“Work is the greatest thing in the world, so we should always save some of it for tomorrow.”
Procrastination comes from the Latin ‘pro’, meaning “forward, forth, or in favor of”, and ‘crastinus’, meaning “of tomorrow”. However, to go beyond this notion of delay is to encounter considerable disagreement. Not everyone believes it means the same thing. In an attempt to make some sense of this complexity, we can define three elements of procrastination and then examine each separately.
The first element is an important task that needs to be done. The complex equivalence of ‘important’ demands some analysis. Some variables include: how and why the task is important and to whom it is important. If it is very important to the person who needs to complete the task, one would expect that the importance would be greater than if it is important to a person who ‘supervises’ [parent, teacher, boss] the person who needs to compete the task. But it is not only that it is important to someone, how important is it? Will people die if the task is not achieved? Will people fail? What are the parameters of the importance of the task? Will failure be humiliating, embarrassing or just unfortunate? All of these variables of importance add to the ‘burden’ of the task and may make it either more frightening or more challenging.
A second element is the amount of time allotted to compete the task and the amount of time required for completion of the task. If the task will take twelve hours to complete and you have been given a week [ 7 x 24 = 168 minus (sleep time 7 x 8 = 56) = 112 hours] this would seem easy. But again, how much of your waking hours are committed? If you spend another 56 hours in school – you have only 56 hours left – but easily enough time to complete the task. If the task actually takes only minutes to accomplish and you have been allotted two years to complete it, it may be easy to put it off based on the assumption that you will be able to compete the task easily. But usually the task is mediated by another variable.
This third element is a quality of the task itself – it’s utility. If the task is highly pleasant to achieve it is likely to be done sooner than later. If the task is highly unpleasant, it is likely to be done later than sooner. This leads us to the fourth element, the utility of the alternatives to the implementation of the task. If something of high utility [pleasure] is available and the task is of low utility [onerous], the task may be delayed. There is also an element of habituation, if we are used to taking on important tasks whether onerous or pleasant when they need to be done, we will not be likely to procrastinate. But if we often put off tasks to do “time filling” activities [watching television., surfing the internet, talking on the phone, etc.] we are likely to follow our habitual patterns even if the task is not particularly unpleasant.
There are additional factors that influence the aversiveness of the important task. Some of these might include:
- Confidence – we are confident that we can complete the task adequately [whatever that means to us] within the twelve hours and can therefore wait until the last minute – one minute before the twelfth hour to start the task.
- Anxiety – we do not believe that we can successfully complete the task and are therefore averse to starting it.
- Habituation – we are habituated to ‘time fillers’ and therefore do not pursue the task in a timely fashion as other things appear to be more pleasant.
- Rebellion – we do not really value the task and feel that the task is an imposition and only complete it under the belief of coercion.
In many ways, procrastination seems to be the Rubik’s Cube of psychological problems since the difficulty depends on how you look at it. We may solve on facet of the problem and then find that we have made another facet more difficult to address. As one examines the complexity of procrastination, however, one is struck by the intimate relationship between the need for immediate gratification and procrastination. Ted Donoghue and Matthew Rabin, authors of The Economics of Immediate Gratification, have outlined the basic issue in quite specific terms and we liberally paraphrase their thoughts.
Despite the traditional belief that most people do not have self-control problems it seems that most of us do, in that we would ‘like’ to behave in one manner, but instead ‘choose’ to behave in another. In particular, we tend to pursue immediate gratification particularly when the option is an unpleasant, even though required task.
People almost always assume that their preferences are time-consistent: that they remain the same no matter when you are asked. In fact, however, our preference for immediate gratification implies time – inconsistent preferences. What this means is that from a long-run perspective a person has one set of preferences (e.g., s/he prefers not to smoke in the future), but when the future arrives s/he has a different set of preferences (she wants to smoke now).
A preference for immediate gratification leads one to over-indulge in activities that involve immediate costs and delayed rewards (e.g., putting off an unpleasant task, but to over-indulge in activities with immediate rewards and delayed costs (e.g., overeating). Though phenomena such as procrastination and overeating have often been discussed separately, they can be analyzed from the same underlying propensity for gratification.
To model the behavior of a person with self-control problems we must ask what a person believes about his or her future behavior. It seems there are two extreme assumptions. The sophisticated time-inconsistent people called sophisticates and the naïve time-inconsistent people they called naifs. There is a third idealized type, called time-consistent people or TCs. These three types can be described by distinct decision-making processes:
- TCs have time-consistent preferences based on goals. At any point in time TCs choose today’s behavior by determining the optimal lifetime plan given today’s preferences. Since the preferences are time-consistent, at a later time they find it optimal to stick to this goal implementation plan.
- Naifs may or may not have goals, but they have time-inconsistent preferences. At any point in time, naifs choose today’s behavior according to today’s preferences under the incorrect belief that they will behave in the future according to their current preferences and hence, mimic TCs.
- Sophisticates have the same time-inconsistent preferences as naifs. In contrast to naifs, at any point in time, sophisticates choose today’s behavior while correctly predicting that they will behave poorly in the future.
The authors give an example of how these processes might work out.
A person usually goes to the movies on Saturdays. The schedule at the local cinema consists of a mediocre movie this week, a good movie next week, a great movie in two weeks, and a Johnny Depp movie in three weeks considered by the personal preferences as the best of all. Unfortunately, the person must complete a report for school within four weeks and to do so s/he must skip exactly one of the four Saturday movies. When does she complete the report?
The authors suppose that the penalty for not getting the report done is so severe that the person feels s/he ‘must’ complete it. Even so, the benefits of completing the report are in the future and do not depend at all on which of the four Saturdays s/he completes the report. While the reward for doing the report is delayed, the cost of doing the report on a given Saturday is immediate – not seeing the movie shown that day. Suppose the valuation of the four movies are the following:
Without the benefit of the mathematical formulas used by the authors to verify the outcomes, we can report that the naifs will procrastinate until the last Saturday forcing themselves to miss the best movie. Naifs will believe that if they don’t write the report this week, they will be sensible and write it next week. When the next Saturday arrives, however, naifs decide to go see the good movie, now believing they will write the report the next week. Finally, when the third Saturday arrives they go to see the great movie, forcing themselves only because of the necessity of the report to miss the best movie.
Sophisticates also procrastinate, but only for one week – they complete the report on the second Saturday. Sophisticates correctly predict that they would have self-control problems on the third Saturday. Anticipating this, in week 2 they will write the report.
This example illustrates how sophisticates can mitigate self-control problems better than naifs, but sophistication is not as helpful when rewards are immediate. Consider a similar scenario:
Suppose a person has a coupon to see one movie over the next four Saturdays and his/her allowance is such that s/he cannot afford to pay for a movie. The schedule is the same as above. Which movie will s/he see?
TCs will wait and see the Depp movie, since it yields the highest reward. Naifs will merely see the great movie. On the first two Saturdays, naifs skip the mediocre and good movies, believing (incorrectly) they are waiting to see the Depp movie. Unfortunately on the third Saturday, they cannot control themselves and see the great movie. Because rewards are immediate, the self-control problem leads naifs to do the activity too soon.
But sophisticates have even worse outcomes in this situation. They see merely the mediocre movie because of a finitely repeated dilemma. Because they correctly predict week three self-control problems, they will see the mediocre movie in week one because they correctly predict that waiting means seeing merely the good movie. This illustrates how sophistication can exacerbate self-control problems. The optimism of naifs helps motivate them to wait, while the pessimism of the sophisticates makes waiting less attractive.
The timing of rewards and costs are very important for the implications of a preference for immediate gratification. When costs are immediate, people with a preference for immediate gratification tend to procrastinate – wait when they should do it – while when rewards are immediate they tend to preproperate – do it when they should wait . This result conveys the more general intuition that people tend to under-indulge in activities with immediate costs and delayed benefits and over-indulge in activities with immediate rewards and delayed costs.
This process is mitigated only by self-committed goals and implementation plans that allow the person to compare the present benefits to future benefits in a rational manner. How much is a person hurt by his or her propensity to pursue immediate gratification? If one takes literally that a preference for immediate gratification represents a self-control problem, then a natural perspective is that the long-run benefits are the best. If we assume therefore that all three types have the same long-run preferences, which is to see the best movies the welfare costs can be figured mathematically. The losses are added to, of course, if, in the process of immediate gratification, the process of procrastination causes tension and anxiety. These emotional costs take a toll in many aspects of life.
