Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

How We Trick Ourselves into Procrastinating, How to Stop

If you didn’t con yourself, would you procrastinate?

Persistently procrastinate and you may think something is wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you. Rather, what's wrong is how you handle your procrastination thinking and impulses. For example, the metaphorical Wheedler lards your thoughts with credible sounding nonsense with the power to propel procrastination. You can stop the nonsense, but this will be challenging. (If you prefer another character, invent one. SMART Recovery's Charlie Atwater ordinarily uses The Weasel to illustrate the power of an inner con.)

This brutally effective inner finagler and con-artist can strike with impeccable timing. You want to stop procrastinating and start your job search. The Wheedler says, later. You want to stop drinking. Your Wheedler says "One more time."

Despite its wretched reputation, the Wheedler isn't the bad guy. It follows an ancient calling of going for the low hanging fruit on the tree. This survival tactic often doesn't work so well in complex society.

You are daily faced with choices between instant gratification and the longer term benefits that come from restraint. This Y choice is between going for the gusto and doing the responsible thing. Since we are not made like the logical Spock of Star Trek fame, expect a struggle between emotion and reason.

See All Stories In

So Defensive!

We all use defense mechanisms, but we're not all aware of it.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The Wheedler can steal time and resources from getting bigger rewards down the road. Under the Wheedler's reign, you gobble that gallon of ice-cream. You smoke. You drink. You play computer games when you face a deadline for a report.  You avoid an unpleasant conflict by daydreaming about a victory.  Instead of creating that great novel, you do safe activities, such as watching TV while munching bags of Cheetos.

Wheedler diversions are appealing because they are happening now: "Untold Secrets of the Ancient Pyramids" is on TV ... and the boring  paperwork will be here all week!" When the Wheedler controls the timing for your productive activities, you are procrastinating.

 Wheedler Tricks

The Wheedler has a simple formula. If it feels good, do it. If it feels uncomfortable, duck it.  Things get twisted when Wheedler impulses mingle with your excuse making abilities.

You are not defenseless against the Wheedler. You are endowed with higher mental powers, including objective self-observant abilities. You can look inward and recognize and assess what is happening. 

Fortunately, you don't have to reinvent the wheel to recognize the Wheedler.  Here are some Wheedler tricks to be aware of:

Hit the delay button. Your Wheedler messages you: "Don't go to the gym. It's a hot day. Have a beer instead."

Play up the onerous and then discomfort dodge. Wringing the crying towel, the Wheedler yelps about how awful a task is going to be. When this whining Wheedler is done, washing the dishes becomes the Bataan Death March.

Demand a different world.  Your Wheedler tells you shouldn't have to do anything you don't want to do. A more sophisticated Wheedler adds an adult twist:  "You are entitled to the good life." "You have a right to eat ice-cream without getting fat." "You have a right to drink without consequences." "You have a right to drive your car without an inspection sticker." This denial is a form of reactance. Reactance is rebelling against what you see as a denial of a right or privilege. Reactance justifies procrastinating.

Alibi to get off the hook. Make up an excuse to justify delay.  The later is better ploy is a classic:  "Relax! Conditions will be better later! There's no reason to rush into this!"  Follow this Wheedler lingo, and you put off responsible actions for another day... over and over again. Then you con others into thinking that you faced impossible odds. That's why you fell behind. (The dog ate the report; the computer crashed.)

The Wheedler blitzkrieg.  You tell yourself you are swamped with too much to do. Now anxious and overwhelmed, you stew in thoughts like, "It's just too much to do." This blitzkrieg often includes combined procrastination: different forms of procrastination assemble in a discordant ensemble.  For example, discomfort dodging and reactance make for a deadly procrastination combination. Now you hear a Wheedler whisper:  "It's hopeless!"  This thinking may throttle a depressed mood. When depressed, you have less energy to perform.

Anti-Wheedler Tactics

Here's a sample of anti-Wheedler tactics to reduce the effect of this procrastination promoting pest.

Commit to a procrastination day (P-Day) for change. On P-Day you deploy against Wheedler tactics. To start this day, take the sooner than later approach.

Chart the action. Map how the Wheedler has been affecting you today. This awareness opens opportunities to change course now.

Consider your thinking. What do you tell yourself to strike out for a Wheedler victory? Is it "delay's okay because tomorrow is a brighter day?"  Reverse course. Think and act on this prescription: Do it now.

Change the game. Dedicate yourself to both catch-up and keep-up with your responsibilities. Commit to deal with responsibilities as they come up. Otherwise, they end up in your catch-up pile.

Create clear goals. Expect the Wheedler to flank you when you have poorly defined goals, such as to stop procrastinating. A clear goal is to start action to do taxes at 6:00 PM.  However, even well-stated goals fizzle without a plan.  Most plans are simple: How will you go about preparing your taxes?

Chuck the blitzkrieg.  Target your number one priority. As part of your planning, break the priority into digestible-sized bits and pieces. Refuse conning yourself into thinking that the entire task has to be done at once. Instead of "cleaning the house," start with one room.

Construct your own positive motivation. Action creates motivation. Use the five-minute tactic.  Commit five minutes at the start. After working for five minutes, decide if you will do five more. Once past an inertial barrier, it is normally easier to continue.

Converge on habits of consumption. Use the reverse five-minute method. A Wheedler mandate is to consume. This feels like a mindless act when you gobble one potato chip after another, or slug down one beer after another. Use the reverse five-minute method. When you have an urge to consume, wait five minutes. At the end of that time, decide on another five-minute interval. This strategic delay can buy time to subvert Wheedler impulses. This delay can make a positive difference.

Bill Knaus & Charlie Atwater

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

more...

Subscribe to Science and Sensibility

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?