Taxes, bills, annoying phone calls, paperwork, studying, exercise -- just a few of the many tasks we all procrastinate on.
Procrastination is a fairly universal trait. Humans by nature want to give in to short-term gratification at the expense of long-term best interests. But the irony in procrastination is that often we may be doing something more gratifying in the moment, but there is a cloud of anxiety or guilt that looms over you, making you feel worse.
Working with a range of clients at the Albert Ellis Institute, I have seen a common thread with those who procrastinate.
They tell themselves, "I'll do it later" or "I shouldn't have to do this boring/difficult task" or "I'd rather be doing something more enjoyable" or "I can't tolerate the discomfort of doing what I find to be boring or annoying."
As much as humans engage in these self-sabotaging behaviors, we do have the ability to change. If procrastination is a problem for you, here are some strategies to help you overcome it.
Much of our feelings and behavior towards procrastination are largely the result of how we think about ourselves, others, and the world. Our internal self-talk is a big part of procrastination and while it may not feel like we have a choice in how we look at things, we do.
First, we can no longer blame our spouses, bosses, children, or the dog for our reactions. We are all responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Second, if we can talk to ourselves in a manner that results in self-sabotaging behaviors such as procrastination, we can also change our thinking to result in feelings and behaviors that assist us in achieving our goals. Yes, you can change what you do by changing how you think.
Two people experiencing the same adversity can have two very different reactions. Most people who procrastinate beat themselves up for it. They tell themselves "I am such a failure for not doing my paper earlier," or "I shouldn't have put this off and I'm a bad person because I did." These types of beliefs just add to the problem.
Now you have two problems instead of one: procrastination and some self-defeating emotional upset (e.g., anger, depression, guilt). I'm not suggesting you let yourself off the hook for procrastinating. I'm also not suggesting you be happy about your procrastination. Instead, take responsibility for the behavior, but don't rate your total being as a failure if you do procrastinate.
Self-acceptance is the first step in overcoming this behavior. Remember, we're human and make mistakes. As humans, we sometimes do things that are not in our best interest. Self-acceptance does not mean it's okay or good to procrastinate. Self-acceptance does not mean you like this aspect of yourself. But what I am suggesting is that we accept ourselves as fallible humans, while at the same time address the behaviors that are self-defeating.
The next step towards beating procrastination is to change the thoughts that lead to it. When you tell yourself you can't stand to be uncomfortable, you start to believe it, and act accordingly by avoiding certain tasks. Let's be honest -- we can't stand to live without water and food. We can stand (but not enjoy) boring, difficult, and annoying tasks. But rather than put it off, tell yourself, "I don't want to do this right now but I will feel better after I have completed it."
And change your phrase, "I shouldn't have to do this boring/difficult task" to "I really wish I didn't have to exercise, file papers, return calls, pay my bills but it's part of my life and delaying it gets me into trouble."
By changing this thought pattern, you can put off procrastinating.