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URMC / BHP / BHP Blog / June 2024 / Procrastinating – Everyone does it

Procrastinating – Everyone does it

By: Hillary Harter, RN-PMHN BC

In an attempt to be fully transparent, I want to share my story with you. I had a project due at work a couple of months ago and I procrastinated to the point that I stressed myself out, turned it in late, and ultimately felt guilty because I realized it was not my best work. Now I am faced with another upcoming assignment at work, and I promised myself I was going get it done and impress my supervisor by actually turning it in early. I put reminders on my calendar six weeks before the due date to remind myself to start researching the topic. I put weekly reminders on my calendar to work on the assignment a little bit at a time so I could complete it on schedule and put my best effort into doing a good job. I was proud that I was such a good planner. I promised myself I was NOT going to stress myself out again by working on this at the last minute.

But every time I sat down to work on the project, I ended up getting sidetracked and working on other things instead. I justified that I had to clear out my email inbox now, then I had to organize my desk, then I had to count my paper clips. I had other excuses too like, "I’m too tired", "I’ll work on it tomorrow", "I have plenty of time". Eventually I was down to one week to work on the project when suddenly an emergency happened at work. I was forced to address the emergency first and change the work on the assignment which I’d been delaying. And guess what happened? I ended up turning in my assignment late again; I became stressed out and I acknowledged that it was not my best work. I found myself in the loop of procrastination again, and wondered “How did I get here? What happened to my perfectly planned out timeline?”

If you can relate to this story, you might be part of the over 25% of the general adult population who are chronic procrastinators.1 Procrastination is often defined as "a voluntary and unnecessary delay in the start or completion of important and intended tasks despite recognizing there will be harmful consequences for oneself and others for doing so."2 Procrastinators are not lazy, nor do they constantly struggle with time management issues. Procrastination is a decision to not act, and it is a maladaptive approach to completing tasks. Completing tasks becomes a vicious cycle of procrastination which can be more and more difficult to overcome.

The Procrastination Cycle

The procrastination cycle begins with an unhelpful rule or assumption that one holds which becomes activated. This assumption causes uncomfortable feelings to arise to the point that one tries to overcome these feelings by engaging in procrastination activities in order to distract themselves. This results in a negative consequence (delay in completing a task and disappointing your supervisor) or a positive consequence (relief from the uncomfortable feeling) and the likelihood they will procrastinate again the next time. People hold unhelpful rules and assumptions about themselves or how the world works.3 These rules and assumptions might be from messages they have received from others, past experiences (perhaps from childhood), or how they have observed other’s approach life. Some examples of the unhelpful rules and assumptions most frequently associated with procrastination are:

  • Needing to be in charge – Thinking "I shouldn’t have to do things that I don’t want to do.", or “Things should be done my way.”
  • Pleasure seeking –Tending to be motivated more by immediate gratification or rewards than by long-term rewards.
  • Fear of failure or disapproval – Having high personal performance standards. Tending to be extremely self-critical or fear being judged poorly by peers.
  • Low self-confidence – Having thoughts such as, "I can’t do it. I am not capable."
  • Depleted energy – Thinking "I can’t do it if I’m tired, overwhelmed, or stressed".

These unhelpful rules and assumptions lead to uncomfortable feelings in the form of anger, resentment, frustration, anxiety, fear, despair, depression, boredom, and more.

The uncomfortable feeling drives behavior and to minimize or eliminate the discomfort, one creates procrastination excuses which then leads to participation in procrastination activities, such as distracting oneself by scrolling on the phone, organizing the closet, watching TV – basically anything pleasurable or distracting as a substitute for the tasks that need attention.

Breaking the Cycle

Now that we know more about the cycle of procrastination, how do we break that cycle and move from a “procrastinator” to a "doer"? There are several steps that can be taken which can stop the negative spiral of procrastination.

  1. Adjusting unhelpful rules and assumptions – In order to challenge or adjust the unhelpful rules or assumptions, it is helpful to recognize what these rules are and where they came from. You can then start to break down the unhelpful rule to determine if it is reasonable, true, or realistic. You can create more helpful rules or assumptions that incorporate self-compassion and empathy.
  2. Tolerating discomfort – Instead of reacting to discomfort, it is helpful to increase your tolerance for it. To do this, you can incorporate the use of mindfulness to observe the discomfort without trying to get rid of it. You become an observer of your experience instead of reacting or getting caught up in it.
  3. Dismiss procrastination excuses and encourage yourself – If your excuse is being really tired, you might end up convincing yourself the procrastination is justified because you’ll do a better job when you are rested. There will never be a perfect time to do something you don’t feel like doing. If it’s something you know you have to do, now is a great time to get started. Taking action can lead to increased motivation.
  4. Getting things done – Focusing on what needs to be done, how to do it, and when to do it will help move you forward. Some techniques for moving into action includes:
    1. Worst first – Complete the "worst" task first, so that all the other tasks seem simple.
    2. Using momentum – Start doing a task you like and use that energy to switch to the task you have been delaying.
    3. Just five minutes – Tell yourself you are going to work on the task for just five minutes. Knowing you only have to do five minutes will help you get started which might lead to doing another five minutes, and another, and so on.
    4. Prime time – Work on the tasks when you know you are at your best. Are you a morning person who runs out of steam mid-afternoon? If so, you will want to tackle the task first thing in the morning.
    5. Reminders – Use visual reminders, such as notes or lists posted around your house or office to prompt you to remember to take action.
    6. Focus – If you find yourself losing concentration, take 5-10 minutes to focus on your breath then return to the task.
    7. Rewards – Remember to reward yourself after you complete the task or after you’ve completed a particularly difficult part of the task.

It is important to realize that procrastination is a maladaptive habit and therefore, it will take time, practice, persistence, and patience to break the procrastination cycle.4

If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, engaging in therapy at Behavioral Health Partners may help. Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety and depression. To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.

1Wang, Chien-Wei MD; Chung, Kevin C. MD, MS. The Art of Procrastination. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 153(1):p 1-5, January 2024. | DOI: 10.1097/PRS.0000000000010977

2Sirois FM. Procrastination and Stress: A Conceptual Review of Why Context Matters. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2023 Mar 13;20(6):5031. doi: 10.3390/ijerph20065031. PMID: 36981941; PMCID: PMC10049005.



Keith Stein | 6/5/2024

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