Procrastination is a habit closely tied to anxiety. When we’re anxious about working on a project, the decision to postpone it reduces our anxiety in the short term. This reduction in anxiety reinforces procrastination making it more likely we’ll procrastinate again. But over the longer-term, procrastination maintains our anxiety because the unfinished work is looming over us. Additionally, finishing projects at the last minute can increase stress and decrease the quality of work product.
Here are some simple cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tips to kick the procrastination habit.
First, get motivated. Rather than tackle procrastination in general, CBT focuses on procrastination in terms of the particular tasks you’re avoiding one at a time. Pick one task and write out the advantages and disadvantages of procrastinating on it. Common advantages include avoid doing things we don’t like, having more time to do things we enjoy. Common disadvantages include having less time to get things done, poorer quality work product, stress, and anxiety. Next, weigh the advantages relative to the disadvantages. If the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of procrastination, you are motivated for change! If your perceived advantages outweigh the disadvantages, go back and give the advantages closer scrutiny. Are there other ways to achieve them without the downsides of procrastination? For example, if procrastination decreases your anxiety, try diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation instead. To take the edge off anxiety while you work, try self soothing with a cup of tea or music.
Second, pick a specific time and day that is realistic for you to begin work on the project.
Third, troubleshoot the thoughts that can get in the way of starting on the project using the TIC TOC technique. TIC stands for task interfering cognition. These are the thoughts that come up when you think of starting work on the project and have the net effect of taking you off task. Common TICS include “I’ll do it tomorrow,” “I’m too tired,” “I don’t feel like it.” Write these down. Then, for every TIC, come up with a TOC—Task Oriented Cognition. There are the thoughts you can use to rebut the TICS and get you back on task. For example, “Start it now to avoid a time crunch and stress,” “Have a cup of coffee,” and “We all have to do things we don’t feel like doing.” This technique is great for writer’s block and can be used to rebut negative thoughts that arise after you’ve started to work.
Remember, the tendency to procrastinate is human. But try some of these CBT techniques, and you just may find you’re procrastinating a little less.
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.