THEORIES OF PROCRASTINATION
Below are four of the popular theories of procrastination with evidence for and against them. The empirical evidence comes from a recent meta-analysis, which is a systematic review of the all the literature written on the topic. The theory that is most supported equates to the work on immediate gratification.
Anxiety: Fear of Failure, Perfectionism, etc.
A host of anxiety related reasons, thought to cause procrastination have been explored. Essentially, people are thought to procrastinate on tasks because they are perceived as aversive which causes anxiety or fear. There are a variety of conditions that make people anxious, especially irrational beliefs. Irrational belief, cognition, or thought is a broad term that includes several dysfunctional or anxiety-provoking worldviews. Ellis characterizes them as: (1) almost certainly hindering the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of desires, and (2) almost completely arbitrary and unprovable. Some examples of irrational beliefs are fear of failure and perfectionism.
While this theory explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, it gives no clue as to why we delay them. In fact, more anxiety is typically experienced closer to the deadline, so procrastination appears to be a way of increasing anxiety, not reducing it. Moreover, empirical evidence indicates a weak or even no relationship between anxiety or irrational beliefs and procrastination. For example, self-perfectionists actually report slightly less procrastination than other people.
There is some dispute over whether self-handicapping should be considered a form of procrastination. Self-handicapping is when people place obstacles that hinder their own good performance. The motivations for self-handicapping is often thought to be to protect self-esteem by giving people an external reason, an ‘out’, if they fail to do well. However, self-handicapping isn’t necessarily a form of procrastination, which is: “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.” This is true only if it is a thought out process. However, in many instances, individuals engage in self-handicapping without having insight as to its ‘real’ purpose. In fact, protecting self-esteem can be considered a secondary gain, with the primary purpose perhaps being to avoid an aversive activity. Self-handicappers appear to be acting in their own self-interest, thinking they are protecting themselves from shame and humiliation.
Self-handicapping is still an important issue and can share some commonalities with procrastination (i.e., delaying a task can be a way to self-handicap). However, the two will differ regarding causes and treatments and so it is best to study them separately.
According to the clinical literature, rebelliousness, hostility and disagreeableness are thought to be major motivations for procrastination. For those with these personality traits, externally imposed schedules are more likely experienced as aversive, and thus avoided. Also, delaying work and starting it on one’s own schedule reasserts autonomy.
This theory is also not supported. Like anxiety, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more autonomy might be expressed by not doing a task at all instead of just delaying it. By doing it at the last minute, procrastination may appear to be express capitulation, ‘caving in’, rather than autonomy. In addition, empirical evidence indicates an extremely weak relationship, virtually nil, between rebelliousness and procrastination. Again, this presupposes an all or nothing approach to procrastination. However, one can assert their independence by delaying an activity and then finally decide to complete it, seemingly on their own terms. The activity may be completed past the prescribed time limit, for example.
Discounted Expectancy Theory
This theory represents the cutting edge of motivational research. It suggests that the reasons why people make any decision can be largely represented by the following equation:
Utility = E x V
The most basic definition of utility is the narrow one associated with the nineteenth-century utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham: that utility is the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Therefore, utility indicates the relative preference for a course of action. The higher the utility the greater the preference. On the top of the equation, we have two variables: Expectancy (E) and Value (V). Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is. Naturally, we would like to choose pursuits that give us a good chance of having a pleasing outcome. On the bottom of the equation, the denominator, we also have two variables. G refers to the subject’s sensitivity to delay. The larger G is, the greater is the sensitivity. Finally, D represents Delay, which indicates how long, on average, one must wait to receive the payout. Since delay is in the denominator of the equation, the longer the delay, the less valued the course of action is perceived.
How does this theory relate to procrastination? Essentially, we are constantly beset with making decisions among various courses of action. Should we go to the gym or watch TV? Should I make dinner or order-in? Discounted Utility Theory suggests that we are more likely to pursue goals or tasks that are pleasurable and that we are most likely to attain. Consequently, we are more likely to put off, to procrastinate, difficult tasks with lackluster qualities.
Even more important regarding procrastination is the effects of delay. We like our rewards not only to be large but also to be immediate. The problem of immediate gratification refers to the universal principle that a small immediate reward has a greater influence than a much larger, but delayed reward.¬ Incentives that are especially good at producing immediate gratification are especially corrupting. Consequently, we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer recompense only in the distant future. In other words, we would be more likely to put off higher priority tasks if there are options available that lead to more immediate rewards with more remote costs. We tend to call such options temptations. This is mediated only by the power of the future reward – if that reward is vague or unclear, immediate gratification will win almost every time.
To help illustrate these characteristics, a prototypical example: A student who has been assigned an essay on September 15th, the start of a semester, due on December 15th, the course end. This student likes to socialize but s/he also likes to get good grades. The figure below maps the changes in expected utility for him/her over the course of the semester regarding the two choices, studying vs. socializing. Since the reward for socializing is always in the present, it maintains a uniformly high utility evaluation. For writing the essay the reward is distant initially, diminishing its utility. Only toward the deadline do the effects of discounting decrease and writing becomes increasingly important. In this example, the switch in motivational rank occurs on December 3rd, leaving just 12 days for concentrated effort. During this final hour, it is quite likely that earnest but empty promises (i.e., intentions) are made to start working earlier next time.
There is extremely strong evidence that indicates that this is why we procrastinate:
- Procrastination is strongly associated with expectancy. Specifically, those people with low self-efficacy, that is a lack of feelings of competence, are more likely to procrastinate. If a person has a low expectancy of success, the stress of the procrastination is increased.
- Procrastination is strongly associated with value of the tasks. The more unpleasant a task, the more likely to put it off. The expectation of failure makes the task even less valued and more onerous and in that way, these thoughts, whether irrational or pragmatic add to the desire to procrastinate. Also, those people low in need for achievement, that is how much pleasure they get from achieving, are more likely to procrastinate.
- Procrastination is strongly associated with sensitivity to delay (i.e., G). Specifically, people who are more distractible, impulsive, and have less self-control tend to procrastinate more.
- Procrastination is strongly associated with time delay. The closer we are to realizing a goal, the harder we work at it. That is, of course, if we are motivated to do it at all.
- Discounted Utility Theory predicts an intention-action gap, where we intend to work but fail to act on these intentions. As expected, procrastinators tend not to act on their intentions.
- Observed behavior matches the behaviors predicted by Discounted Utility Theory.
Of note, Discounted Utility Theory suggests that the previous theories were right, but only in part. They deal with one piece of the puzzle, task aversiveness, and only for the percentage of people that suffer from the specific condition. For example, consider rebelliousness. If you are a rebellious individual and believe some work is foisted upon you, then you likely also will find it more aversive. Since anything that makes work more unpleasant increases the likelihood of procrastination, rebelliousness would indeed be one contributor to procrastination, though in general its contribution is very small.
So identifying the multiple characteristics that might be involved makes the intervention with procrastination somewhat complex. It is not just a matter of time management nor is it merely immediate gratification. For if other emotional issues and irrational beliefs exist these states contribute to the variables of aversiveness, importance and outcome attitudes of the procrastinator. There is no question that the ultimate process is a selection of immediate gratification over delayed reward. However, the circumstances that surround that process raise or lower the tension, if not the frequency of choice.
What the discounted utility theory does not seem to fully address is the instrumentality aspect of expectancy theory. The motivational force for a behavior, action, or task is a function of three distinct perceptions: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valance. The motivational force is the product of the three perceptions. Instrumentality probability is based on the perceived performance-reward relationship. The instrumentality is the belief that if one does meet performance expectations, s/he will receive a greater reward. Example: If I produce more than anyone else, will I get a better grade or a faster promotion?
Because the motivational force is the product of the three perceptions, if any one of their values is zero, the whole equation becomes zero. One might assume, based on the first bullet of the evaluation, that the theory utilizes the instrumentality probability and has merely simplified the equation. However, it should be apparent that the student who does not believe that s/he will receive the reward after completion of the expected performance, does not trust the system. Students who do not trust adults in general or who distrust the specific adults involved in the task may choose not to compete the task except under duress.
IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION / PROCRASTINATION
To some extent these are two sides of the same coin. Those who do not know how to delay gratification, procrastinate when a) the task is valued as unpleasant and b) a pleasant activity is available. Given the value of the task and the diversion, all of us will at some time or another procrastinate.
What is procrastination? Obviously, it is a behavior in which a person puts off something that they consider important to get done. The something that is put off is usually considered in some way to be aversive – something we don’t want to do, but for some reason need to do. After all, we tend to do enjoyable things without difficulty. It doesn’t count as procrastination, of course, if the task is not in some way necessary to complete. The reason the task is important may be that it is required to meet a personal goal, to meet an expected goal, or to ‘get out of jail’ free. For the latter, imagine being at the scene of a crime and you need to be interviewed before you can leave – because you ‘don’t want to get involved’ and you may have seen something significant, you may procrastinate getting in line, even though you know it is necessary to be able to go home. The task [or at least the outcome] could be unpleasant and you would rather avoid it by continuing to talk to your friends.
The utility [pleasant or unpleasant] of the task and the utility of the diversion are related to the presence or absence of goals and whether those goals are personally held or in some manner imposed. In fact, we identify eight  variables that mediate the degree of procrastination and the stress that it evokes.
1. task utility: Utility is the degree of pleasantness or unpleasantness that is attached to the implementation of the task. For most people the task of eating ice cream is rather pleasant. But what might make a task unpleasant.
- Dirty – mucky, soiled – yuck!
- Hard – takes a lot of skill which you may or may not have
- Long – takes a lot of time – when you could be having fun
- Tedious – boring, repetitive
- Relevance – does it make any sense to do the task?
- Have to instead of want to
Any of these might make the task less palatable, but we must understand that the actual utility is closely tied to the beliefs of the person considering the task. What is hard or boring to me, may be easy and pleasant to you. We all have different perspectives on the task and although these factors can make any task more aversive, they are not connected to the task, but to your thoughts about the task. To what degree is changing a baby unpleasant?
2. task importance: The question of importance is equally tied to your own perspective. Is the task important to you or to someone else. ‘Important’ may be a transferable experience – Dad feels that it is important for you to take out the trash – NOW – and the consequences of not meeting dad’s expectations make it important to you. Whether taking out the trash is important is a function not only of the importance of the task, but the importance of your relationship to dad. If you value your relationship to dad and dad thinks the task is important, this will raise the degree of importance in your perception, regardless of your own value of the task. On the other hand, the task is likely to lose value if a) you are unsure of your ability to complete the task, b) there is no positive relationship to draw upon, and c) it is not relevant to you. Relevance is tied to goals, if you have a goal and the task is important to achieving your goal, the task value goes up. It is a lot easier to work out regularly if you want to be a world-class athlete.
3. goals: As already mentioned, goals are an important factor in mediating immediate gratification and procrastination. Goals give a future perspective that can be compared to the present perspective. I may want to lay on the couch and watch TV all day, but if I must complete tasks to achieve my goals, I have to consider getting them done. It is far superior to have specific, personal goals, then to have general goals or goals imposed by someone else, no matter how benignly. In fact, goals imposed by someone else can become a detriment, even if you accept them as your own.
4. trust: Taking on a task, particularly one that is onerous is much more difficult if you do not trust that you are going to achieve the outcome that you expect. If you believe that by taking out the trash, your dad is going to feel better about you, that is far more motivating than not trusting that dad will do anything differently. Such lack of trust can be either specific – “this teacher will never pass me” – or general – “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms!”.
5. impulsivity / habituation: Obviously each of us has a different tolerance for delayed gratification. Despite the fact that we may have differing temperaments that affect us, this is a learned behavior. However, if we have not learned to delay gratification, we may be disconcerted by every attractive distraction. Action diversions are symptoms: the person detours from a priority to engage in a more comfortable substitute behavior. In a way, these ‘addictivities’ (Knauss) reflect an addiction to comfort.
6. endtime competence: This variable affects the stress of procrastination more than the frequency. If we are very unsure of our competence to complete the task, the stress during the delay in increased and it is harder to take action. However, expectations of competence may increase the frequency of procrastination since the person is reasonably comfortable that s/he can accomplish the task at the last minute and do it reasonably well.
7. rational / irrational thinking: We noted in connection to the goal variable the rational thinking that goals tend to induce. Irrational thinking can cause various difficulties, particularly in increasing the anxiety level of both getting the task done and of procrastinating. Our procrastinating thinking patterns are schemas around which we interpret experience; they describe how we organize our experiences. These schemas or mental patterns, shape and constrain perception, provide understanding and explain and guide our responses.
8. consequences: Things that gets rewarded, gets done! If the rewards of procrastination outweigh the punishment, it is likely to become a frequent habit and no amount of anxiety or tension is likely to overcome it. Behaviorally, the role of negative reinforcement in procrastination is easy to see, i.e. some behavior or thought enables a person to escape some unpleasant but necessary work. That escape – procrastination – is reinforced. Besides, the pleasure from playing, partying, and watching TV could easily overwhelm the pleasure from studying. Each procrastinator develops his/her own unique combination of escape mechanisms, such as emotions (fears, resentment, social needs), thoughts (irrational ideas, cognitive strategies, self-cons), skills and lack of skills, and unconscious motives, perhaps.
From this brief background, we can suggest different reactions to immediate gratification and procrastination based on identifiable mental state variables as follows:
A. There are people who have goals and expectation that are reasonably specific and because of this they are able to weigh immediate gratification against the desire goal gratification, making the choice rational and therefore time-consistent – they almost always opt for the maximum value of meeting their goals – thus habituating themselves to achievement instead of activity. Unpleasant tasks are considered in light of their relevance to the goals and expectation and therefore, if relevant, become tolerable. Without goals and expectation for the future, taking on any unpleasant task may seem futile. Unfortunately, not all people are in this category.
B. There are people who are considered to be time-inconsistent, meaning that they make different choices now than their future preferences would suggest. We will examine some of the theories about why this is the case, but these people often have very different reasons for their behavior and we have identified at least seven  major types:
1. No goals: there are people who have no conscious goals and therefore find little value in performance. Obviously, all of us have some generalized goals or we wouldn’t get up in the morning. But what we mean is that they have not identified their possible selves – what do they want to become? This leaves lots of room for immediate gratification over unpleasant tasks.
2. Goals/no goals – negative expectations: these people have self-defeating beliefs and therefore do not have the expectation that they can succeed, raising the degree of aversiveness of the task. The fear of failure causes them to procrastinate until they believe they simply have to do it.
3. Goals/no goals – lack of trust: this is a slightly different group of people. They believe that they can achieve the task, but they do not believe that having accomplished it they will get the reward they expect. This distrust may be specific – “this individual will not give me what I deserve” – or general – “the world is unfair”. In either case the immediate gratification becomes more attractive.
4. Goals/no goals – risk taker: there are some people who need to ‘live on the edge’ to feel alive. Procrastination to the last minute puts them into an untenable position in which they might fail – ‘pulling it off’ at the last minute has its own satisfactions.
5. Goal/no goal – pragmatic considerations: these are people who a) simply don’t have the skills necessary to complete the task, which makes the task very aversive, or b) don’t have the organizational skills to know where to start.
6. Goals/but imposed: these are people who have goals but feel some imposition in regard to the goals. Two different types are relevant: a) those who have the same goal as the person who is imposing the goal – “I want to graduate and go to college, but I feel resentful because it seems like this is all my parents ever think about”. These people will tend to be ambivalent about their goals and procrastinate occasionally, just to establish their own identity; b) these people tend to be more resistant to the imposition than to meeting their own goals. They are not ambivalent, but they feel stress/pressure from the person imposing the expectation.
7. No goals except as imposed: these people do not have the same goals as those being imposed – and in fact, usually have no defined goals of their own. These people will tend to rebel and establish independence through procrastination and potential failure. They may not be able to simply ignore the expectation of the imposer, but they are relatively relaxed about procrastination and failure.
