I had the privilege of meeting Albert Ellis, Ph.D. before he passed away in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, he was a psychologist who many consider the father of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. In a nutshell, CBT focuses on the role of thinking or cognitions and how they translate into emotions and observable actions. Its aim is to enact change at the level of thoughts since they influence emotions which then affect actions or behavior.
Dr. Ellis did a live demonstration of his unique type of cognitive-behavioral therapy in front of a small group of people one evening in the spring. Watching him do his thing, what struck me most was when he shouted “procrastinate later.” I don’t recall the context in which it came up, but I do remember everybody laughing out loud when he said it, especially given his dry delivery. That’s right, he said to put off procrastination! Do that later. Nike’s remedy for procrastination would be to “just do it.” But, could it really be that easy – to just put off procrastinating? Let’s take a closer look…
I’ve found that the silly-sounding idea of putting off procrastinating can indeed work. It seems to work best when there’s a good level of motivation already present and an extra push is all that’s needed. Having suggested this to some of my clients, they have found it useful in this same regard – when it only requires a little bit of additional effort. Reminding themselves that they can “procrastinate later” was all they needed. However, this isn’t as effective when the thing(s) you’re procrastinating on are more complex, involved, or require a much stronger push. In these cases, we need to venture deeper within our minds. So, let’s venture inward…
Let’s say that you have to write a paper for school. As I’m sure most procrastinators are aware, paper writing time often becomes the best time to clean your apartment, do your laundry, pay your bills or any other thing that you normally put off. Too bad we can’t be this motivated to do these things all the time! Anyway, I’m sure that Albert Ellis would agree that the problem with procrastinating is in our cognition of it. It’s likely that we conceptualize writing that paper as a daunting undertaking that will take an eternity to complete and/or that we don’t know where or how to even start, putting it off until the last minute or not completing it. Herein lies the dilemma: the way we think about writing the paper is the heart of the problem.
While it’s common knowledge to break up problems into smaller pieces for easier consumption, it’s also effective. However, the trick is to see every task or chore this way and to commit to taking some small step(s), even if these steps only initially occur at the thought-level. Realize that everything actually begins with a thought – the construction of your home or apartment, the making of the clothes you’re wearing, the designing of the computer you’re reading this on – everything! So going back to writing that paper, thinking about it, gathering information, sketching out ideas, getting everything out of your head and putting it on paper or a computer, making outlines or organizing time for it means that you may have already started. I say may because some tactics may be aimed at further procrastination even though they may not seem that way, such as making your chair the perfect height, choosing the right font, getting the lighting perfect, etc. One simple test you can perform is to ask yourself if the step you’re taking (or about to take – and remember, even mental steps count) the best next step or are you just placing an obstacle between you and the realization of your goal? You will have to use your discernment and better judgment to tease out whether you’re actually moving forward or running in place, if you will.
Assuming that you are making progress towards writing that paper, it is also important to see it this way without getting down on yourself for not being further along. This is an important part of the process as it can sabotage you and induce procrastination. For those of you who are harder on yourselves, this reframing will have to occur much more often. To do this, the first step you can take is to just notice self-defeating thoughts, nothing more. If this is as far as you get, then it’s important to stop here and to acknowledge the observations you have made, even if you feel like the volume on your distressing internal dialog went up, making things seem worse than when you started. The cartoon character G.I. Joe had wise words that are fitting here: “knowing is half the battle.” Awareness is a prerequisite for change.
When you’re ready to take another step, you can move to practicing thought-interruption. This can occur through mentally shouting “NO!” to your thoughts (or out loud if you feel comfortable doing so), through thought-replacement (i.e. replacing a negative thought with a more suitable positive thought), or through taking some action contrary to the thoughts you’re having. These steps will help you build a solid foundation in which to delay procrastination as you begin shifting emotional reactions (such as anxiety, overwhelm, apathy, etc.) to things you’re putting off as you are indeed taking some action, even if that action is seemingly insignificant.
Try these strategies and see how they work. You can always procrastinate later. I’d love to hear about your struggles with procrastination as well as what has worked.