Overcoming procrastination: If not now, when?

People who are chronic procrastinators may believe that there is no way to change. However, professional counseling can offer hope.

Procrastination (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Even back in the days of Rabbi Hillel, (30 BCE – 10 CE) this famous rabbi was concerned about the problem of procrastination, “If not now, when?”
Many people procrastinate. In fact, research studies show that about 20 percent of the general population are chronic procrastinators; they “put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Indeed, the literature indicates that about 70% of college students procrastinate about getting assignments completed or studying for exams. For some students, this is devastating, and the cause of their academic downfall.
I have counseled university students who are emotionally and cognitively blocked. They have difficulty getting started with a project or studying for a final exam. Conversely, procrastination apparently works quite well for other students.
One university graduate student I treated explained it this way. “I put myself through emotional ‘hell’ before exams and final assignments, always waiting until the last moment. My anxiety goes through the ceiling and then my adrenalin kicks in. But, at the last moment, I always manage to pull it together quite well.” This student thrived on the last-minute-pressure deadlines, but paid a very high price in doing so. Nevertheless, she stated that it worked for her, and I am sure for many students as well as other adults, last-minute coping is a viable strategy. People often stay fixed in their choice of coping behavior for better or worse, especially if they believe it works.
Psychological literature has many explanations about causes and treatment for people who procrastinate and do not do so well. Below I describe two people who suffered from chronic procrastination, and the approach I used to help each one overcome the problem.
Psychological insight therapy Jay grew up in a very dysfunctional home. His mom and dad had an extremely problematic marriage. The father, suffering from bouts of anger and drinking, was very strict and demanding towards Jay and his younger brother. When Jay was 13 years old, his father had a stroke and his mother had to care for a sick and depressed man as well as raising her sons and running a small family business. She turned to Jay to fill his father’s shoes, and Jay started to stay home from school.
Eventually, he dropped out of high school so he could help run the family business. After his army service, his mother pressured him to continue in this role. Reluctantly, Jay took over and ran the family business. Eventually both parents passed away. About 10 years later, Jay, a man in his 30s, found himself depressed and stuck, not knowing what to do with his life. He had a long-term girlfriend whom he loved, and she wanted to get married and start a family. Prior to beginning treatment, Jay’s girlfriend had threatened to end the relationship because he was continuously putting off important decisions. Fearing his girlfriend would leave him, Jay sought out therapy. He then became aware of the fact that he resorted to procrastination as a passive-aggressive way to rebel against his parents’ excessive demands, since he had been unable to do so as a child. Internally, he felt controlled by “external agents,” i.e. his parents (although they had died).
Once he was able to understand the source of his procrastination, he was able to let go of the need to project his fear of being controlled onto his girlfriend and onto anyone else who he thought was making demands of him. Because of these insights and my supportive encouragement, Jay felt free to be his own person and to make his own life plans. Through the process, his procrastination habits began to disappear and today he feels more in control of making decisions that are in his best interest.
Cognitive-behavioral treatment Subjective perception is a key cognitive factor that influences many people to procrastinate. They see the task as overwhelming, or something they do not have the skills to achieve. Rather than face the task, they opt for the “easier” way: procrastinate and avoid the problem. However, this avoidance creates anxiety and stress, and lowers the confidence that one needs to do the task. Linda, a 40-year-old single mother, wanted my help to make important changes in her life. One of these issues was to find work. She had a problem: She continually avoided rewriting her résumé. I asked Linda to explain to me why she avoided rewriting her résumé.
She said that it was overwhelming. When I asked her if she had written previous résumés, she confirmed that she had.
Next, I asked her why she believed that she could not rewrite this one. In CBT, a common intervention is to ask a client to prove to the therapist why they cannot do something they are afraid to do. Linda, like many anxious people, when confronted with the facts, was able to let go of her negative belief.
She acknowledged that she had previously successfully written résumés. Next, I helped Linda outline the steps that were needed to rewrite the résumé. I explained that sometimes by breaking things down into smaller units, a larger task seems more manageable. Another common cognitive-behavioral task that helps maintain motivation is the use of positive imagery.
Linda was able to visualize those who loved her celebrating her success in finding a new job. CBT helped Linda get past her procrastination and write a very solid and useful résumé that eventually helped her find the job she wanted.
People who are chronic procrastinators may believe that there is no way to change. However, professional counseling can offer hope.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, and addictions treatment specialist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy. www.drmikegropper.weebly.com.