8. Addictives: these people have become addicted to comfort and tend always to pursue pleasant activities.
BEGINNING THE PROCESS
Behavior is, after all, a choice – albeit, not necessarily a conscious one. While the behavior of procrastination itself, is a reasonably simple balancing of the pleasures of immediate gratification with the satisfaction of the greater rewards of delayed gratification, the number of variables involved and the presence or absence of personal goals makes intervention much more complex. A major part of the process of correction, therefore, is to learn as much about the student as you can. In particular, you are trying to identify such issues as:
- Goals – short term, long term and implementation plans
- Anxieties – fear of failure, fear of not being perfect, etc.
- Habituation to comfort and subsequent avoidance of effort
- Confidence regarding the end result
In order to discover these issues, you will need to ask questions. How you ask these questions – the nonverbal aspects – are particularly important. You are not just perfunctorily asking, you must assume the posture of an inquisitive student with the need to learn. This means that you will actively listen, nodding and repeating what the student says to acknowledge understanding, probing for more information, and generally following where they take you. Therefore, while the suggested questions may be helpful, following them in rote fashion will not get to the information you need. Nor are the questions necessarily in order – you may want to list the question on a sheet of paper and cross them off when they are asked simply as a ‘crib sheet’, but you can ask them in any order that makes sense to the conversation. You also can eliminate or add questions depending upon the situation.
Remember also, that simply asking the question may place a new concept in the student’s mind because it is relevant. Asking about confidence may result in the statement by the student “I am confident”, but further probing may indicate that s/he should not be. Thus, any set of exploratory questions may be seen as an opportunity for psychoeducation [teaching new concepts that are relevant to the subject at hand] as well.
Thus, the following are samples only.
Ask: What kind of study tasks do you delay doing?
Don’t let the student just answer ‘everything’ – but try to work out if it is particular things.
People vary in what they delay doing but some answers students give include: reading; research; reviewing and filing notes; things I find difficult, boring or don’t enjoy; tasks that won’t be marked; tasks that have no deadline; items that carry a lot of marks and are very important; starting a writing assignment; and completing a writing assignment. Are any of these familiar to you or did you come up with others? Perhaps you should ask the question from the opposite point of view – if you could eliminate one part of the process of completing the task, what would you choose?
Ask: Why do you put off doing these things?
Have the child look at the tasks that have been identified as problematic and try to think why it is that s/he puts them off. You are particularly concerned with trying to find out if the major problem is expectation of failure because of perfectionism or skill, or a problem with relevance. Does s/he avoid these tasks because:
- s/he lacks interest in the topic?
- s/he’s not sure what to do?
- s/he believes that s/he will never do ‘very well’ with this kind of task?
- s/he really wants this to be an excellent piece of work and is afraid that s/he can’t perform?
Or what else? Try to get the child to be honest with him or herself.
Ask: What do you do instead of studying?
What is it that the child does with his or her time when s/he meant to be studying? Again, help the child to be specific in the answers. You may need to ask him or her to keep a journal regarding the procrastination process the next time the issue comes up.
Here too there are many answers. Some common ones include: sleeping; watching television; ‘surfing’ the internet, reading novels and magazines; playing sports or going to the gym; spending time with family or friends; going out; helping other people (because I can never say ‘no’); doing housework or gardening, fixing a car or motorbike; cooking and eating; or doing nothing, because I know that I ought to be studying.
Now that the child has thought about the things that s/he puts off doing and what s/he does instead:
Ask: What do you consider the advantages to you of procrastinating?
Yes, it may sound surprising but perhaps there are advantages:
- S/he has time to do other (pleasurable) things.
- S/he can rest.
- S/he can prioritize other tasks: work or family and friends.
- S/he has thinking time.
- S/he can clear away smaller distractions so that once s/he finally starts studying nothing will interrupt him or her.
- The studying s/he needs to do can be an excuse for not doing other things that s/he doesn’t want to do.
- S/he avoids thinking about difficult issues that studying brings up.
- S/he doesn’t have to confront the fear that maybe s/he can’t do the task.
Ask: What do you consider the disadvantages to you of procrastinating?
The student can probably come up quickly with a list of these.
- The time is wasted.
- Activities are postponed because studying hangs over him/her like a grey cloud.
- Stress is caused because studying preys on his/her mind.
- S/he can’t relax.
- There may be adverse effect on friends and family.
- When s/he finally does study s/he doesn’t have time to do it properly.
- S/he may have to work through the night.
- S/he lets him/herself down because s/he doesn’t produce his/her best.
- S/he may miss deadlines and lose marks.
- S/he might end up failing.
It is unlikely that the seeming advantages of procrastination outweigh the possible disadvantages. Most people do not feel good about procrastinating. The student may believe that s/he works best under pressure; many people say this. But is it worth the accompanying tension?
Ask: Do you really produce your best work when you rush to complete an assignment just before a deadline?
Ask: Is it good to have to deliver a piece of work immediately after you finish it?
Ask: Wouldn’t it be better to set it aside and come back to it fresh, a few days later, to do a final edit?
These questions are to get a sense of the student’s internal beliefs about how well s/he performs under duress and to raise considerations about potential down sides s/he may not have considered.
Ask: Do you have any academic goals?
Does the child want to pass, to get good grades, to graduate, to go on to college? Is the procrastination more rooted in a general belief that they “don’t want to be here” or “don’t care about school”? This would put the procrastination in a whole different light. If they have academic goals, how general are they? Can you ask them questions to help the student generate more specific answers?
Ask: Does you family have any academic goals for you?
The hope is to uncover any imposed goals and to identify the amount of pressure that is placed on the student and to identify how much tension or resistance such expectations might cause.
Ask: In school, what tasks seem to most/least relevant to you?
The issue of relevance needs to be placed into a context. Math may not be relevant to a future skateboard professional. The nature of the follow-up questions prods for goals. What future situation do you envision which makes the task irrelevant. The opinion that “I will never use algebra in real life” is certainly not true if one ends up as a physicist, mathematician or math teacher. Does the child at all consider “keeping his/her options open”? Again, you have the opportunity to probe for goals.
Ask: Do you enjoy the risk of failure?
This is to help determine the degree of anxiety the procrastination is causing. If the answer is yes – you may still want to probe to uncover whether someone is modeling risk behavior for them. If no – take the opportunity to probe for clarification of the tension.
Ask: What makes a task important?
This is a more abstract question, which some children may not be able to answer effectively; but, we are interested in the traits of this child in regard to identifying important tasks. What does it mean, for example, if the student responds with the statement: “if my dad thinks its important, its important!”? You would certainly want to get ‘dad’s’ views on education.
Ask: What was the most satisfying task you did in the last week? The least?
What you are seeking is an understanding of what the student likes and doesn’t like. What are his/her criteria? How does s/he decide what is good or bad?
Ask: If you were to study hard and make an excellent grade on the next test – how would your teacher react?
This is a beginning probe for trust. Would the teacher respond with praise or scorn; an improved class grade or will s/he make excuses about other class performances to avoid giving a good grade? How about your parents – how would they react? And how would that make you feel?
Ask: How much confidence do you have that waiting till the last minute you can do well on the task?
Since some students are reasonably confident and others are almost always unconfident, you may as well ask the question directly. How strong or shaky is this confidence. Is the student confident that she will get a passing grade, but is not interested in an A? Is the child fearing success, rather than failure? There is a ‘catch in praise’ – you are expected to do it again.
Ask: What kinds of things do you say to yourself while you are procrastinating?
Let us suppose that you went to a movie when you were supposed to be studying – do you think about the task while watching the movie? What might you think? Does it affect the enjoyment of the movie? This is a probe for irrational thoughts. What does the child say to him or herself in times of stress?
Ask: What are the consequences of procrastinating?
I do poorly, is not a sufficient answer. What does s/he think when that happens? What do his or her parents think? What does the teacher think? Are the responses ‘mind reading’ – in that no one has said what they think, but the student believes this is what they think? Or is the response stated by the person referenced? How does the student respond to the response? Are the negative consequences self-imposed or does all of the pressure come from the outside?
Ask: Would you like to change this behavior?
If the child recognizes that procrastination is a problem, s/he will want to find ways to change. You will need to assure the student that being a chronic procrastinator is not a character trait but a learned behavior that can be unlearned, with some effort. If s/he is willing to expend the effort, the following interventions may offer some help.
