A Simple Self-Hypnosis Strategy for Procrastination

The passwords on your electronic devices could change your life.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

Shutterstock w/permission
Source: Shutterstock w/permission

As a cognitive psychologist, nothing makes me happier than finding tools that actually facilitate real change in people. Explaining how to change is easy, and most of my patients will tell you they understand what they are supposed to do. However, they often just can't seem to make themselves do it. 

What gets in the way for many people are their current beliefs about a situation, which always show up as their internal dialogue. For example, one of my patients had a giant procrastination problem at work. He had a particularly hard time getting his weekly billing done because he found it boring and tedious.

He would do anything he possibly could to avoid it, and if he didn’t get to it when he planned to, he would promise himself that he could do it later or the next day. However, very often, he just wouldn’t get around to it at all. This had caused significant issues in his career for years and had resulted in poor written evaluations and limited promotions, and yet he still couldn’t seem to make a change. 

When we first started to work on the problem, I asked him to notice what his inner dialogue was with himself when he would think about doing his billing. At first, he said he wasn’t aware of one, that it was just a feeling of dread, but as we probed into why he was feeling that way, he expressed how much he just “hated doing it" and would “much rather spend his time doing fun things." However, he recognized that even the fun things he did were less enjoyable when he always had the feeling of dread hanging over his head all day long. 

Because he had hated this task for such a long time, he had built it up in his head to be something that was a miserable activity, and this belief then led to the emotions of dread and overwhelm whenever he thought about it. These emotions subsequently led to avoidant behavior. 

When I asked him whether it was really that bad, he acknowledged that it was not and that it was rather simple work. So, we decided to work on changing his inner dialogue about the situation. Instead of telling himself how much he hated billing, his assignment was to tell himself how easy it was, and that if he just did it now, there would be more time for fun later. 

Now, as you can imagine, me just telling him to say this to himself likely wasn’t going to accomplish much. He had a very entrenched belief about how much he really hated the billing. A belief, however, is often just a thought that you have over and over again. If you say something to yourself enough times, you eventually begin to accept it as true. 

So, I gave him the task of turning his new way of thinking about the situation into passwords on his electronic devices that he would need to repeat to himself many times a day. On his phone, his password became "Billing is easy!"  On his computer, his password became "Doing it now means more fun later." On average, he typed his password for both devices at least 10 times or more a day. 

This meant he was not only repeating these phrases over and over intermittently throughout his day, but he was also encoding these phrases in his brain using tactile touch as he typed on the keyboard. The more deeply something is encoded into memory, the more available it will be for retrieval when needed for recall. The repetition served as a type of self-hypnosis or re-programming for his belief about the situation.

Within a month, my patient began to report that the feeling of dread and overwhelmed had disappeared, and he was doing his billing on an almost daily basis instead of letting it pile up and waiting until the end of the month. He was shocked that something as simple as changing his password could lead to a change in his behavior. 

As his issue with procrastination around billing started to resolve, he looked for other areas of change he wanted to make in his life and created passwords that would serve as new beliefs he wanted to internalize. 

Here are some tips for creating a password that you can use to re-program some of your own thinking. 

1. Choose a password phrase that is true.

In my patient’s case, he knew billing was actually easy; he was just making it hard in his head. So because it was true, repeating the phrase “Billing is easy!” over and over didn’t create internal resistance. If he had tried to make his password “I love billing,” that wouldn’t have resonated as true because he really hated it. 

2. Choose a phrase in the "presence of" tense.

Your brain forms visual and sensory images around the "presence of" something. For example, if you tell yourself not to smoke, you will imagine yourself smoking. If my patient had used the password phrase “I don’t hate billing,” the word hate is what conjures up the emotion. By instead using “Billing is easy!” the word "easy" is what is present in the phrase, and the mind associates visual and sensory images that go with easy.  

3. Keep it as short as possible. 

Distill the thought down to the lowest common denominator, so to speak. Short and sweet is more memorable and less likely to give you carpal tunnel. 

4. Use punctuation for emphasis. 

Punctuation marks carry associated emotional imagery and energy in our minds. “Do it now” has less emotional impact than “Do it now!”