Overcoming Procrastination.

Revision

This document as of 7/19/15 is at version 1.10. At this stage it has the material which will be present in the 1.0 revision but this material is rather raw in the latter parts of the document.

Fighting Off Procrastination

When we procrastinate (put off what we need to be doing) we feel worse about ourselves because we have not accomplished what we wish we had accomplished. This causes us to procrastinate further which then results in us feeling worse and so on in a vicious, downward cycle. (Burns 81)

Caution:  Isolating oneself (which often results as the depression increases) results in a worsening of the depression – another vicious cycle. (Burns 82)

Remember: You don’t have to do something major to make yourself feel better. Start with something small and work your way larger. Sometimes even just putting a mark on a piece of paper can be the first step toward overcoming a lack of motivation. (Burns 82)

Remember: Doing almost anything is likely to make one feel better – the only thing which is almost certain to make you feel worse is doing nothing. (Burns 83)

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Procrastination – whether minor or severe – raises the same question, “…why do we frequently behave in ways that are not in our self-interest?” (Burns 83)

Popular Theories: (Burns 84-86)

  • Trait Model: You are lazy at your core.
  • Self Harm Model: You want to inflict self-harm.
  • Internalized Anger Model: You are passive-aggressively getting even with others.1”Resentment can sometimes contribute to your lack of motivation, but is usually not the central problem.” (Burns 85)
  • Behavioral Model: There is some benefit to you for doing nothing (e.g. people pay more attention to you).2For example, one as a student might perform poorly in order to receive more extensive and personalized attention from the teacher.
  • Distorted Thinking: This is Burns model. Essentially, when we face a task we have distorted thoughts regarding the task which cause us to avoid completing the task.

Why Am I Unmotivated?

When you experience this lack of motivation that results in procrastination on a given task, ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now that causes me to resist completing this task?”

Write these thoughts down on paper – they will “reflect a number of maladaptive attitudes, misconceptions, and faulty assumptions.” (Burns 86) This distorted thinking results in negative feelings which impede the accomplishment of the contemplated task.

If we change our behavior in a way that contradicts our negative thoughts we will begin to feel better, proving that the distortions in our thoughts are untrue. (Burns 88)

Distorted Mindsets Associated with Procrastination (Burns 88-94)

Hopelessness

“…you get so frozen in the pain of the present…that you forget…that you ever felt better in the past and find it inconceivable that you might feel more positive in the future.” (Burns 88)

Helplessness

“…you are convinced that your moods are caused by factors beyond your control, such as fate, hormone cycles, dietary factors, luck, and other people’s evaluations of you.” (Burns 88)

Overwhelming Yourself

“You magnify a task to the degree that it seems impossible to tackle. You may assume you must do everything at once instead of breaking each job down into small, discrete, manageable units which you can complete one step at a time…” (Burns 89)3”To illustrate how irrational this is, imagine that every time you sat down to eat, you thought about all the food you would have to eat during your lifetime…When you think about all the things you are putting off, you do this very same thing without being aware of it.” (Burns 89)

Jumping to Conclusions

“You sense that it’s not within your power to take effective action that will result in satisfaction because you are in the habit of saying, ‘I can’t,’ or ‘I would but…'” (Burns 89)

Self-labeling

“…you condemn yourself as inferior…the problem is compounded when you label yourself…” (Burns 89-90)

Anhedonia

You overestimate the difficulty while underestimating the reward one will receive from completing the task.

Perfectionism

“You defeat yourself with inappropriate goals and standards. You will settle for nothing short of a magnificent performance in anything you do, so you frequently end up having to settle for just that–nothing.” (Burns 90)

Fear of Failure

Overgeneralizing what failure would imply about you.

  • You are using a “product orientation” (what was the result of my efforts) rather than a “process orientation” (was I responsible and diligent in my efforts despite the end results).