If we begin with the notion that procrastination is not the basic ‘problem’ but rather an attempted ‘cure’ for fears, self-doubts, and dislike of work, then it is obvious that most procrastinators will have to focus on the real problems – underlying fears, attitudes and irrational ideas – in order to overcome the procrastinating behavior. After accepting this idea, the next step is to figure out what the ‘real’ underlying problem is for a particular client. Start by asking, “Is s/he a relaxed or a tense procrastinator?” Tense procrastinators suffer from strong, sometimes mean, internal critics [See CBT#32 – The Pathological Critic]; relaxed procrastinators have bamboozled their self-critic by denying reality and may need to add some ‘meanness’ to it. From this standpoint, each procrastinator must deal with his/her own unique emotions, skills, thoughts, and unconscious motives. Below are some self-help procedures that should be of help to relaxed and tense procrastinators.
The following three  interventions are perhaps the most powerful and while the helper will need to relate them to the individual student, they are generally applicable to all types of the procrastinators. These are followed by more specific interventions. However, your student may not easily fit into one category, so you may need to ‘mix and match’ according to your own assessment of the issues involved. In the listing of interventions we may refer you to CBT [Cognitive Behavior Technique] or CBP [Cognitive Behavior Protocol] by number. These are resources that have already been published and are available.
You may have heard that success breeds success, and this appears to be true. It all has to do with a very basic learning mechanism called classical conditioning. Classical conditioning occurs when an event or an action dependably leads to a pleasing outcome. After many repetitions, the preceding event or action starts to be conditioned and is perceived as rewarding in itself. Hard work, for example, that leads dependably to success, will eventually be found rewarding for its own sake. Consequently, successful people find it easier to work hard and this helps to maintain their success, which, in turn, helps to maintain their work enjoyment. It is a very nice arrangement, but the trick is starting this virtuous circle. It can easily backfire.
If starting a new task, and the child fails the first few times, instead of learned industriousness occurring, you might get learned helplessness. That is, s/he might believe that his/her work will never lead to success, so what is the point of trying in the future. Without effort, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and success become unlikely and the work becomes aversive and associated with failure. Part of what you must be concerned with is the attitude toward failure. Failure should be seen as a learning experience, not a tragedy. In addition, what determines a failure? If one small error makes the total project a failure, this is an irrational thought and needs to be corrected.
When starting a new task, it is very important that it be structured in a way that the earlier efforts lead to success. Take small steps in an easy, ‘safe’, environment. Think of it as rehabilitative therapy. When people must learn to walk again after an accident, they are given special equipment and exercise. The goal is to strengthen their muscles so they can walk one day without the apparatus. Without the rehabilitation, walking never occurs. It is the same for a lot of other activities. In the beginning, the client’s motivation for many tasks will be weak and you will need to take extra-care to nurture it through this vulnerable period. If the child is able to succeed in enough different areas over a long period of time, it is likely s/he will enter most activities with an air of confidence and can endure through many setbacks. By that point s/he knows the success will eventually come.
Energy Regulation [See CBT#12 – Getting Mobilized]
“Too tired to work” is one of the main reason students use to explain their procrastination. It also appears to explain why those who are depressed report more procrastination and lethargy. Work, especially work that requires intensive concentration or physical exertion, becomes increasingly unpleasant when our “get-up-and-go” has “got-up-and-gone”.
However, energy level can also affect procrastination through an additional path. Many researchers have noticed the role that energy has in the process of self-control. A recent review on the topic makes several conclusions relevant to procrastination. First, energy is used in many impulse restraining or delaying acts, such as thought suppression or even just volition itself. Second, this energy is quite limited, and as it depletes, the ability to self-control diminishes. Third, it is renewable, and perhaps expandable with continued use (i.e., stretching it). Consequently, as we get tired, stressed, or frustrated, our ability to suppress or redirect our needs is hampered and thus so is our aptitude at preventing procrastination.
There are many factors that should help increase or replenish our energy level or ego strength. To informally mention a few, adequate sleep is necessary, with research indicating that almost everyone can benefit from eight hours of slumber each day [See CBP#03 – Conquering Insomnia]. Related to sleep, people’s energy levels rise and fall according to circadian rhythms, meaning that there will be times of the day where energy will peak (often around 10:00 o’clock in the morning) and where energy level will slump (often around 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon). It would be best to schedule the child’s most averse tasks during his/her energy peak and most pleasant tasks during the slump. Sickness will obviously decrease energy states and, in a similar manner, so will allergies. Though the former of these is less avoidable, testing and treating allergies may be a critical step. Exercising regularly often increases vitality, especially that focusing on cardiovascular health. Food obviously provides energy, though not all food is the same in this respect. Simple carbohydrates will release bountiful amounts of energy quickly while complex carbohydrates release their store at a slower but steadier rate.
Goal Setting [See CBT#27 Motivation & Goal Setting]
We have already indicated the importance of goals in providing a basis for rational thinking – this is a very effective mechanism for limiting procrastination. The process requires taking some larger goal and breaking it down into a series of smaller tasks. For optimum effectiveness, these goals should have four properties: Specificity, Challenge, Proximity, and Routine. It works very much as Discounted Utility Theory would predict.
Goal specificity refers to explicit standards and conditions that indicate their fulfillment. Increasing specificity has been shown to increase performance and, in turn, should decrease procrastination. To the degree one does not have a clear understanding of when goals are about to be achieved, the motivational benefits of temporal discounting do not occur. In other words, you should know exactly where your finishing line is.
The degree of challenge of a goal essentially increases its value. Achieving a difficult challenge is more rewarding than achieving an easy task. To avoid procrastination and be effective, challenging goals should be set as they have higher value and less easily overshadowed by other alternatives. Of note, expectancy is somewhat diminished by challenge. Consequently, there is an optimal breakpoint where the decreased expectancy of a goal outweighs the potential gains in satisfaction.
Challenge also has a relationship to mastery. Most academic achievements are aimed at competition instead of mastery. The first is compared to a standard – fourth grade reading; the second is related to personal achievement – I do better today than I did yesterday. All goals should be oriented toward personal achievement.
Ideally, your goals should be set so that they can be completed in a timely manner, perhaps today or even just this morning. Distant goals are substantially delayed, reducing the motivational effectiveness. The only reservation regarding proximity is that by dividing a large goal into variously spaced sub-goals, each sub-goal must necessarily be easier to achieve and thus less satisfying. Consequently, there should be a breakpoint where the further subdivision of a goal decreases achievement motivation more than can be offset by the decrease in delay.
One predictor of procrastination is the number of ‘choice points’ a task requires. The more junctures that require choice, the more likely it is that we will procrastinate. Consequently, one of the most powerful self-control techniques is the development of automaticity through habituation to goal implementation routines. Automaticity refers to a habitualized course of action that can be conducted with little or no conscious attention. These automatic routines can maintain goal pursuit as they limit decision making to that relevant to the task at hand. Consequently, you should try to schedule your goal implementation actions to occur at a regular time and a regular place. For example, if you are trying to exercise, choose a day, a time, a place, and stick to it as best as possible. If sickness makes you miss a day, get back to it as soon as possible. Eventually, you won’t be deciding to do other things. You will just find yourself effortlessly performing.
INTERVENTIONS – SPECIFIC TYPES
TYPE 1. NO GOALS
When a student has no goals, the general goal development intervention is the intervention of choice. The outline here is enhanced by the full motivation and goal development process referred to above [ See CBT#27 – Motivation & Goal Setting and also CBT#43 – Possible Selves]. Again, we will emphasize the importance of goals as a means of placing immediate gratification into a future perspective.
TYPE 2. GOALS/NO GOALS – NEGATIVE EXPECTATIONS
When a student has negative expectations caused either by a need for perfectionism or a general belief in his/or her inadequacy, these demand a process of cognitive correction – [See CBP#10 – Cognitive Process Correction]. This is a five-step process that incorporates the cognitive techniques of Aaron Beck and the rational emotive techniques of Arnold Ellis. The process has to do with addressing self-talk and automatic thoughts through awareness, attention, analysis, alternatives and adaptation.
