In 2014, I collaborated with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Robert Watson on the subject Procrastination, we worked together to design questions and content after a recent speaking event he did on the subject at Birkbeck University. I interviewed Robert as part of promotional content for his professional Psychological therapy services.
Podcast, watch below or on Youtube: What is Procrastination and how to Overcome it
Transcript of Podcast
1. What is Procrastination?
Strictly speaking procrastination means to put off doing something, or the action of delaying or postponing something. You will like most of us know when you are doing it. Freud said p was related to the pleasure principle – that is our actions are motivated by the need to seek pleasure and we put off things that we don’t find pleasurable. I think there’s still a lot of truth in this idea although the reasons behind procrastination can be a little more complex than this. It’s been said that P is the thief of time – if you delay doing something, it will take longer to do later on, and there’s some truth in that.
2. What does it look like?
All of us Procrastination to some degree. There’s nothing unusual about it. You might Procrastination about tasks that interest you the least like doing the housework, and put it off until you are having friends around for dinner and would feel embarrassed if your house wasn’t tidy. Or you might think that you ought to go to the gym but promise yourself you will go tomorrow. These kind of common day to day examples usually do not have much of an impact upon people’s lives.
3. When does it become a problem?
There are times when Procrastination can be a significant problem in people’s lives and where there could be significant costs to putting things off. If you smoke tobacco, Procrastination about stopping can be harmful to your physical health. If you put off an assignment until the last minute causing you to do it badly – this could impact upon your progress through the course. Some people who at risk of HIV infection for instance put off getting tested for years and this can have a massive impact on their health if they have acquired the infection – starting treatment late can shave fifteen years of life expectancy for people with HIV – which is now normal if treatment is started early enough. So perhaps not surprisingly there are times when Procrastination is a real problem and can have a real negative impact on your physical and emotional well-being.
4. Why do people do it?
Procrastination can highlight to you what’s important to you or not – after all, you probably don’t Procrastination over things you enjoy, or give you pleasure. It can also highlight to you what you might be struggling with personally – you might Procrastination about your work because you want to avoid being evaluated and this could signal that you really fear feeling a failure because it really knocks your self-esteem when you do.
Procrastination can be a sign of depression – if it is accompanied by a general loss and /or lack of interest and energy in doing things.
Procrastination if often about avoiding difficult or painful feelings, and because you may predict you would be worse off by action. Putting off the housework because you think you will feel bored, avoiding a sexual health check-up because of fear or embarrassment, or putting off confronting a friend who let you down because you fear they will reject you if you do. While it may seem illogical to put things off, you have to bear in mind that feelings such as fear and embarrassment can be very powerful and exert a lot of influence on how you act.
5. Could you say something about common patterns you see in Procrastination. Can a “fear of failure” really stop you from focusing on a task and getting on in life more generally?
Definitely. All of us want to do well and succeed. But how people feel when they do not succeed at something or make mistakes varies enormously. You may see making mistakes as a normal part of human nature and feel you can take useful lessons away from these situations, or you might be someone who becomes very self-attacking and think you are rubbish at everything and even feel depressed. What I saying here is that for some people the prospect of being evaluated raises so much fear that they understandably aim to avoid situations or people where they will be evaluated and run a risk of failing. So they put things off. This can mean that they do things at the last minute, rushing and making mistakes, and they end up doing the tasks badly, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy about not being good enough.
6. What about perfectionism?
There is a lot in the literature about perfectionism and Procrastination – some authors say it is linked and others say it is not. In my experience, perfectionism or living by a rule that kind of says things must be done perfectly or not at all, can leave people feeling so pressurised when they are completing their work that they become overwhelmed with anxiety and can’t function normally anymore and end up doing the work badly.
What these examples highlight is that there are patterns of acting that can end up with you having the very feelings you were trying to avoid in the first place. I like to call these patterns traps because it can feel as if however hard you try, you end up repeating the familiar pattern and things seem to stay the same or get worse instead of better. It also highlights that the origins of these self-limiting patterns often lie in our childhood experiences and the kind of parenting we had. Harsh and overly critical parenting for example often leaves people with a harsh and self-attacking inner voice.
