engage in procrastination activities as a substitute or diversion which then leads to positive and negative consequences which just increases the likelihood that you will procrastinate next time around.
• To change the procrastination habit you need to learn ways to dismiss procrastination excuses, learn practical techniques to stop procrastination activities, and learn tips for adjusting unhelpful rules/assumptions and tolerating discomfort.
• The first step to changing procrastination is being aware of what you are doing and adopting an accepting and non-judgemental attitude towards your procrastination. Blaming and judging yourself just makes things worse.
• Committing to changing your procrastination is important. Changing any habit can be hard and challenging, so you need to be motivated to stick with it. You can do this by reminding yourself of the ways procrastination hurts you and what will be good about changing your procrastination. You can also prepare for the obstacles that might get in the way of change.