Because procrastination is such a common problem, especially for students, we are presenting a series of articles that explore the issue in depth. This week, we look at some of the causes of severe procrastination and what interventions are available.
Christopher Scheer is a learning specialist at Touro University California.
There is likely no adult on earth who has not avoided, at least momentarily, doing something they know they should do, and could thus be called a procrastinator. Many generally successful people like to make self-deprecating jokes about what “terrible procrastinators” they are. Yet, for severe procrastinators, this recurring behavior is often no joke.
“Chronic procrastination can have high costs,” writes Michael Neenan of London’s Centre for Stress Management.
“It has been associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem. As a result, procrastination probably accounts for much of why many never realize their full potential and so it can be an extremely disabling psychological condition.”
“Chronic . . . procrastination probably accounts for much of why many never realize their full potential and so it can be an extremely disabling psychological condition.”
— Michael Neenan, Center for Stress Management (London)
If your struggle with procrastination goes far beyond the “cute” humblebrag stories of staying up late to (successfully) finish a paper during finals week, you may want to consider tackling the problem much more aggressively than just reading another “lifehacking” article about how to increase productivity.
Depending on the roots and triggers which lead you to avoid working toward your goals, you may find the following interventions profoundly helpful. The catch is that they all challenge you, in ways that are not always going to be comfortable.
To change, you must learn to be honest with yourself and others; be willing to work hard to make gradual, significant change; and, perhaps most importantly, ask for help from others. After all, your best efforts and thinking have not been able to quell the pain of procrastination, and it can be powerfully helpful to have support and advice as you learn how to push through difficult tasks and feelings you’ve been avoiding facing.
Note that many of these may also cost money (or at least the hassle of dealing with medical insurance bureaucracies), but remember to weigh this against the high cost of doing nothing!
Individual Therapy & Coaching
While paying a professional to talk to you about your procrastination might seem like a last resort, it is actually a pretty great place to start: Trained therapists, counselors, and even life coaches can be quite helpful in helping you explore the roots of your procrastination and guiding you toward new, healthier behavior patterns — as well as refer you to next steps if talk therapy isn’t enough.
Of course, as with any intervention, getting started is the hardest thing for a procrastinator! Embarrassment or fear can keep you from asking for help, or you may be set on finding “just the right person” as an excuse to never actually set up an appointment. Friend and family referrals can be great, but if you have health insurance the best idea might be to just call and get an appointment RIGHT NOW, before you can think to procrastinate. Remember, this is your life we are talking about.
Meditation, Yoga & Other Mindfulness Training
Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga can be difficult to practice in isolation, especially for the highly distractible, but are much easier to access through a class or trainer. While “doing nothing” and “clearing the mind” may themselves seem like a form of procrastination, they have been proven to be powerful multipliers of productivity and satisfaction when practiced regularly.
Procrastination is largely an anxiety problem, and any practice which decreases stress will likely pay immediate dividends. A calm mind makes better decisions, wastes less energy and finds more joy in small victories. This is why even massive health organizations like Kaiser Permanente now offer free mindfulness trainings for members (as do we, here at Touro University California!).
Remember, though, not to bring the same perfectionism which may be stoking your procrastination to your attempts at mindfulness. Yoga and meditation are not competitive activities, and should not become new arenas for self-criticism!
Unfortunately, many procrastinators are already “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol — or even are addicted to activities which reliably produce a kick of chemical pleasure produced by their own brain’s neurotransmitters. However, prescribed medications targeted at a procrastinator’s root issues can be more helpful in moving one’s “tipping point” for action in the right direction.
Ritalin or Adderall, for example, can dramatically help those struggling with focus, while anti-anxiety or anti-depressive drugs can help those suffering from an exaggerated fear of the future or sense of hopelessness based on the past. Some of us need some help just to get to the starting line before we can run the race!
Obviously, there is valid fear that modern humans are being overmedicated, and all medications come with side effects. Yet, procrastination can have terrible, life-threatening side effects of its own, and that needs to be considered when weighing the pros and cons.
12-Step Programs & Group Therapy
Severe procrastinators often isolate, or at least hide the extent of their procrastination from those around them, due to shame at what they consider “laziness” or “weakness.” A core facet of 12-step programs inspired directly by Alcoholics Anonymous, and the many group or church therapy programs modeled after its proven structure, is building relationships inside a supportive recovery community where such judgements are absent.
While there is currently no national “Procrastinator’s Anonymous” program, there are a vast array of programs, targeting the different bad habits we may choose to do compulsively to avoid our “should do” list. All are built on the same foundation of honesty, spiritual and emotional growth, and then sharing your “experience, strength and hope” with others who are suffering from the same disease.
(Note: All actual 12-step meetings are free, although group therapy programs built on 12-step concepts may charge a fee if they are led by professionals.)
Of course, many of those in dire straits will want to employ several or all of these tools! The key is to start where you are able to start: With a single phone call to your general practitioner’s office to set up an appointment for a therapy referral, or take a minute to look up on the Web for a 12-step meeting near you. (Note to Touro University California students: You can contact Jill Alban at her tu.edu account for professional on-campus referrals.)
Severe procrastination is, in some ways, a form of living death; you are giving the hours of your only lifetime to activities which do not bring you closer to your goals, values, or contentment. Treat the problem with the seriousness it deserves.
Next week: Prioritization vs. Procrastination
The Procrastination Series on EfficientLearning.org:
- Struggling with Procrastination
- Why Do We Procrastinate?
- Why Is It So Hard to Stop Procrastinating?
- Beating Procrastination: The Tipping Point
- Interventions for Severe Procrastination
- Prioritization vs. Procrastination
- Building Better Habits
- Tools, Resources, and Further Readings