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Tackling Procrastination: A Practical Counseling Approach

Tackling procrastination through our thoughts and emotions

While we all desire to reach or release our full potential, we often face deep internal struggles with perfectionism, excessive self-doubt, lack of persistence, self-depreciation and procrastination. Here's a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy approach that may help.

Published earlier this year in a special issue of the Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Michael Neenan has provided a succinct guide to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) for coaches. His goal was ". . . to increase their [the coaches'] knowledge of psychological factors that interfere with as well as promote change" (p. 53). Given the assumption that coaches don't have an extensive psychological background, there's a lot here for everyone interested in self change.

Founded in 1955 by Albert Ellis (pictured above), REBT focuses on our thinking, particularly our irrational beliefs, and how these shape our feelings and actions (more at the Albert Ellis Institute). Interestingly, one of the first widely cited books written about procrastination was published by Albert Ellis and Bill Knaus in 1979, "Overcoming Procrastination" (no longer in print, but more recent books by Ellis & Knaus and recent work by Bill Knaus are available) You can also access a chapter excerpt from The Procrastination Workbook (Knaus, 2002) at

Counseling procrastinators with REBT
The paper by Neenan reflects a different psychology in many respects than what I've referenced to date. As I, and others, have noted in the Psychology Today blogs previously, there are a few "types" of psychologists, and this paper clearly reflects the helping side of psychology. The focus is on counseling, the method is REBT and almost no reference is made to any of the research that has been the focus of my blog. That said, the issues remain the same, and many of the conclusions do too. Even my favorite topic is clearly addressed in the opening pages of this article - the existential nature of procrastination. Neenan writes,

"Another view of procrastination is that you give away your time free of charge - time that you might pay anything for on your deathbed to stay alive a little longer. So much time can be wasted through procrastination that you might believe you have several lives to lead instead of only one. People who become increasingly frustrated about their procrastination habits fear that they are wasting their lives yet avoid doing what would help them to make more productive use of their time. This is what Knaus (1998, p. 7) calls the fundamental procrastination paradox: ‘When we try to buy time by procrastinating, we condemn ourselves to running out of time.'" (p. 54).

The cost of procrastination - "an extremely disabling psychological condition"
Neenan's clinical perspective documents the costs of procrastination; costs that have been clearly documented in the blog to date as well. He writes,

"Chronic procrastination can have high costs: It has been associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem. As a result, procrastination probably accounts for much of why many never realize their full potential and so it can be an extremely disabling psychological condition" (p. 55)

The ABC's of REBT
Neenan notes that all procrastinators suffer one similarity - a clear-cut emotional problem. In order to release this emotion, clients need to identify the irrational beliefs that sustain it through the ABCs of REBT. In Neenan's words:

A = activating event - imagining giving a presentation to a group of colleagues
Critical A = what the client is most troubled/disturbed about e.g., ‘Not being able to answer all of the questions at a presentation.'

B = irrational beliefs: e.g., ‘I must be perfect.'

C = consequences
emotional: rising anxiety
behavioural: highly agitated
cognitive: dwells on irrational beliefs about a perfect performance

"By exposing herself in imagination to giving the presentation (A), the client's critical A is located which triggers her irrational beliefs (B) which then largely determines her reactions at C. By delaying the presentation, the client remains ‘safe' from being exposed as a ‘phoney' but, at the same time, she sees herself as a ‘phoney' for avoiding doing something she knows she is good at: ‘Phoney if I do and phoney if I don't.'" (pp. 56-57, emphasis added)

The REBT point of intervention

Neenan argues that it's best to treat procrastination as the "C" - the consequence of an Activating event and Belief. The key thing is to discover what the individual said to him- or herself at the time in order to justify the procrastination. In the example above, these justifying irrational thoughts were about having to give a perfect presentation.

Some Pitfalls in Tackling Procrastination
Neenan's advice to coaches about some of the pitfalls involved in coaching a procrastinator are particularly revealing. For example, although a client might say it would feel great if he or she got going on a task, no action results. Why? The anticipated discomfort of starting the task preempts the anticipated feeling "great." In other words, emotional disturbance still blocks the way to action.