7. Would you say others can influence Procrastination?
Certainly, for example, you may find encouragement from your fellow students about the boring assignment you all have to complete helpful in overcoming Procrastination about it. I think one of the limitations in the literature on P is that not enough attention is paid to the relational context to Procrastination – remember that many of the tasks you do will have been asked of you by another – your tutor, boss, partner, friend. So you can’t escape from the fact that how you feel about the task and how motivated you are will depend on your feelings toward who expects you to do it. As a therapist I know that clients sometimes do not complete their homework because they did not feel involved by their therapist in the process. What I would like to suggest here is that sometimes Procrastination can be more about WHO has asked you to do something, rather than what you have been asked to do. You may find you put things off because you are feeling resentful or angry towards the person who asked you to do it, or you might be feeling ambivalent or disillusioned with your job or course, and questioning more broadly the value of what you are doing. I remember during my clinical psychology training that in the first year we were all perfectly behaved students getting our assignments in on time, but by the second year we all started asking for extensions and handing in things late – the mid-course blues.
8. What are some realistic ways to be more productive because telling yourself “I should try harder..”
It may feel to you that the solution to Procrastination is to give yourself a good kick up the back side or to pull yourself together. You may beat yourself up and call yourself names like stupid or pathetic. Understandably these may feel like obvious ways to motivate yourself. And what you are kind of saying is that I would like things to be different but I am frustrated with myself for not getting on with things. I would like to suggest that beating yourself up usually ends up with you feeling even worse about yourself and makes being productive even harder. When we feel warmth and encouragement from what others say to us we tend to feel good about ourselves and motivated, so developing this kind of encouraging dialogue with yourself can be helpful to overcoming Procrastination.
9. If a client came to you?
I would want to take the situation seriously but I would also not want to overly pathologise it either – that is, make it a problem when it wasn’t. Procrastination is part of being human and so it would be unusual to hear someone say they never Procrastination. so it would be important to establish how often they Procrastination, and the impact it had, and start to understand the context for it. Is a fear of failure relevant, is it reflective of losing interest in their course, or is it a sign of a more pervasive loss of interest that might indicate depression? This understanding would inform the intervention.
10. How can I help myself?
Try to foster a spirit of curiosity in yourself and be an observer to yourself, like you were a fly on the wall watching. Be mindful of self-attacking judgements. Try to be as honest with yourself as you can. It can be useful to ask yourself questions. Is Procrastination really a problem for me? How often do I feel stuck with the way I Procrastination? Am I trying to pretend to myself it is not a problem? How much have I got into trouble or made someone unhappy by Procrastination? How do I feel towards the person who asked me to do this? Are these feelings familiar – do you always feel resentful when someone asks you to do something?
Your answers to these questions will start to suggest to you whether you can address the problem with self-help or whether it might be useful to talk further to a therapist about it.
It can be useful to notice any beliefs or predictions about the task – I will be bored, anxious… And then test them out. What actually happened? Was it as bad as I thought? What did I learn? It can also be helpful to notice any beliefs that give you a green light to P like “I always work well under pressure”. Be brave and approach it differently the next time and see what happens. As you see becoming involved in what needs changing in your life is a bit like becoming an explorer – taking a slightly different path to the one that seems obvious and right to you. If you always do what you always do, you will always get what you always get! And remember some things in life that have to be done are just plain dull and boring so make sure you reward yourself at the end.
Notes for Diagrams
In these diagrams I have drawn out some examples of what in CAT would be called “traps” around procrastination – patterns of thinking and acting where the aim is to avoid a painful feeling or situation but actually bring about the feeling or situation you understandably are trying to avoid.
These diagrams from the podcast: “what is procrastination and how to overcome it” – are one of the important tools that are used in Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT). The therapist works collaboratively with the client early on in the therapy to create a “diagram” or “map” of the patterns that are holding the client back to help them understand themselves better and create exits from these patterns. In CAT your key experiences during childhood of how others (parents, siblings, classmates etc.) treated you are described as reciprocal roles.
So if you had repeated experiences of someone being critically rejecting, this would have left you feeling rejected and criticised. So as you grow older in your eyes others would potentially be seen as threatening because they could reject or criticise you. These relationship experiences become internalised as reciprocal roles and act as a kind of template or model for understanding yourself and others.
They influence strongly how you see the world and feel around other people. It is likely that if others were often critical of you, that you will be critical of yourself – as if you have internalised their critical voice as your own. It is also likely that you will often feel critical towards others. As you can see from the diagrams these reciprocal roles influence your patterns of action.
– Dr Robert Watson
Clinical Psychologist and Accredited Cognitive Analytic Therapist. Robert works in private practice at Become Psychology – find out more about Robert, CAT, and the work they do at www.become-psychology-london.co.uk they offer workshops to students at competitive prices on anything from overcoming procrastination to sexual health issues.
MP3 download: What is procrastination and how to overcome it
Robert and I also run a sexual health project http://confidentsexualhealth.com