Fear of Success

“…you are convinced you couldn’t keep it up, and you feel your accomplishments will falsely raise the expectations of others.” (Burns 91-92)

  • “You may also fear success because you anticipate that people will make even greater demands on you…you try to maintain control by avoiding any commitment or involvement.” (Burns 92)

Fear of Disapproval or Criticism

“If you don’t make any effort, you can’t goof up!” (Burns 92)

Coercion and Resentment

You feel you are being coerced to do something.

Low Frustration Tolerance

“You assume that you should be able to solve your problems and reach your goals rapidly and easily, so you go into a frenzied state of panic and rage when life presents you with obstacles.” (Burns 92-93)4”Your frustration results from your habit of comparing reality with an ideal in your head. When the two don’t match, you condemn reality…it might be infinitely easier simply to change your expectations than to bend and twist reality.” (Burns 93)

Guilt and Self-blame

“If you are frozen in the conviction you are bad or have let others down, you will naturally feel unmotivated to pursue your daily life.” (Burns 93)

Tools to Fight Procrastination

If you feel depressed or discouraged with your day or if you find yourself procrastinating use Tool #2 below to help you plan out your day and then evaluate what you accomplished objectively at the conclusion of the day.

See Tool #2 Daily Activity Schedule Worksheet

Sometimes we avoid a task because we believe it will be too difficult and will not provide sufficient rewards (emotional or otherwise) for the resources committed to it. Sometimes this may be true – but it is important to test the truthfulness of these predictions and this can be done using Tool #3 below. (Burns 98)

See Tool #3 Anti-Procrastination Worksheet

You may also find Tool #1 helpful in quieting your internal critic which insists you are not capable of completing a specific task.

See Tool #1 Goodbye Internal Critic Worksheet

Sometimes we struggle to participate even in pleasurable activities. One way to combat this is to put our assumptions about the amount of pleasure we will experience from participating in an activity or completing a task to the test. Using Tool #4 you can measure what amount of pleasure you believe you will experience and then record the amount you actually do experience. (Burns 104)

Use Tool #4: The Pleasure-Predicting Worksheet

Use Tool #4 to check various assumptions you are holding that are resulting in procrastination such as:

  1. I can’t enjoy anything when I am by myself.
  2. Because I failed at something important to me, there is no reason to do anything.
  3. I am unable to fully enjoy life unless I am rich, successful, and/or famous.
  4. I must be the center of attention to experience enjoyment.
  5. I won’t enjoy doing something if I can’t complete it perfectly.
  6. I cannot do part of the tasks (work, chores) before me, I have to complete them all today.

Oftentimes we will decide to do something but then argue ourselves out of it. We might tell ourselves we are too tired, too lazy, not in the mood, and so on. (Burns 107)

Rejecting Negatives Thoughts

We can battle these sorts of negative, self-defeating thoughts using the Double Column Worksheet. See Tool #5 below and utilize label 1.

Tool #5: The Double Column Worksheet

Oftentimes we minimize our accomplishments (internally). We never feel good about ourselves because we are convinced we have not done anything worthwhile.

We need to counter our tendency to depreciate our accomplishments with a positive, encouraging thought. Using Tool #5 above can help in training yourself to counter negative self-evaluations with positive ones.

You should seek to make this an almost unconscious and continuous process in your life. You eventually won’t need the worksheet. You should encourage yourself for everything you accomplish – even if there is not a negative thought surrounding it or if it seems very trivial. (Burns 109)

Accept a Compliment

Don’t depreciate compliments from others – this is harmful to self and frustrating to the person offering the compliment. (Burns 109-110)

Create an Accomplishment List

Hint: Create a list each day of what you have accomplished to counter-balance the list of what you wanted/needed to accomplish today but did not. (Burns 110)5I personally find this process helpful.