If the work pressure is already too great, exhorting the tense procrastinator to ‘try harder’, ‘get yourself organized’, ‘this is a tough job, so don’t put it off’, or ‘no friends and no fun until this work is done’ is counterproductive. Such typical advice only increases the pressure and unpleasant feelings about the task to be done. This kind of procrastinator has to reduce the unpleasantness of the task and then s/he will get it done.
Fiore recommends that
1. The procrastinator should reduce his/her fear of failing by a) seeing that his/her worth is not totally determined by a standard [an assignment at work or by a term paper grade], b) having alternate plans B and C for succeeding, in case plan A doesn’t work, and c) using self-talk, such as “If I fail, it won’t be awful – it will be a learning experience; I can handle it.”
2. The procrastinator should keep a journal of his/her avoidance of important tasks: What excuses were used? What thoughts and feelings did s/he have? What was done instead of the work? What was the outcome (including thoughts and emotions)?
3. The procrastinator can change procrastinating ways of thinking to productive ways through reframing [See CBT#34 – Reframing]:
I must…(or) have to…
(OR something awful will happen) I’d like to…(or) choose to…
I’ve gotta finish… When can I get started on…
Oh, God, this assignment is Where is the best place to enormous. start?
I must do well (fantastic, perfect). I’ll do okay; I’ll give it time.
I have no time to play. It is important to play one hour.
I see life and work as a grind. Life and work can be fun.
I can’t succeed. I have a better chance of succeeding if I…
These can be used as mantras or reminder statements to be repeated over and over until habituated. By changing these thoughts, the student is reducing the dread of work and taking responsibility for directing his/her life. S/he is saying “I can enjoy hard, responsible work. It is part of a good life”.
Turn worries and self-doubts into assets by asking:
- What is the worst possible outcome?
- What would you do if the worst happened? How would you carry on?
- What strengths and skills do you have that would help you cope? How will you forgive yourself for messing up?
- What alternative plans could you develop for having a good life?
- Can you do things now to help avoid this awful outcome you fear?
- Having prepared for the worst, how can you use your worries to prepare to become stronger and more capable?
This kind of anticipatory planning helps the child face the inevitable risks that lurk ahead for all of us.
The Internal Critic [See CBT#22 – The Pathological Critic]
A different approach to escaping the unpleasant internal critic is taken by White, who says that a behavioral approach, such as teaching time management or study skills to this kind of procrastinator, often increases his/her resistance to work rather than help. White helps her students understand the unconscious mental struggles that often underlie perfectionist procrastination. She asks them to imagine certain internal parts (common in children from perfectionist families), such as “the NAG,” “the CRITIC,” and “the CHILD.” The nag constantly reminds you of what must be done. The critic tells you that you’ll mess it up or look foolish or be rejected. The child tries to get you to avoid the threatening, unpleasant work (“I don’t want to. You can’t make me!”) by seeking fun (“Let’s party! Turn on the music!). As the child runs away, the nag shouts orders, and the critic attacks even more. A miserable existence! Sometimes, the perfectionist procrastinator is pretty successful even though miserable. Occasionally, s/he is traumatized (“If I can’t be perfect, I won’t do anything but be upset”).
Personalizing these characteristics is a way of ‘externalizing’ them, allowing the child to address them from a different perspective. Getting in touch with the interactions among these inner characters is designed to shed light on the purposes and intentions of each character [See also CBT#22 – Six Step Reframing]. Each is trying to help us: to get us motivated (Nag), to get things done right (Critic), to get some peace (Child). After getting to know these parts well (listen carefully to the internal voices for a week or so), the idea is to learn (several more weeks) to use each part so we can be rational in our planning, highly motivated to achieve our values, and still able to enjoy our life.
Some students also find it helpful to keep a journal in which they record in detail their thoughts and feelings associated with studying. This helps them see how their fears, excuses, competing needs, and habits divert attention from studying. Based on this insight they can devise their own self-talk to take on scary tasks and do them promptly. Others might ask friends to nag and push them, maybe even fine them a dollar if they aren’t on their way to the library by a certain time.
Replace Perfectionism With Permission To Be Human
Thinking that you must do the job perfectly the first try will likely prevent the student from ever getting started. Believing that you must do something perfectly is a recipe for stress, and you’ll associate that stress with the task and thus condition yourself to avoid it. The student then ends up putting the task off to the last possible minute, so that s/he finally has a way out of this trap. Now there isn’t enough time to do the job perfectly, so you’re off the hook because you can tell yourself that you could have been perfect if you only had more time. But if the student has no specific deadline for a task, perfectionism can cause you to delay indefinitely.
The solution to perfectionism is for the student to give him or herself permission to be human. S/he must realize that an imperfect job completed today is always superior to the perfect job delayed indefinitely. Perfectionism is also closely connected to thinking of the task as one big whole. Replace that one big perfectly completed task in the student’s mind with one small imperfect first step. The first draft can be very, very rough. S/he is always free to revise it again and again. For example, if s/he wants to write a 5000-word article, feel free to let the first draft be only 100 words if it helps get started. That’s less than the length of this paragraph.
Modify the Thinking/Reframe
Instead of the child telling him/herself a task is too hard, there is not enough time, s/he are too stupid, s/he hates this sort of work etc., s/he must learn to reframe his/her thinking: Tell him/herself “you can do it, if not all of it now at least some of it”. It is very important to empower the client with enabling thoughts rather than cripple him/her with restrictive thinking. Irrational thoughts generate anxiety and worry. Reframing thinking enables the child to use his or her thoughts to direct action rather than avoidance. When given an assignment s/he could think “This is impossible, I’ve no idea what this is about, I can’t do it, I hate this subject, etc., or s/he could think “This is a challenge and I’m going to really focus on this one, if I do a little bit at a time and start this afternoon for just an hour, etc.” What we say to ourselves directs what we do.
Set Aside Time for Other Thoughts
If the child has other worries or concerns, allot a specific time in the day to think about them or deal with them. If s/he starts thinking about these issues while studying, s/he can remind him/herself that s/he has this specific time and not become distracted. [See CBT#05 – Worry Control]
TYPE 3. GOALS/NO GOALS – LACK OF TRUST
Pervasive lack of trust is a serious issue that goes well beyond procrastination. Trust is learned in the first three years of life and if it is not learned at that time, it is difficult to address. If trust is really a serious issue for the student, s/he will display other characteristics such as manipulation and a lack of remorse. If this is the case, see CBP#09 Cognitive Restructuring and also CBP#14 Reactive Attachment. On a less dramatic level, if the lack of trust is specific to the areas of procrastination, the teacher or helper is going to be required to demonstrate and model trust behaviors. This does not mean necessarily doing what the child wants you to do; but it does mean, doing always what you say you are going to do. Be very clear about the rewards of performance and always give them.
TYPE 4. GOALS/NO GOALS – RISK TAKER
Risk-takers are a special breed. Since they rarely are anxious about their procrastination, they may not need intervention at all. However, if their behavior is significantly damaging their performance, it may be necessary to provide counseling.
Psychoanalysts at the turn of the 20th century (who were inspired by Sigmund Freud) concluded that it was not normal to overcome natural fears at all, and risk-taking behavior was in fact evidence of a diseased mind. They could not conceive of any reason why people would choose to risk their lives, and as a result concluded that risk takers were acting without reason. They failed to understand risk-taking behavior from within the confines of their own hypotheses, which lead them to classify risky behaviors as expressive of suicidal tendencies, a death wish (“Thantos”) or repressed feelings of masculine inadequacy. It was therefore proposed that people such as mountaineers were illogical, or even pathological. Indeed the legacy of this train of thought continues to be influential although the balance of intellectual power has long since shifted.
The main problem with this explanation of risk taking behavior is that there is no evidence to support these speculations, a criticism that can also be raised against many other psychoanalytic ideas. Psychological research studies that have investigated the mental status of risk takers have been inconclusive or contradictory, and in some cases risk taking behaviors have even been shown to lead to increases in self-esteem.
Similarly people who take financial risks in the workplace generally tend to be more successful in their jobs, findings that run contrary to the idea that risk taking is simply self-defeating. Another weakness of this approach is that normal people consider needs other than safety when making decisions about how to act. In short, a theory that places safety considerations above all else in an inflexible hierarchy does not give a good account of people’s priorities in real life.
