Procrastination has severe consequences for academic achievement.[1] 80%-95% of university students procrastinate, with 50% practising procrastination consistently and problematically.[2] I consider procrastination as one of the biggest enemies in life, as do some economists.[3]

This article is written as a follow up to my first article about countering procrastination.[4] The methods provided in it focused on utilising external forces, such as commitment devices, on countering procrastination. This time, we will look at procrastination from the perspective of cognitive-behaviour therapy. We will focus on identifying and correcting irrational thoughts that cause us to procrastinate. This method has been reported to significantly decrease procrastination.[5]

What is cognitive-behaviour therapy?

Cognitive-behaviour therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts dictate our feelings and behaviour.[6] In other words, you feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you have at this moment.[7] By correcting your irrational reasoning in your head, you will be more productive. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Surely such a serious problem cannot be solved in such a simple way. Feeling sceptical or unconvinced? Your own thoughts created and reinforced those feelings.

Distortion 1 – Overwhelming yourself

‘I just can’t start it; it’s just too much; I’ll save it for later when I feel like it.’

Does this sound like you? You’re not alone; I think like that when facing a difficult task as well. However, this type of thinking is irrational. Imagine that, every time you sat down to eat, you would see all the food you’d eat in your life.[8] Countless vegetables, meats, snacks and desserts all piled in front of you. You wouldn’t know where to begin, and your appetite would vanish.

We do the same with difficult tasks, and we overwhelm ourselves. The correct way of thinking is to break each job down into small, discrete, manageable units which you can complete one at a time. Set a small goal, complete it and then do it again.

Distortion 2 – Self-labelling

‘I am such a procrastinator! I’m just too lazy to do this right now.’

Have you ever thought this before immediately opening Facebook? More than 70% of students consider themselves procrastinators.[9] This is a toxic cycle- the more you procrastinate, the more you label yourself as a procrastinator. The more you label yourself as a procrastinator, the more you put off tasks and behave like one. Instead of this, think more positively about yourself. You are not a procrastinator, and you can be productive!

Distortion 3 – undervaluing the rewards

‘I handled the situation well because it was an easy problem; anyone could have done it.’

 By disqualifying the positive progress that you have made, future procrastination is more likely. Your ability to experience satisfaction from completed work has been diminished. Thinking ‘it doesn’t count’ distorts your judgement about the potential rewards of overcoming procrastination. When you achieve something, even it is small, pat yourself on the back and keep going.

Distortion 4 – Fear of Failure, disapproval or criticism

‘I don’t want to participate in this program because if I don’t make it, I’ll feel defeated.’

Those fears will discourage us from ever attempting a task that might be beneficial overall. Of course, people tend not to express this. We keep our judgements in our head. However, when put on paper, it becomes clear this way of thinking is illogical.

The fact that you might fail at something does not mean you are a failure. For every failure, we also have many successes. In no way does failing a task make you an unsuccessful person!

Another way of thinking about it is to judge yourself by the process, not the outcome.[10] If you judge your actions by their outcomes, your behavioural habits may be shaped by things beyond your control. If you have followed the right process, you should be satisfied with your actions and decision-making.

Distortion 5 – ‘Should-ing’ yourself

‘I have to do this now.’

Avoid using words such as ‘must’ and ‘should’ to motivate yourself. By doing so, you feel compelled and resentful towards the task on hand and engage in procrastination. However, it is not true that you are compelled by anything to do your tasks. Whether to complete a task or not is ultimately your own decision. Motivate yourself by thinking that doing the tasks will benefit you, and that you might as well do them.

Correcting distortions

Put your distortive thoughts on paper and identify the illogical thinking errors that caused you to procrastinate.  Mentally analysing these distortions in your head does not have the same effect.[11]

After all that, do you still think it is rational to delay the task? In that case, you are not procrastinating. A rational choice of delaying a task is not procrastinating, but a beneficial thing to do.[12]

[1] Kim, K. R., & Seo, E. H. (2015). The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 26-33. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.02.038.

[2] Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychol Bull 133: 65-94. Psychological bulletin, 133, 65-94. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

[3] ‘Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Incentives for Procrastinators*. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(3), 769-816. doi:10.1162/003355399556142

[4] http://economicstudents.com/2020/08/avoid-procrastination-and-be-productive/

[5] van Eerde, W., & Klingsieck, K. B. (2018). Overcoming procrastination? A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Educational Research Review, 25, 73-85. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.002

[6] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good : the new mood therapy. New York: Harper.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Potts, T. J. (1987). Predicting procrastination on academic tasks with self-report personality measures. (Ph.D.). Hofstra University, Ann Arbor.

[10] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good : the new mood therapy. New York: Harper.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anderson, C. (2003). The Psychology of Doing Nothing: Forms of Decision Avoidance Result from Reason and Emotion. Psychological bulletin, 129, 139-167. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.129.1.139.