Getting Help for Procrastination By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

The first thing you have to know about procrastinating is that you should set your expectations realistically. It took you a lifetime to get to where you are today in terms of procrastination, so it’s not something you can fix overnight. But it is something you can fix. All you need is the dedication to do so and the willingness to try something new.

Address the Cognitive Distortions

Since most of procrastination has to do with irrational beliefs and cognitive distortions, it is best to address these up-front. First, it is usually easy to estimate the actual amount of time it takes to complete a task by keeping track of the amount of time spent on tasks. For example, if you track that it takes you approximately five hours of study time to get an A or B on a history exam, you can use that information for helping to better schedule your study time on future exams.

Second, you will be no better motivated in the future than you are right now. This common fallacy leads many people who procrastinate to simply putting off things into the future when they’re in “the right mood.” Your ability to be successful at any task is not dependent upon your mood. Sometimes we have to do something we don’t like to do, even if we don’t feel like it, just to get it done. That doesn’t mean our results are going to be of lesser quality or the task will be a failure. It just means that sometimes motivation comes after you’ve started work on something. And sometimes, working on a project helps bring about a change in our mood. We can’t always expect to be in the right mood all the time. Neither should you expect to only be able to work on things in life when you’re in the right mood. These are just elaborate excuses we make up to reinforce our procrastinating behavior. You can, however, choose to ignore them.

Remember that as you go through this process, you must constantly challenge your cognitive distortions and irrational fears:

  • It is not hopeless (few situations are truly hopeless)
  • It is not too late (there is always time if you start now)
  • You are smart enough (or you wouldn’t have made it this far)
  • You can’t do it later (as you’ll just keep putting “later” off until later)
  • You will not perform better under pressure (the best work is done when it is well thought-out)

Keep a Journal

Challenging your thoughts and beliefs about how you work and how to best complete a task is something you should get in the habit of doing on a daily basis. It is sometimes helpful to people to keep a little journal of their thoughts that need to be challenged, as well as a rational response to the thought. For example:

Thought Response
“I’ll start work on that paper tomorrow since today’s such a beautiful day!” I said that yesterday, too. It sounds as if I’m just putting off the inevitable, thinking I need to be in the “right mood” or something. I think I’ll spend 2 hours working on it today, and still have enough time later to reward myself with enjoying this beautiful day.
“Oh gosh, I can’t believe how much I put off studying for this exam! There’s no point in studying now, I’m sure I’m going to fail.” Well, maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to begin studying. But I have been mostly keeping up with the chapters, and I know pretty much most of what’s going to be on the exam. If I start now, it looks like I’ll be able to get a decent grade on it.

These are just a few examples of how to answer irrational thoughts, but you can come up with many others on your own. The more you track and write down these kinds of thoughts, the easier it becomes to answer them! Eventually, you’ll be able to do this in your head, as soon as the thought pops into it. But to get started, it’s usually best to keep a journal. Most people have so many thoughts throughout the day, you may be surprised by the number you record. Many of them are harmless, but some of them are keeping you from beating your procrastination. Those are the ones you should focus on.

You can also use a journal like this to help you keep track of other important things related to your procrastination. For example, if it took you 8 hours to study for an exam instead of the 4 your allotted, this might be a good place to keep track of that information. Then for the next exam, you can plan accordingly (and far more easily!).

Fear also has to be answered, because for many it paralyzes them with inaction. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking bad, fear of having others make fun of us for trying. Only you can identify the particular fear that is feeding your procrastination and understand the basis for it. Some fears can be easily addressed, but others may require more assistance from your counseling center or a therapist. Fear holds many people back in many aspects of their lives, but it is something that can be conquered. Usually the first step in addressing your fears, however, is to identify them and seek assistance in overcoming them.

Get Better Organized

Since disorganization is a component common to most people who procrastinate, becoming more organized and learning how to organize competing tasks is a good place to start. Most people start with a simple appointment book. Purchase a small, simple appointment book (or make your own on the computer) for the year. Appointment books (or organizers) work best if it is of the size that you can carry with you nearly anywhere you go. There’s not much point in having an organizer if it’s never handy enough to actually write things down in it. (If you don’t have it handy when do you need to record something in it, write the appointment or task on a post-it note and attach it to the inside of your wallet or purse. That’ll remind you to transfer it to your organizer immediately.)

Keep in mind, however, that a lot of disorganization comes from our head, not from the cleanliness of our rooms or desks. While obtaining and maintaining an appointment book or organizer is a good start, you have to commit to changing your behavior too. That means writing down assignments in the organizer in class or at work.

Tips for Using an Organizer Effectively

  1. Work backward from the due date
    Start by working backwards from the due date. Think back to the last time a similar assignment was due. You probably completed it the night or day before, at the last minute, with little time to check for errors or mistakes. If you had had the time you needed to do a quality job on that task, how long might it have taken? The first time you do this, you may need to estimate a few of the tasks, or you can just use history as a guide (especially if procrastination has not been a life-long problem for you).
  2. All tasks can and should be broken down into parts
    Each task should have a number of milestones, dates you should set for yourself when certain parts of that task should be completed. For instance, writing a paper might have five or six milestones: (1) select topic; (2) research topic; (3) organize notes into a paper outline; (4) write rough draft; (5) have friend review; (6) write final draft and review. Each one of these should be noted in the organizer with a due date.
  3. Keep track of other activities and dates
    Note holidays, times you need to set aside for other social activities, other professional appointments, and dates that affect your school or work schedule. Sometimes people leave these blank, forgetting that a trip to visit some friends could easily affect their study time a day or two ahead of time as they have to pack, make arrangements for their pets, etc.
  4. Start every day with a review
    Every day, make it a habit to begin your day by opening to that day in your organizer and reviewing not only that day’s tasks or appointments, but also review the entire week. If it’s a Friday, look to next week in case there are any deadlines on the following Monday.
  5. Keep track of time relative to your due dates
    In addition to setting milestones for yourself, some people like to make notations every week for 4 weeks before a big event, task or exam. You can do this easily by marking every week backwards from the due date with a “T -3 Psych Exam” for 3 weeks before the psychology exam.
  6. Keep it up-to-date from the start
    Mark due dates in your appointment book the first moment you are aware of them (even at the beginning of the semester). Sometimes people get lost or confused by keeping an organizer because they don’t take the time or effort necessary to maintain it and keep it updated.
  7. Keep a daily to-do list
    Some people hate them, some people can’t live without them. For most procrastinators, it’s a good idea to keep a to-do list every day of things that should be accomplished for both the day and the week. Even if you have to write a new one every day, keeping such a list will go a long way toward keeping your procrastination under control.

All tasks can be broken down into smaller components, that can then be tackled far more easily than the overwhelming large chunk. That should always be your first goal — find a way to break the task down into small sub-tasks, and then set deadlines for each of those.

Finally, and perhaps most important, you need to give yourself a break. You’re going to mess up and you’re not going to be successful every time you try to not procrastinate, especially at the start. You’re still going to procrastinate at first, and you may relapse from time to time as you grapple with this new way of looking at and working on tasks. Nobody is perfect. One or two setbacks doesn’t mean you won’t be successful in this, and you should accept that you’re going to have them before you even get started.

If, however, you maintain your steadfastness in wanting to beat your procrastination, you’re going to find these techniques helpful. Eventually a lot of this will come more naturally and you’ll wonder why you ever wasted so much time procrastinating!

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