Contemporary theorists stress the role of personality traits in differentiating between people who love taking risks and those who are risk averse. Personality traits are underlying characteristics of an individual that are relatively stable over time, and explain regularities in people’s behaviors. People may be ‘outgoing’ or ‘unsociable’, ‘shy’ or ‘confident’, ‘friendly’ or ‘rude’, and so on. We instinctively observe that people react differently to the same situations, and these differences are caused by natural variations in personality traits. Personality traits are approximately 50% genetically determined. The remaining variance in personality traits is due to the way in which we are socialized, and the way in which we are brought up by are parents is an important influence here.
This student’s risk taking may be the characteristic of a successful personality. One of the things you will want to do is to discuss the issue with the family to both identify their own success using the characteristic and to gain their perspective on the actions of their child.
TYPE 5. GOAL/NO GOAL – PRAGMATIC CONSIDERATIONS
When a student doesn’t have the skills to adequately address the required tasks, that will require specially designed instruction until s/he is able to catch up. The child may not be exceptional [have a disability] and therefore would not be eligible for special education. This would imply that s/he may simply have not been taught properly. Nonetheless, this requires a special instructional design as s/he will be required to make up ground, not just keep learning incrementally.
If, on the other hand, the child has the skills, but has not learned how to approach problem solving or organization, these also must be addressed. [See CBT#13 – Problem Management] The child may have never been taught to organize his or her time or s/he may simply has been rewarded for putting things off, e.g. someone else “let you quit assignments” or did your work for you. In this case, if the child wants to change, simply stopping the rewards should solve the procrastination problem. You might want to try this easy approach first. If these methods don’t work or don’t appeal to you, then make use of methods given below.
Methods for a quick, simple behavioral approach
A To-Be-Done List, a daily schedule, and a simple record-keeping and reward procedure, might do wonders. Changes may occur immediately; often such students start going to the library or some special place to study with a new friend. Hundreds of students have become more serious and responsible about studying. They experience relief just going to class more often and being prepared for exams; some even start to find the material interesting and challenging; they start working for ‘A’s’; a few actually decide to become dedicated students. Like dieters, though, many find it hard to maintain their new study habits and backslide within two or three weeks.
Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying, like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying (a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. Suggest breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on “getting started,” perhaps by tricking yourself by saying “I’ll just do five minutes” and then finding out you don’t mind working longer than five minutes. This is called the ‘five minute plan’. The key is to learn the habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to learn to initiate well in advance – studying and preparing for papers and exams. The child should practice starting to study several times every day. As with exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are the secrets.
Fiore has suggested a unique scheduling system. Schedule the fixed hours (classes, meetings, meals, etc.) and play time. That’s all, no work! Make the playing mandatory, not the work. Focus only on starting to work, not on putting in hour after hour each day. If you start a project and concentrate on it for 30 minutes, record this on your schedule and give yourself a reward. Start as many 30-minute work periods as you can. The idea is to build the habit of frequently getting to work and to build the desire to work. Work becomes more enjoyable when it isn’t seen as hard, boring, endless chores that have to be done.
Other methods of organization include: a calendar based on when projects are due, a set of realistic goals, an approach to work in a relaxed state of concentration, and a quick, optimistic response to setbacks. In the final analysis being motivated and productive is a result of liking yourself. Thus, building confidence and self-respect is at the heart of this program.
Replace ‘Finish It’ With ‘Begin It’
Thinking of a task as one big whole that you have to complete will virtually ensure that you put it off. When you focus on the idea of finishing a task when you can’t even clearly envision all the steps that will lead to completion, you create a feeling of being overwhelmed. You then associate this painful feeling to the task and delay as long as possible. If you say to yourself, “I must complete this report”, you’re very likely to feel overwhelmed and put the task off.
The solution is to think of starting one small piece of the task instead of mentally believing that you must finish the whole thing. Replace, “How am I going to finish this?” with “What small step can I start on right now?”. If you simply start a task enough times, you will eventually finish it. If one of the projects you want to complete is to clean out your garage, thinking that you have to finish this big project in one fell swoop can make you feel overwhelmed, and you’ll put it off. Ask yourself how you can get started on just one small part of the project. For example, go to the garage with a notepad, and simply write down a few ideas for quick ten-minute tasks you could do to make a dent in the piles of junk. Maybe move one or two obvious pieces of junk to the trashcan while you’re there. Don’t worry about finishing anything significant. Just have the student focus on what s/he can do right now. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually be starting on the final piece of the task, and that will lead to finishing.
Time-boxing is a process of making immediate gratification part of the scenario. Here’s how it works: First, select a small piece of the task you can work on for just 30 minutes. Then choose a reward you will give yourself immediately afterwards. The reward is guaranteed if you simply put in the time; it doesn’t depend on any meaningful accomplishment. Examples include watching your favorite TV show, seeing a movie, enjoying a meal or snack, going out with friends, going for a walk, or doing anything you find pleasurable. Because the amount of time you’ll be working on the task is so short, your focus will shift to the impending pleasure of the reward instead of the difficulty of the task. No matter how unpleasant the task, there’s virtually nothing you can’t endure for just 30 minutes if you have a big enough reward waiting for you.
When you time-box your tasks, you may discover that something very interesting happens. You will probably find that you continue working much longer than 30 minutes. You will often get so involved in a task, even a difficult one that you actually want to keep working on it. Before you know it, you’ve put in an hour or even several hours. The certainty of your reward is still there, so you know you can enjoy it whenever you’re ready to stop. Once you begin taking action, your focus shifts away from worrying about the difficulty of the task and towards finishing the current piece of the task that now has your full attention.
When you do decide to stop working, claim your reward, and enjoy it. Then schedule another 30-minute period to work on the task with another reward. This will help you associate more and more pleasure to the task, knowing that you will always be immediately rewarded for your efforts. Working toward distant and uncertain long-term rewards is not nearly as motivating as immediate short-term rewards. By rewarding yourself for simply putting in the time, instead of for any specific achievements, you’ll be eager to return to work on your task again and again, and you’ll ultimately finish it.
Realize that procrastination is caused by associating some form of pain or unpleasantness to the task you are contemplating. The way to overcome procrastination is simply to reduce the pain and increase the pleasure you associate with beginning a task, thus allowing you to overcome inertia and build positive forward momentum. And if you begin any task again and again, you will ultimately finish it.
In short, you can begin to overcome procrastination by following a few tried and true steps.
Breaking the Task into Small Pieces
Revising the whole year’s work can be too daunting, but just revising one piece today is manageable. Every task can be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. It is very important to have an overview of the year’s work but equally important to schedule tasks each day into small bite sized pieces.
Estimating the Time a Task Will Take
Underestimating the time s/he thinks a task will take justifies procrastination because there is plenty of time and therefore no real urgency to get started.
Overestimating the time a task will take may be intimidating in that the client will perceive the task as too large and difficult and may result in difficulty getting started. Feeling overwhelmed by having too much to do can be paralyzing. Learning how to accurately estimate how long a task will take and setting personal deadlines ahead of the external deadlines are important skills. Personal deadlines are dates set prior to the formal due date.
These are essential not only in case an unplanned event gets in the way of completing the task but also in developing a sense of being in control and confident about your work.
Lists are essential to keep track of what needs to be done. They are most useful when used in conjunction with making priorities, and scheduling. In other words: lists of tasks in order of priority with the times that you intend to both do the tasks as well as when they will be completed. Be careful not to get too carried away. Too long a list on non-essential tasks can be overwhelming.
Give Yourself Reminders
Making the task conspicuous makes it more difficult to avoid. For example, placing the task where you will see it most often means it is more difficult to overlook. Constant daily reminders are sometimes necessary to counter more pleasant distractions.
Prepare Workplace Tools and Eliminate Distractions
Procrastinators need little to lure them from their allotted task. Getting up to get an eraser, answering the phone, responding to questions or comments from family or friends, working with the television on in the background or trying to write a report on a cluttered messy desk are recipes for disaster. The student must learn to be honest about distractions. Organizing the tools needed before s/he starts and choosing the most appropriate environment are important factors if s/he is serious about overcoming procrastination.