The key thing here, Neenan emphasizes, is that focusing on the practical problem before the emotional problems may result in the individual neglecting to work on the emotional issues that caused the procrastination in the first place. So, this one task may get done, but the next task may not, as the emotional disturbance continues to block the way to action.

Tackling Procrastination: Awareness, Goals, Commitment & Persistence
The approach that Neenan summarizes is based on four stages set out by Windy Dryden in the book Overcoming Procrastination. These are: 1) becoming aware of one's procrastination, 2) developing goal-directed behavior to carry out the tasks on which one is currently procrastinating, 3) making a commitment to tolerate the anticipated short-term discomfort to achieve the longer-term goal, and 4) persisting in this anti-procrastinating outlook or approach. Using a client from his own coaching practice, Neenan discusses each in turn. I summarize key points for each briefly below.

While we may not be consciously aware of how procrastination is troubling us, our emotions might provide a clue that something is wrong, particularly agitation (recall that agitation is an emotion associated with the gap between the actual and ought self). In any case, awareness is the first step. We have to acknowledge that we're procrastinating and that there may be irrational beliefs at the root of our delay.

However, Neenan reiterates the point that I made in my blog entry about wisdom, ". . . awareness does not necessarily lead to action . . ." (p. 58).

Once we have developed the awareness for the need for change, we have to set a goal that is reasonable, concrete and manageable. Too often, our goals are expressed as distant, abstract constructs such as "I want to succeed at this task." Instead, we need to construct a concrete, specific statement of what we can do in the present to achieve our long-term goals. In short, we need to articulate an implementation intention.

A goal statement in itself doesn't mean that you're committed to carrying out the hard work necessary to achieve your goal. As Neenan notes, self change can feel like a 24/7 proposition. "If clients want to make gains, they need to embrace the discomfort of working on their problem now in order to feel relatively comfortable later about continuing the work of change . . ." (p. 59).

This work includes disputing irrational beliefs and developing a rational alternative statement in its place. This rational statement should become the individual's mantra to keep the focus on change. What's particularly important here, Neenan argues, is that your statement is not a "I'll try to . . ." type of statement. It's not what you'll try to do, it's what you'll actually do!

I like the example he gives his own clients. He notes, "A way to teach clients the difference between trying and doing is to ask them if at the end of the session they will try to leave the room or actually leave it. Trying will keep them in the room indefinitely while doing means they will have left it in seconds" (p. 59).

Self change requires strong determination as well as persistent work and practice to carry out this determination. Such persistence is enabled with the development of a "maintenance message" about your responsibility to protect your progress from unconscious habits.

I like the example Neenan provides with his client. His maintenance message was "My time is precious. Don't waste it!" I think that this could apply to anyone. It's simply an existential fact of life.

Concluding thoughts . . .
In his own conclusion to the paper, Neenan draws on the work of Bill Knaus writing, "To change a behavioural pattern like procrastination ‘requires work, and typically lots of it. Ironic as it may seem, the problem of avoiding work can only be solved by doing more work' (Knaus, 1993, Sect. II, p. 37)" (p. 61). This work includes the process of REBT: uncovering the irrational beliefs that initiate and sustain the procrastination, disputing these beliefs, developing goals, and persisting in the hard work of self change.

All of this is true. As my father would often tell me, "Anything worth having requires hard work." That said, it's always one step at a time, so at any given time, my mantra as you know is "just get started." It's so simple, yet so important, as each moment requires that commitment to move ahead - just get started.

Blogger's note: I'm off again for a few days to speak about, what else, procrastination, productivity and well-being. More when I get back.

Blogger's note: I'm off again for a few days to speak about, what else, procrastination, productivity and well-being. More when I get back.

Dryden, W. (2000). Overcoming procrastination. London: Sheldon Press. (Other books about REBT by Dryden)

Knaus, W. J. (1993) Overcoming procrastination, In M. E. Bernard & J. L. Wolfe (Eds.), The RET resource book for practitioners. New York: Albert Ellis Institute for REBT.

Knaus, W. J. (1998) Do it now! Break the procrastination habit. (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Neenan, M. (2008). Tackling procrastination: A REBT perspective for coaches. Journal of Rational-Emotive Behavioural Therapy, 26, 53-62.

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