Bill Knaus is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.
This blog post was published on May 24, 2010 at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-and-sensibility/201005/why-you-procrastinate-and-what-do-about-it
The procrastination gamble angle is a wager that you can delay and not pay. Does this gamble predict procrastination? It depends on whose theory of procrastination you follow.
We all have theories about what drives people to procrastinate. For example, a reporter told me space aliens plague humanity with procrastination. I quickly challenged that BS. A radio commentator insisted that fear causes procrastination. But how does "fear" explain hyperbolic discounting? This normal human tendency contributes to procrastination when you go for immediate rewards and discount the future benefits of working to meet priority longer-term goals.
Psychological theories are different from everyday ones. Grounded in observation, they are descriptive, plausible, and have testable hypotheses. These theories guide action. Because of limited blog space, you’ll get a segment of my procrastination theory, a description of the procrastination gamble angle, and a corrective action map.
Procrastination is found in just about every nook and cranny of life. It’s on a continuum from a nuisance, to a hindrance, to disabling. It ranges from periodic to persistent.
Procrastination is a problem habit where you put off a timely, relevant, activity until later. This process can be a simple default reaction. You feel uncomfortable. You move away from the discomfort. It can be elaborate: one reason to delay blends into another, as one distraction blends into the next. Both simple and elaborate forms of procrastination can be persistent, change resistant, and continue until the consequences of delays become intolerable. This pattern is normally worth avoiding.
Complex procrastination is putting off curbing a coexisting condition(s) such as anxiety, intolerance for tension, or self-doubts. By simultaneously addressing this form of procrastination and the co-existing condition, you can get a two-for-one benefit.
Procrastination comes in different forms, such as fence straddling on decision-making or dragging your feet to put off something unpleasant but necessary. Deadline procrastination may surface when you have a cut-off date. Personal procrastination is about delaying self-development activities, such as boosting your assertive skills to reduce stress.
Natural Reasons for Procrastinating
If there are natural tendencies that trigger procrastination, this can take procrastination out of a moral category and put it into an ordinary category.
Procrastination exists at different levels from perceptual to conceptual. At the perceptual level, your natural sensitivity for discomfort can trigger avoidance. A low tolerance for tension amplifies your risk for discomfort-dodging procrastination activities. Awareness of sensation sensitivity opens opportunities to get past this barrier.
As a species, we have a proclivity to go for short-term gains over greater longer term benefits (See May 10, 2010 blog). This partially explains why "safe" actions can triumph over challenging productive actions.
You may add a conceptual dimension to low-tension-tolerance by telling yourself you can’t stand tension. This intellectually justifies dodging activities you connect with discomfort. Answers to questions like, "why can’t I stand what I don’t like," can clarify what is going on.
You go through a long socialization process. You learn to live with routines, schedules, and to do time-linked activities. However, your natural impulses will sometimes clash with socially-taught learning and values.
Socially developed doubts, concerns, and fears about what others think also can evoke inhibitions, hesitations, and procrastination. You strengthen your resilience by proactively working to undermine negative beliefs that stir the emotional coals in these procrastination hot zones.
We’re an intelligent and creative species. You can invent dangers and fears that don’t exist. Driven by these fears, you sidetrack yourself from challenges you associate with the fear(s). Deal simultaneously with both the fear and this self-protective procrastination mechanism, and you can make life-changing gains.
Pleasure (rewards) and pain (penalties) are behavior shaping forces. When the pain of the outcome of delay is in the distant future, you may foolishly ignore this for now. There are at least two possible quick and often repetitive rewards for procrastination. You decide to delay and feel relieved that something will get done later. You may feel relief–perhaps exhilaration–if you finish under the wire, or talk your way into an extension. When you are sometimes successful escaping procrastination penalties, this procrastination gamble angle can feel compelling.
A Cognitive, Emotive, Behavioral System for Change
Evidence-based and intuitively correct cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods apply to curbing procrastination. Procrastination thinking can evoke procrastination. Rather than act to succeed, you fantasize about doing great things. You doom yourself before you start by telling yourself you’ll fail. You concoct an excuse to perfume a delay. You tell yourself later is better. Refuse to take this BS from yourself and you’re on track to build follow through skills.
Uncomfortable emotions (sensations) can trigger impulses to avoid tension. This emotive factor is a swivel condition for procrastination. Recognize and teach yourself to tolerate procrastination evoking feelings, and you load the dice in favor of staying off a pending procrastination path.
Behavioral change methods include arranging contingencies of reinforcement. You follow a series of steps with rewards. This sequence of reward can compete with hollow rewards for delay. However, how do you cut through negative emotions, inhibitions, and inertia in the first place? You have to think out how to set the rewards and act responsibly to achieve them. This step can help avoid the procrastination gamble angle.
Execution takes preparation and education. Effective application of clinically-tested cognitive, emotive, and behavior changes predict a shorter time between seeing the task and following-through. Positive changes in one of these areas can affect the others.
Watch What You Do
Eventually, outcome-study researchers will do controlled studies on cognitive, emotive, and behavior interventions for people who struggle with procrastination. Meanwhile, think of yourself as a scientist. The approaches you take are always tentative. The idea is to weed out weaker methods and replace them with more effective ones. If one anti-procrastination measure has no effect, try another.
The everyday scientist approach has added benefits. You are testing the interventions, not your "self." This helps take self-blame out of the picture. The results give you feedback to improve: you know what works, and what doesn’t. This approach makes it easier to drop the "procrastinator" label. Taking steps to change procrastination thinking, feeling, and behaving is more productive than pinning a regressive label on yourself. (You are not the same as the label!)
Apply cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods, and you position yourself to make a radical shift from a self-absorbing procrastination process to a self-observant one. In a self-absorbing state you look inward, focus on your feelings, your place in the sun, or other inner distraction. This is more likely to spur procrastination.
A self-observant approach is a radical shift from procrastination. Following a self-observant way you concentrate on what you’re doing to stretch, progress, and lead the life you want to live.You examine the validity of procrastination thinking. Is tomorrow really better? You play out scenarios for the results of both delay and follow through actions. You teach yourself to accept–not necessarily like–tensions that go with certain priority activities. You guide your actions by reason. Sometimes you just do what you don’t like because it is a necessary priority activity. A self-observant approach may be easier to do when you remind yourself of the horse and rider metaphor from the March 26, 2010 blog.
End Procrastination Now (Knaus. 2010. McGraw-Hill) centers on cognitive, emotive, and behavioral methods to build self-observant skills. Use it to prepare yourself to avoid the procrastination gamble angle through proactive, productive, actions.