Science and Sensibility

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Are There ‘Legitimate Reasons’ for Procrastinating?

How to punch holes in phony excuses for delays

When are your explanations for delays legitimate, or excuses for procrastinating?

In Overcoming Procrastination, Albert Ellis and I described semi-legitimate reasons for delaying, such as naiveté, physical limitations, fatigue, memory, and limited skills.  We demonstrated how to separate the legitimate from illegitimate factors within each condition.  As an example, I’ll describe fatigue and memory lapses when they are excuses of convenience and lead to endless delays or last minute rushes. By knowing how to recognize and punch holes in procrastination excuses, you can free yourself from self-defeating concealments and deceptions. That might be worth a lot to you.

Are You Too Tired?

In the world of procrastination, fatigue is one of those gray areas that can be a legitimate reason for a temporary delay, or serve as a convenient lure and excuse to procrastinate.  Here is a common excuse that can serve either purpose: “I was too tired to concentrate.”

How can you tell when fatigue is an excuse?

Since you were a kid, you’ve probably heard yourself say, “I’m too tired,” when it comes to ducking tasks you didn’t want to do. At first, this feint fiction is convenient and relieving.  It may have a semblance of legitimacy. When bleary-eyed tired, you are likely to work inefficiently at tasks that take concentration. However, if something of interest suddenly attracts your attention, and you perk up, where did the fatigue go?  You may invigorate yourself if you ran, swam, or briskly walked for five minutes. If so, “I’m too tired,” is a fiction.

You have a report to write that will soon be overdue. You tell yourself that you are too tired to concentrate now.  Next, you carry on a lively conversation with a co-worker about local politics.  In this instance, fatigue is another phony excuse.

You have an important company picnic to attend. You feel tired. Still, you show up. Soon, you find that you are acting like your normal charming self. Fatigue didn’t interfere with getting to the picnic, but it did with starting the report.

What’s the difference between using “I’m too tired” as an excuse to sidetrack from starting the report but not for going to the picnic? Here are two possibilities: The report takes effort. For you, the picnic is a social pleasure.

Here are two related questions to decide if fatigue is a legitimate reason for delay (You can modify the subject to fit your situation.): (1) “Am I really too tired to start the report?” (2) “Is feeling too tired a fib?”  By asking and honestly answering questions like these, many of your good reasons for procrastinating will vanish! You’ll still have to work on the report. However, it’s easier to finish a priority when your mind is free of task-interfering drivel.

Suppose you feel chronically fatigued. You have an official diagnosis to prove it. You say you are too weak and weary to work at anything. Still, you are not too tired to dress, pick up groceries, or pump your own gasoline. Can you get your mind off feeling fatigued by uncomplainingly making productive efforts?  If you take this tact, and feel energized, what happened to the mental drain that accompanied your chronic fatigue?

Is Your Memory Fallible?

You may put things off because you forget to do them rather than because you have hidden motives to sabotage yourself and others. You have a wedding invitation that requires a response. You want to go to the wedding but keep forgetting to respond. Perhaps you think of responding when you can't, or get easily distracted. That's a problem, but not necessarily a procrastination problem. However, if you tell yourself "I'll get around to it" when you do have both the time and resources available, that sounds like procrastination.

Is frailty of memory a legitimate reason for delaying? It is not, when you have an alternative.

This is another gray area. If you are like most, you probably have a fallible memory. Natural distractions can lead to memory lapses where some tasks slip your mind. However, artificial distractions may be preludes to procrastination. You have something important to do. You feel uncertain about one part of it. Since you are among the many who feel anxious about uncertainty, you artificially distract yourself to distance yourself from the task and thereby push it into the future.  The task conveniently, but temporarily, slips your mind.

Do it when you think of it is as good a motto as any. By following the motto, you can avoid needless delays that result in frenzied actions to catch up.   

The motto sounds good in theory. However, left ungrounded, the motto may not work well in practice. To ground the motto, you may have to do something else first: (1) Set regular times for doing recurring tasks, such as returning phone calls and answering email messages. (2) For one-time-events, put notes on your refrigerator door or on your bathroom mirror. (3) Log tasks in a daily scheduler, and then routinely check the scheduler.  (4) Program your cell phone to ring when the time has come to do a task. (5) Keep a “to do” list and review it hourly to see if you are on track. (6) Enlist friends to check with you at specific times to see whether you have done what you had promised yourself that you’d do. (7) Make pleasurable things that you’d normally do, such as taking a cool swim, contingent upon completing the priority you want to avoid. (This pairing can serve as a built in reminder as well as give you an incentive to start). (8) Use the motto as a guide to starting and finishing what you might otherwise have forgotten to do. (For more information on taking an organized approach to follow through, see How to Get Organized.)

Use whatever mnemonic devices or systems you need to compensate for a normal, human, fallible memory.  Slight gains in efficiency may cause others to wonder how you can get so much done, look relaxed, and still have a lot of free time for frolicking and fun.

Here are three more ideas to remember that came from Ellis & Knaus in Overcoming Procrastination:  (1) Avoid the procrastinating on procrastination trap.  You counteract procrastination by using anti-procrastination techniques to get important stuff done. (2) Stop making feeling comfortable a contingency for taking productive actions. Do it even when you feel uncomfortable. In that way, you are likely to gain a growing sense of self-control. (3) Follow through in a timely way to cut your risk of stress-related diseases that may arise from automatic procrastination habits.

By making a special effort to both recognize and push past naturally occurring barriers, you can finish what you needlessly put off. You won’t need to fib to yourself to justify needless delays. That can feel relieving.

Part 3 on Combatting Procrastination describes natural reasons for procrastination and seven principles for change. My program is free. Here’s the link: Part 3: 7 Principles for Change.

This is an Albert Ellis Tribute Series blog. For information on Ellis’ rational emotive behavioral theories and practices, go to his only official website: REBTnetwork.org. For tips on how to be more productive, see: End Procrastination Now. For combatting deeply rooted procrastination patterns use The Procrastination Workbook. Cut through procrastination barriers by Following Through on What's Hardest to Do.

Special to this blog The Imcomplete Restoration Project  photo image by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC

© Dr. Bill Knaus

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

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