Determine the Best Times of the Day
Most people have certain times of the day where they are the most productive. Early afternoon is often a time when most people are a bit sluggish and find it difficult to concentrate. Some people are at their best first thing in the morning while others don’t get going until mid morning. Once you have established when your most productive time is, keep that for the most important or difficult tasks and leave your least productive time for the more routine tasks (e.g. photocopying, finding texts in the library, word processing, etc).
One strategy many people find helpful is to decide to do just one task first thing. This then sets the scene for the rest of the day in that by accomplishing something early you feel empowered to do more.
TYPE 6. PERSONAL GOALS/ IMPOSED
When a student is distracted from his or her own work by a belief that s/he is being imposed upon by others, the helper may want to first determine the characteristics of this feeling and then perhaps a) meet with the adult imposing the expectations, b) implement the protocol for irrational thoughts, c) develop a goal process, or d) simply help the child reframe these thoughts into the best possible scenario.
“It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.”
Following Gottlier’s lead, Steve Pavlina suggests:
Replace ‘Have To” With “Want To’
First, thinking that you absolutely have to do something is a major reason for procrastination. When you tell yourself that you have to do something, you’re implying that you’re being forced to do it, so you’ll automatically feel a sense of resentment and rebellion. Procrastination kicks in as a defense mechanism to keep you away from this pain. The solution to this mental block is to realize and accept that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Even though there may be serious consequences, you are always free to choose. No one is forcing you to handle your school-work the way you do. All the decisions you’ve made along the way have brought you to where you are today. If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, you’re free to start making different decisions, and new results will follow. Also be aware that you don’t procrastinate in every area of your life. Even the worst procrastinators have areas where they never procrastinate. Perhaps you never miss your favorite TV show, or you always manage to check your favorite online forums each day. In each situation the freedom of choice is yours. So if you’re putting off starting that new project you think you ‘have to’ do this year, realize that you’re choosing to do it of your own free will. Procrastination becomes less likely on tasks that you openly and freely choose to undertake.
TYPE 7. NO GOALS EXCEPT AS IMPOSED
This student again needs to establish his or her own personal goals. S/he needs to be helped to understand that s/he does not need to fail [to meet someone else’s goal] in order to succeed in meeting his or her own. By identifying personal goals that are reasonable and relevant, the helper may also be able to help the imposer fade the imposition. See CBT#27 – Motivation & Goal Setting.
INTERVENTIONS FOR OUTCOME STRESS
While addressing the reason for procrastination and reducing its frequency, it may be important also to address the stress that the present procrastination is promoting. Tense procrastinators suffer from strong, sometimes mean, internal critics [See CBT#32 – The Pathological Critic]; relaxed procrastinators have bamboozled their self-critic by denying reality and may need to add some ‘meanness’ to it. From this point, each procrastinator must deal with his/her own unique emotions, skills, thoughts, and unconscious motives. Below are some self-help procedures that should be of help to relaxed and tense procrastinators.
Overcoming procrastination is all about choosing long-term rewards over short-term moments of gratification. A technique helpful for some is using incentives for tasks achieved. This can be combined with breaking larger jobs into smaller pieces and rewarding the student when s/he has finished each small piece. For example, having a break after reading chapter one, lunch after chapter two and so on. Watching television after the work is complete is a good incentive provided the quality is not compromised to get the job done before a particular program begins.
Telling others of your intentions or enlisting their company can sometimes take the loneliness or feelings of deprivation out of a task. Knowing that you are not the only person in the world that is deprived can be very reassuring. Company studying can make a huge difference to productivity provided you do not sabotage each other. It is useful to establish when you will take breaks and rules around interrupting each other. You don’t have to be studying the same topic, simply having another’s presence can be helpful. When joining a gym you are more likely to keep going if you have a commitment to someone else to attend, and meeting a friend to study together can work in the same way.
INTERVENTIONS FOR ADDICTIVES
- Addictivity is a work used by Knauss to identify the habituation to specific sets of activities that a person might use in place of pursing the important task. If the student becomes aware of the ways s/he diverts him/herself, s/he can change the pattern by being mindful of the addictivities and trying the following techniques laid out by Knauss.
- Identify the goal that is affected by the delay and consciously weigh the consequences.
- Disrupt ‘Should I or shouldn’t?’ delaying conflicts by internally screaming STOP each time you get into one of these phony conflicts. This is where diversion pays off. The STOP distracts from the pseudoconflict so you can concentrate on the real problem. [SEE CBT#06 – THOUGHT STOPPING]
- Bear with the discomfort by contracting with yourself that you won’t pursue the addictivity for at least fifteen minutes. In that time the desire to pursue the action diversion normally fades. If not, contract for another fifteen. – Promise yourself a reward after one half hour of work – make the reward different than the addictivity.
- Be mindful of appetizing reasons why you should engage in the addictivity: ‘What’s the harm?’; ‘It will feel good’; ‘Why deprive yourself?’ – externalize the ‘Wheedler” and challenge it – [See CBT#32 – The Pathological Critic]
- Make up a series of questions like the following to ask yourself whenever you start to con yourself into addictivity: 1) What is so important for me to have the addictivity right this minute?, 2) Why do I need to feel good by participating in the addictivity?, 3) What other forms of pleasure can I have right now that will help me over time? You can write these questions on a three-by-five card to have them available in time of stress. The clinician should help the student answer these questions before hand and write the answers, as well. The answers should be balanced and rational thoughts that provide effective arguments to the gains of delaying the addictivity while pursuing the important task.
Procrastination is a simple and normal behavior choice. It is a decision to do something pleasant rather than unpleasant – the theory tells us HOW it works, but the WHY it works is tied to the unpleasantness of the task that is required. If that task were considered by the procrastinator to be ‘fun’, it would get done without problem. If it were considered to be ‘relevant’, it would have a better chance of being done. If it were tied to personal goals and important to the achievement of something valuable – the chances of it getting done would improve. The most valuable offset is the presence of goals that enhance getting the task done, or simply learned industriousness. However, because the behavior can involves eight different variables that reduce the pleasantness of the task and many ‘causes’ for choosing to delay getting the work done. Some of these ‘causes’ are manifestations that need to be addressed in and of themselves as they represent characteristics which are self defeating. But for purposes of procrastination, any process that increases the utility of the task is an appropriate step.
This protocol outlines the literature regarding intervention, and unfortunately, too many of these are simply platitudes – e.g., the solution to perfectionism is for the student to give him or herself permission to be human – this is clearly true, but if the student could do it, s/he would not be a perfectionist. We have referenced, therefore, some specific evidence-based techniques that can fill in the gaps.
It may be important, along with the questioning, to have the student keep a journal of the process and thoughts about procrastination as a part of any intervention process. Such journaling is a positive approach to becoming ‘mindful’ of the mental processes that are taking place during the stressful period of time. At the very least, the student should consciously understand the choices that are being made, and not just respond hedonistically to the most appealing option. The student should take special note of:
- Automatic thoughts
- Decision points and decisions made
- Consequences to self and others
The Rubik’s Cube’s solution is difficult to find unless you are able to understand the problem. You may need to try several facets before you find one that is successful. But through it all, you will need to ensure that the expectations that are being placed on the child are developmentally appropriate. Anxiety about performance need not be irrational if the expectations are irrational.
Finally, we would recommend for all students the development of short and long-term goals as a means of focusing on what really is important in their lives – or the lack of importance that must be changed.
Creel, Ramona, Overcoming Procrastination, OnlineOrganizing.com
Donoghue, Ted & Rabin, Matthew, The Economics of Immediate Gratification, 2005
Fiore, Neil, Overcoming Procrastination: Practice the Now Habit and Guilt-Free Play, MJF Books, New York, 1997
Knauss, William J., Break the Procrastination Habit …NOW, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2004.
Miller, Scott, Procrastination: The Fundamental Origin of Behavior, 1999
Pavlina, Steve, Overcoming Procrastination, Dexterity Software, 2001
Tucker, Clayton E., Psychological Self Help, Chapter 4 – Behavior, Motivation and Self-Control, Procrastination, 2005
Van Wyk, Liesel, The Relationship Between Procrastination and Stress Upon the Life of the High School Teacher, Dissertation, University of Pretoria, 2004