Counter TICs with TOCs

When facing a specific task you are procrastinating on, write down the task and how you are thinking about it. The thoughts you are experiencing are known as Task-Interfering Cognitions (TICs). These lose most of their power when you write them down and then counter them with Task-Oriented Cognitions (TOCs). You can do this using Tool #5 above. (Burns 110-111)

Use Fantasizing Positively

If you begin to daydream or fantasize about working on this task and the imagined results are negative, counter them with positive images. (Burns 111) Try practicing fantasizing about successful completion of the difficult task. (Burns 111)

Things won’t always turn out as you (positively) imagine they might but your expectations and mood significantly effects what does occur – and if that expectation and mood is negative, it will have a negative effect on the outcome. (Burns 111)

Breaking Down Obstacles

Burns suggests taking overwhelming tasks and breaking them down into small component tasks. (Burns 114) He addresses this rather quickly, David Allen, a productivity guru, has written an entire (excellent) book on the topic called Getting Things Done (GTD), I highly recommend it.6I believe this process is excellent in overcoming procrastination.

Take a Break

Don’t force yourself to overcome some great obstacle all at once, instead allow yourself breaks while completing a task. (Burns 114)

Some may find this difficult because they have an extremely hard time returning to the task they need to do as opposed to whatever it is they want to do. In this case, see the time splitting method mentioned below.7I am a fan of this process, though struggle with returning to the task – so I don’t use it often.

Do It Imperfectly

We can’t do anything perfectly, so accept that you can complete a task well without perfection. (Burns 114)8I remind myself of this frequently.

This may seem like a “Duhh” statement to which one responds, “Don’t you think if it was that easy, I would have done it already?”…I know the frustration of being given simplistic answers to complex problems – I think Burns includes this to remind us to remind ourselves that we can do tasks imperfectly and it be “good enough.” He is a professional stating that imperfect work is acceptable – sometimes we experience relief when we receive such an authorization from an authority figure.

Pay Attention to That Distraction!

We oftentimes try to eliminate distracting thoughts from our minds. For example, I don’t want you to think about a pink elephant. What are you thinking about? A pink elephant.

Burns suggests we try the opposite tact – give the distracting thought our attention (though only for a short period at any given time) and over time as we give repeated attention to the distracting thought intentionally, it will diminish in power. (Burns 114)9I have OCD, I’m not sure that this works for individuals with OCD? It isn’t a technique I have used.

Time Splitting

If you have a task which is going to take a prolonged period of time (and especially if you are having a hard time dividing it into smaller tasks as mentioned above) consider using time limitation. In this case you decide how long you will work on a given task and when you have expended that amount of time you stop working on it, no matter where you are in the process. (Burns 114-115)10This is very helpful. I have a real phobia of phone calls…but if I tell myself I only have to spend x amount of time making phone calls and then, no matter how many still are waiting to be made, I can stop…it is much easier to stop.

Avoid Musterbation

“A possible source of your procrastination is an inappropriate system for self-motivation. You may inadvertently undermine what you attempt by flagellating yourself with so many ‘oughts,’ ‘shoulds,’ and ‘musts’ that you end up drained of any desire to get moving…Dr. Albert Ellis describes this mental trap as ‘musterbation.'” (Burns 116)11I (Dave) will not be surprised if someone is unhappy that I used the word musterbation which is so similar to masturbation. If it was simply for shock value I would have eliminated it – but I think it is exactly those people who feel some sort of social impropriety regarding discussion of masturbation who will benefit the most from knowing the term musterbation. Because the word is so close to masturbation, which you may have negative feelings associated with, you automatically will have negative feelings associated with musterbation…and thus you will more clearly see how negative self-flagellation is, whereas we oftentimes write it off as, ‘not that big of a deal.'

Is Procrastinating Really Worth It?

If one still feels like procrastinating, use Tool #5 above with the fifth set of labels on the worksheet. You can then compare whether the advantages of procrastinating (e.g. browsing internet, watching TV, sleeping) outweigh the disadvantages. (Burns 117)

I’d Do It If You Stopped Telling Me To!

