Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Why Is Thinking Things Through so Hard to Do?

Learn a simple technique for resolving challenging personal problems

Procrastinate on thinking out important personal problems and you will probably doom yourself to repeat them. Of course, if you wait long enough, your problem might go away. If you think in this discomfort-dodging way, you are supporting thinking procrastination. This is ducking the mental work that goes into solving troublesome personal problems. 

Sweeping problems under the rug is a formula for continuing to feel burdened by unresolved conflicts. This is easy to do. Thinking things through can be hard to do.  Thus, it’s easy to skip this step. However, dodging problems carries a price tag. You’ll probably keep repeating the same problem. You are likely to accumulate more pain over time than if you were to face and resolve the problem early. On the other hand, resolving problems can feel liberating. You'll gain a big benefit. You’ll have fewer painful recurring problems.

Thinking procrastination comes about for many reasons. Here are four:

1. You don’t want to stir up unpleasant emotions. For example, you have a public speaking anxiety. You feel anxious thinking about this anxiety. Therefore, you avoid both thinking about speaking, and thinking about overcoming your anxiety about feeling anxious. You realize this ostrich trap approach is a prescription for delay. Nevertheless, you tell yourself you’ll think about it later. (For antidotes, control click The Ostrich Trap.)

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2. You feel uncertain about how to approach a problem, such as deciding on a career direction. You are afraid that unless you make perfect judgments, you'll make a big mistake. You could choose the wrong career. While transfixed by this dread you wait to feel inspired before you start to figure it out. Meanwhile, you stay on a job that you hate.

3. You want to avoid decision points where you face lesser of two evils choices.  You are in a relationship with a person who drinks excessively and acts destructively.  You put off thinking through the execution of your options because you suspect you may have to make an ultimatum that you’ll end the relationship unless there is a change, and you are afraid to leave.

4. Engaging in defensive tactics is another way to defeat yourself. You blame something or someone else, describe yourself as too overwhelmed to fulfill your commitments, or engage in subterfuge to distract yourself and others from what you know, or suspect, is your responsibility to do.

Gone with the Wind

If you count yourself among the millions who selectively put off thinking out and resolving some of their key personal problems, the chances are that you’ll fictionalize reasons for delaying. In exploring this art of misdirection, we’ll use an example from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning fiction that became a movie.

In the movie, Gone with the Wind, the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, reflected on a major setback when her husband, Rhett Butler, dumped her. She thought, “I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.”

It’s tempting to say that this is an example of thinking procrastination. However, the picture isn’t entirely clear. By getting emotional distance from the problem, Scarlett may buy time to think more clearheaded and to reduce her risk of doing something impulsive and foolish. This is an example of a strategic delay. However, telling herself that she’ll go crazy sounds like a false excuse to justify putting off productive thinking geared to solve an important personal problem. Indeed, Scarlett seemed prone to put off facing uncomfortable realities.

If we take Scarlett’s statement of going crazy literally, going crazy is a scary proposition. Indeed, it sounds like a valid reason for delaying. After all, who wants to put themselves into a position where they would go crazy? 

Did Scarlett really believe that she’d go crazy, or was it that she didn’t want to upset herself any more than she already felt? Whatever, if she continued to avoid thinking out how she sabotaged her relationship and how to change herself, the chances are she’d continue to have relationship problems with Rhett. That would be an example of thinking procrastination.

The Conjunctive Intervention

When it comes to thinking clearly about troublesome personal problems, we have abundant ways to go about doing this. Assuming Scarlett was willing to talk with us about how to work things through with herself, we’ll share a conjunctive intervention. This technique revolves arounf the conjunctive, "and." Perhaps Scarlett could benefit from this technique to develop clarity and possibly a new direction.  We’ll illustrate the approach using her statement about going crazy.  

Belief: “I’m afraid I’ll go crazy.”  (Substitute your own excuse to justify thinking procrastination.)

1. And what would that be like?

2. And what would happen next?

3. And what would happen after that?

4. And what would follow that?

5. And if you come to the point where you would start to cope, then why not skip all the sidetracking steps and go right to thinking through the problem and following up with problem-solving actions?

6. And then what would you do first, second, third, etc.?  (Eventually, you may experience a sense of honest congruity between quality problem-solving thinking and effective coping actions.)

Scarlett’s answers could be helpful to her in figuring out her part in this crisis and what she might do to take corrective actions both with herself and in repairing the rips in her relationship with Rhett. If she started to think things through, she would have overridden her thinking procrastination tendency in this particular instance.

The following hyperlink will get you to a free multimedia presentation on Procrastination Thinking.

For an intense course on working out problems control click The Procrastination Workbook.

By Dr. Bill Knaus and Suzy Whalen (SMART Recovery “Combatting Procrastination” team) who raised the issue about the importance of thinking through personal problems.

Special to this blog is the PhotoArt thumbnail of Light Transforming Darkness by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Design, Fayetteville NC.

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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