Can CBT help overcome procrastination?

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Everyone falls victim to procrastination from time to time. At some point, our self-control wavers. We end up losing sight of our goals and surrendering everything we know about the benefits of delayed gratification.

However, for some people, procrastination takes a more severe hold of in their lives and starts to become a personality trait. This form of chronic procrastination can harm other areas of our lives. We begin to put off important projects at work, delay taking action on a developing health issue or even have hold off important conversation we need have with loved ones.

What is chronic procrastination?

According to an academic paper on procrastination published by the Journal of Educational Psychology, chronic procrastination can be defined as ‘the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, thus putting off impeding tasks to a later time.”

Chronic procrastinators often have perpetual problems starting or completing tasks. It is linked to a wide range of mental issues and negative emotions such as guilt, anxiety and depression. Chronic procrastination can also negatively impact our self-esteem as well as our physical health and stress levels. In fact, a 2010 study titled, “I’ll go to therapy, eventually” found that procrastination and stress are closely connected and that high levels of procrastination is linked to poorer mental health and fewer actions taken to look after mental wellbeing.


The psychology behind procrastination

We all know procrastination only leads to prolonged stress and anxiety, but this doesn’t explain why chronic procrastination still affects nearly 20 percent of us.

In order to understand how we can reduce our likelihood to procrastinate, we must first understand some of the key reasons we procrastinate in the first place.

Below are some of the most common justifications for procrastination.

Avoidance – We might avoid going to work, miss crucial appointments or meetings or avoid the task in hand all together by watching TV or engaging in an activity that brings us more joy.

Distraction – We engage in behaviours or actions that prevent us from committing to the task we actually need to do. For example, we may decide to browse social media instead of starting an important presentation or plan an evening out with friends instead of having an awkward conversation with our partner.

Trivalisation – We convince ourselves that what we need to do is not that important. E.g. “I don’t need to prepare for the meeting tomorrow; it’s only with my peers and not anyone from senior management.”

Comparisons – We compare our situation and actions to those we perceive as being even worse than ours. E.g. “I know I didn’t complete the project, but neither did Susan, and she’s in a more senior position than I am.”

Humour – We make jokes to make ourselves feel better about our inability to complete something or reach our goal. E.g. “Gary may have got that promotion but have you seen how old he looks now. At least I still look young!”

External Blaming – We believe that our procrastination is a result of external factors beyond our control. E.g. “I can’t start work on this project until I speak to my manager.”

Reframing – We pretend that doing that task in hand straight away will be harmful to our performance. E.g. “I couldn’t possibly make an early start on this project. I work better in the evening and excel under pressure.”

Denial – We deny that we’re even procrastinating at all and convince ourselves that what we’re doing now is actually more important than what we really need to do.

Laziness – We procrastinate because we’re too lazy to do what we should be doing. E.g. “I know I need to go to the gym, but I really can’t be bothered.”

How can CBT help with procrastination?

When we procrastinate, we prevent ourselves from living a stress-free and happy life. When chronic procrastination becomes entrenched in our behaviour patterns, we need to learn new thought processes and behaviour patterns to counteract the negative impact procrastination has in our lives.

CBT helps with this. With chronic procrastination, cognitive behavioural therapy works by helping you approach your with the problematic behaviours and thoughts in a more positive way. Here are some of the common CBT techniques used to help procrastination:

Behavioural Activation – This technique works by helping you change your continuous pattern of procrastination so that you approach your tasks instead of avoiding them. Behavioural activation works by helping you change the way you think about your tasks by reflecting on your personal traits, values and expectations. Your therapist will then work with you to assess if these match the way you approach your tasks.

Mindfulness Training – This technique focuses on making us aware of our thoughts and feelings – free of judgment. When we procrastinate, we often get overwhelmed with a mixture of emotions, such as guilt and stress, which only leaves us feeling depleted.

Mindfulness training will help us to separate ourselves from our cognitive distortions and connect to the actual situation. This enables us to be less emotionally reactive in the way we approach our tasks in a realistic and digestible manner.

Stimulus Control – When dealing with procrastination, stimulus control is used to monitor and reduce the stimuli that cause that behaviour. For example, you might find yourself particularly more likely to procrastinate if you listen to music or a podcast when trying to do some work. But you may find that your productivity skyrockets when you’re in a silent environment on your own, with minimal distractions.

By controlling the environmental factors that either help us excel or prevent us from succeeding, your CBT therapist will help you adopt new practices that will help you increase and maintain your motivation.


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