We automatically resist when others demand of us – and many friends, employers, family, and co-workers do – even if what they want us to do is in our own best interest. (Burns 117-118)

How can we disarm our own defensive mechanism? By agreeing to do what they are asking while refusing to allow them ownership of your motivation for doing so. (Burns 119)

  • Example: “Yes, Mom, I just thought the situation over myself and decided it would be to my advantage to get moving on things. Because of my own decision, I’m going to do it.” (Burns 119)
  • Example: “Yes, Mom, I have in fact decided to get out of bed in spite of the fact that you’ve been telling me to!” (Burns 119)

Visualize Success

Imagine (visualize) what the advantages of completing a task will be. Imagine that the task is completed. Now you have a motivation to complete the task (the outcome) rather than self-flagellation. (Burns 119)12”This method of habit management through the power of positive suggestion works amazingly well. It enabled me and many of my patients to quit smoking after a single treatment session.” (Burns 121)

Count Positive Behaviors

Use a wrist counter to keep track of what positive things you accomplish. (Burns 121-123)

Be Scientific

Our feelings of failure, the overwhelming nature of tasks, and so on almost always comes from a subjective, wishy-washy part of us – use the scientific method to test whether your thoughts and feelings are true. (Burns 123)

Learn to Say No

Sometimes we say we can’t simply to avoid being overburdened with others expectations, unfortunately, we begin to believe we can’t ourselves. (Burns 123-124)

Instead, we’d be better off learning to say no. Once again, I’ve found David Allen’s book Getting Things Done to be extremely helpful on this front.

You Succeed When You Fail

“Remember that even if you do fail, some good can come from it. After all, this is how you learned how to walk. You didn’t just jump up from your crib one day and waltz gracefully across the room. You stumbled and fell on your face and got up and tried again. At what age are you suddenly expected to know everything and  never make any more mistakes?” (Burns 124-125)

Use Tool #5 with labels 5 to counter fears of failure. (Burns 126)

Act Before Feeling

Procrastinators oftentimes wait till they feel like doing something – and they never end up feeling like it. Don’t wait till you feel like doing something, take action and motivation usually follows. (Burns 125)

Additional Resources

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. ”Resentment can sometimes contribute to your lack of motivation, but is usually not the central problem.” (Burns 85)
2. For example, one as a student might perform poorly in order to receive more extensive and personalized attention from the teacher.
3. ”To illustrate how irrational this is, imagine that every time you sat down to eat, you thought about all the food you would have to eat during your lifetime…When you think about all the things you are putting off, you do this very same thing without being aware of it.” (Burns 89)
4. ”Your frustration results from your habit of comparing reality with an ideal in your head. When the two don’t match, you condemn reality…it might be infinitely easier simply to change your expectations than to bend and twist reality.” (Burns 93)
5. I personally find this process helpful.
6. I believe this process is excellent in overcoming procrastination.
7. I am a fan of this process, though struggle with returning to the task – so I don’t use it often.
8. I remind myself of this frequently.
9. I have OCD, I’m not sure that this works for individuals with OCD? It isn’t a technique I have used.
10. This is very helpful. I have a real phobia of phone calls…but if I tell myself I only have to spend x amount of time making phone calls and then, no matter how many still are waiting to be made, I can stop…it is much easier to stop.
11. I (Dave) will not be surprised if someone is unhappy that I used the word musterbation which is so similar to masturbation. If it was simply for shock value I would have eliminated it – but I think it is exactly those people who feel some sort of social impropriety regarding discussion of masturbation who will benefit the most from knowing the term musterbation. Because the word is so close to masturbation, which you may have negative feelings associated with, you automatically will have negative feelings associated with musterbation…and thus you will more clearly see how negative self-flagellation is, whereas we oftentimes write it off as, ‘not that big of a deal.'
12. ”This method of habit management through the power of positive suggestion works amazingly well. It enabled me and many of my patients to quit smoking after a single treatment session.” (Burns 121)

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