Procrastination: What Your Client Needs to Know
95% of us procrastinate (Steel, 2010) – accruing negative consequences – despite having recognised for 500 years that we do it! Yet even modern psychological science still does not have definitive answers for why we procrastinate, or ironclad solutions for how to stop.
If the client sitting in front of you is lamenting all the negative consequences he’s had for engaging in this habit, what can you tell him to help? What does he need to know to change his behaviour? This article looks at recent research illuminating what’s behind this most irritating habit, and the approaches that may help deal with it.
The meaning and The Meaning of putting off
It’s simple to tell you that the etymology of “procrastinate” is that it comes from a Middle French word of the mid-1500s meaning “Put off until tomorrow, delay, defer” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). It’s not as simple to relate the agonising loss of control, pleasure, and sense of meaning that results from living life by default: deciding not to decide, or taking actions for short-term gain.
Dr Timothy Pychyl, associate professor of psychology (Carlton University, Ottawa) proposes that procrastination is best understood as an emotion-focused coping strategy in which we avoid tasks (including difficult decisions) in order to escape the negative emotions associated with them. We put off a task in order to feel better, but this way of managing unwanted mood states comes at a price: we do short-term mood repair at a cost to our future self and goals (Pychyl, 2018a).
What research has shown
Past research has documented a relationship between anxiety and procrastination, and has also found depression to be associated with procrastination. But what are the cognitive processes – especially the repetitive negative thoughts - that underlie these links? More recent research, examining anxiety, depression, worry, and brooding rumination, has found that all of these variables were related to a self-report measure of procrastination, but the strongest relationship found was between rumination and procrastination.
Moreover, rumination mediated the associations between anxiety and procrastination and between depression and procrastination; worry did not. Thus, the researchers concluded that rumination is even more important to understand than worry when we’re trying to understand the predictors of procrastination (Constantin, English, & Mazmanian, 2017).
As mental health helpers, then, we need to know how to help clients deal with the repetitive negative thoughts that arise, particularly in relation to past events. Such thoughts send clients down a road of unhelpful choices (2018b). Let’s look at the dynamic.
False beliefs and mis-regulation
Several factors contribute to the problem of overcoming procrastination. First, we encounter a conflict between long-term goals and short-term desires (e.g., the loss of extra weight versus having that piece of cake now). We choose the short-term reward (the cake) and then chastise ourselves for having no willpower, for under-regulating ourselves. Second, we often hold false beliefs about what will make us feel better (e.g., “I need that piece of cake to cheer me up because I had a tough day”).
Dr Pychyl explains that our focus in these cases is on short-term emotion regulation, or mood repair; we engage it at a cost to our long-term goals: our future self. Thus, rather than under-regulating ourselves, we are actually mis-regulating: giving priority to short-term emotional repair, which in fact will make us feel worse in the long run. The procrastinating aspect comes into the picture in the sense that we are putting off attending to longer-term goals or important decisions (e.g., achieving the weight loss or, say, deciding on a new career direction).
It’s important to understand the difference, because key coping strategies are tied up in it. If we come down hard on ourselves for being lazy, weak-willed, or inadequate, we feel even worse: more disempowered and less able to make and implement the choices that will make us feel better in the longer term (Pychyl, 2018b).
Strategies to help
So how do we counter our common tendency toward immediate mood repair (that is, short-term gain which works against us in the long run)? What shall we advise our procrastinating clients to do?
Understanding and reframing the triggers
What does your client tend to put off? Boring reports or tax returns? Difficult interpersonal conversations with family or co-workers? Or maybe tasks that he doesn’t know how to structure? Here is a list of seven common types of triggers:Boring
- Not intrinsically rewarding
- Lacking personal meaning (Bailey, 2017)Lacking
Ask the client to reflect on which types of tasks seem harder to get to and then do a classical counselling reframe. That is, for the boring report, can he make writing it into a game: say, by competing with himself for how many words per hour he can put out? For the difficult conversation, can he remind himself of how much better the relationship will be after the matter that he will bring up is cleared (Bailey, 2017)? Usually there’s something we can do to make a task more attractive or easier, and we as helpers can be instrumental in assisting the client with this.
Start small and imperfectly, but start
Numerous strategies revolve around the ability to just get started. Once into a deferred task, we often find that it’s not as bad as it had grown to be in our minds while we ruminated over the need to do it. Clients can help themselves take that first crucial step in several ways:
Contracting with self to start small. Bailey (2017) talks about “working within your resistance level”: that is, agreeing to do initially just the proportion of the task that the client can do without more procrastination. So, on that tax return, is the client willing to start if he signs up to do an hour before finishing the session? 30 minutes?
Chunking the task. Time managers make much of the skill of breaking big tasks into smaller, more do-able pieces, noting that they look more attractive that way (Lombardo, 2017). It’s like the whole salami hanging in the butcher’s shop: not too attractive in that form, but infinitely more enjoyable when finely sliced and served up.
Let go of perfectionism. The black-and-white thinking that says something isn’t finished if it isn’t perfect can keep us from even starting a task (because we mightn’t do it perfectly). Reminding the client to call himself on this one may help him see that a more-or-less well-done task is better than one not done at all (Lombardo, 2017).
