Irrational beliefs are central to the theory of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), and these beliefs are hypothesized to play a role in procrastination. Here's some research that sheds light on which beliefs are most related to our needless task delay.

This blog posting is an extension of two previous posts. The first describes some of the basic concepts related to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in relation to procrastination; and the second explains our breakdown in self-regulation as an over-emphasis on short-term emotional repair at the cost of our long-term goals - otherwise known as "giving in to feel good."  What I'm writing about today is a specific irrational belief related to REBT that may well be a factor that leads us to give in to feel good. That is, our beliefs related to frustration intolerance.

REBT proposes that understanding two forms of irrational beliefs is central to understanding our emotional and behavioral problems. These two beliefs are generally categorized as: 1) intolerance of frustration (e.g., Life should be easy), and 2) evaluation of self-worth based on absolute conditions (e.g., My worth is dependent on my success.). Neil Harrington (University of Edinburgh and Stratheden Hospital) developed a scale to measure frustration discomfort in order to investigate what dimensions or aspects of frustration intolerance were most related to procrastination.

The Study
How would you rate yourself on the following items on scale from 1 to 5 where
1 = absent, 2 = mild, 3 = moderate, 4 = strong and 5 = very strong?

  1. I can't bear disturbing feelings.
  2. I can't tolerate being taken for granted.
  3. I can't stand having to wait for things I would like now.
  4. I can't stand having to persist at unpleasant tasks.
  5. I can't bear to move on from work I'm not fully satisfied with.

These items (items 2 & 3 go together) represent the 4 main subscales of Harrington's measure, The Frustration-Discomfort Scale (FDS). The subscales measure: 1) Emotional Intolerance, relecting the belief that emotional distress is intolerable and must be relieved or avoided; 2) Entitlement, reflecting the belief that other people should indulge and not frustrate desires that must be met and the immediate gratification of getting what we want when we want it; 3) Discomfort intolerance, reflecting the belief that life should be easy, free of hassles and inconvenience; and 4) Achievement, reflecting the belief that achievement goals are to be done as perfectly as possible.

Although it's possible to argue based on theory and existing research that each of these subscales may be related to procrastination for a variety of reasons, the main finding of Harrington's study was that only Discomfort Intolerance and Self-Esteem were unique predictors of increased procrastination frequency and procrastination problems (two independent measurements provided by the Procrastination Assessment Scale for Students used in this study of 86 undergraduates). It's important to note that Discomfort Intolerance beliefs remained a significant predictor of both procrastination frequency and problems even after statistically controlling for the effects of self-esteem.

Implications and Closing Comments
Harrington notes in his closing remarks that ". . . whilst dysfunctional beliefs may interact, this research suggests that effective therapy is best served by clear separation and intervention regarding these different beliefs. Some students need to recognise and challenge beliefs that reinforce comfortable avoidance, whether the intolerance of task difficulty or emotional distress" (p. 882).

The issue here is that too often cognitively-focused therapies place emphasis on self-worth rather than frustration intolerance beliefs, perhaps because these are more accessible or they are believed to be more meaningful. Harrington's research underscores the importance of keeping our focus on frustration intolerance as an important predictor of procrastination.

I think this is particularly important for each of us as individuals, as the emotional experience of frustration is quite easily identified, so we can use this as a starting point for our own intervention strategies. To the extent that we can begin to alter the irrational beliefs that sustain our intolerance for discomfort, we may reduce our procrastination significantly.

What do I mean by this? Well, if I'm intolerant to discomfort, I'm likely to face any difficult task with negative emotions. Of course, these feelings aren't conducive to getting to work on the task, and we think things like, "I don't feel like doing this" or "I'll feel more like doing this later." Now, our focus is on repairing these negative feelings, and one way to do that is to put the task off. When we're not facing the task, we don't feel the discomfort. We've given in to feel good, and the long-term costs we know all too well.

Intolerance to discomfort . . . it's something to think about. These are irrational beliefs worth challenging.

Harrington, N. (2005). It's too difficult! Frustration intolerance beliefs and procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 873-883.

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