Related to letting go of perfectionism, ask the client to consciously stop beating up on himself for thoughts about how he should have started earlier, how he always procrastinates and is therefore such a loser, how he is so afraid to tackle this... Tell the client that research shows self-forgiveness helps us to stop procrastinating (Lombardo, 2017).
Optimise the environment, both physically and interpersonally
Some time management experts suggest setting up the environment to help us move past the side-tracking possibilities inherent in technology, and then going one further by setting up the interpersonal environment as well. Let’s look at what the client can do here:
- Close email and turn off text message and other notifications while on the task.
- Put the phone away, or turn it off; disconnect from the internet (unless it is needed for the task).
- Put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door
- You as helper could be this buddy, but we wouldn’t recommend that the client choose an intimate partner for this task (in the interest of avoiding tension in the relationship) (Lombardo, 2017). Buddies can also (if checked in with before the deferred task is begun) be helpful as a reality check about whether the proposed timeline for doing the task is realistic. Not wanting to go back on their word, many people will overcome their procrastination with this one. The buddy contacts the client on the nominated “finish day” for the task and asks for an accounting of results. Get a buddy, to whom the client gives a “task finished date”.
Optimally schedule the task and any rewards
While some time management experts recommend doing a deferred task “first thing” in a day, Mind Tools suggests instead that the delayed task be done at our peak times, when we are most effective (for example, early morning or even early evening for some) (Mind Tools, 2018). Most procrastination experts also suggest giving ourselves a reward (say, a special coffee, pampering session, or other treat) for completing a procrastinated task or portion thereof.
But here we tread cautiously. Mike Fishbein (2018) points to research showing that procrastination sometimes arises because of a disconnection between the demands of the task and what motivates the procrastinator. Procrastinators are often intrinsically and not extrinsically motivated, so extrinsic rewards like a food treat may not move the procrastinator to an action threshold. Moreover, if a person’s tasks/goals are not in line with his or her values, procrastination is likely to occur, but in this case it is neither adversary nor character defect. Rather, it is a warning sign that we are not contemplating action or a decision that will be ultimately helpful to us (Fishbein, 2018).
This can be explained to the procrastinating client, as we help him reflect on what will lead to a deeper understanding of his needs and motivations.
Are some therapy modalities more useful?
A full review of helpful therapeutic modalities is outside the scope of this article, but a few remarks about some of the more prominent therapies can help us to understand the direction in which we must head.
We can help clients to dispute negative thoughts about themselves, such as that they are a “loser” or “hopeless” because they are procrastinating. They can ask themselves for evidence that they are, indeed, a “loser”, or dispute the statements with kinder, more realistic self-talk. With mindfulness-based CBT, clients can watch the troublesome thoughts come, deciding whether they are useful to engage with (Mental Health Academy, 2017; 2018).
In a classic use of this modality, clients can be asked what they see happening in future if they continue along the procrastinating path, and also, what they see happening if they tackle the task or decision. As the therapist, we can note where they are on the continuum toward change (Mental Health Academy, 2014).
Psychosynthesis and other psychodynamic approaches
Have aspects of the client’s early childhood or upbringing contributed to the procrastination? One man stunted his professional development for decades because of fear of taking the exams that would allow him to be promoted. He also continually failed to make important career decisions, living life by default. As he dug deeper, he realised that his parents had had very high standards, resulting in his sense that whatever he did would not be good enough, so he procrastinated on most things rather than do them and “confirm” that he was a failure.
Psychosynthesis uses a technique for exploring inner conflict (often present in procrastination) called subpersonality work. In this, clients explore a subpersonality (part of themselves) that has “constellated” in order to meet a certain need; usually another subpersonality turns up in the process which is trying to meet a conflicting need. The client attempts to see how both parts are working to help, and how their respective needs can be met in a whole way, which often resolves the procrastination (Mental Health Academy, 2012).
What is the story that the client is telling himself about his ability to get important tasks done? How can he deconstruct that narrative, creating a more helpful one? He can be asked about exceptions: times when he overcame procrastination or it wasn’t so much of a problem. His “sparkling moments” of getting onto tasks in a timely fashion can form the basis of new narratives about his life (Mental Health Academy, 2017).
Instead of focusing on the problem, the client can be asked to focus on times of exception to the problem of procrastination. He can begin to generate a sense of what life would look like without procrastination as he answers the Miracle Question of how he would know if a miracle occurred and he was “cured” of the tendency to procrastinate (Mental Health Academy, 2018).
Procrastination is often a well-entrenched habit, but by understanding more about general underlying causes and clients’ particular triggers, we can employ strategies to help clients look out for their long-term interests rather than giving into short-term desires or cravings.
Bailey, C. (2017). 5 Research-based strategies for overcoming procrastination. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on 10 October, 2018, from: Website
Constantin, K., English, M.M., & Mazmanian, D. (2017). Anxiety, depression, and procrastination among students: Rumination plays a larger mediating role than worry. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. DOI 10.1007/s10942-017-0271-5
Fishbein, M. (2018). How to overcome procrastination: 9 surprisingly effective strategies (backed by science!). Mfishbein.com. Retrieved on 10 October, 2018, from: Website
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Mind Tools. (2018). How to stop procrastinating: Overcoming the habit of delaying important tasks. Mind Tools. Retrieved on 10 October, 2018, from: Website
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Steel, P. (2010). The procrastination equation: How to stop putting things off and start getting stuff done. New York City: Harper Collins Publishers.