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Mapping Your Patterns of Delay

Find what lurks behind procrastination

If you have an automatic procrastination habit (APH), you are likely to languish. To end this pattern, take an essential step. Create a procrastination log to find out what is going on. Then use what you learn to transform procrastination distractions into productive actions.

Here’s where to start. Map what you do when you procrastinate. Evaluate what is happening. Develop procrastination prevention skills.

Map Procrastination Patterns

Procrastination has predictable features, such as distractions to avoid tensions, and excuses to justify delays. If you know the signs, you are in a good position to unravel your procrastination mystery and make a course correction where you stop delaying and start doing.

Your procrastination log is an obvious place to begin combatting procrastination. A procrastination log is like a journal or diary. Whenever you are needlessly putting off a priority activity, you have an event to record in your log. You record what you are putting off, what you do while procrastinating, and what results. An old-fashioned notebook or suitable electronic devise will do.

You have many ways to do a log. You can record what you are doing as you are procrastinating. If you take this approach, I suggest organizing your journal entries by putting each procrastination situation on a separate page. This is a convenient way to compare similarities and differences between procrastination events.

As an alternative, you can rely on recall and log information as needed. You can use standard forms to input information. Here is a sample standard form:

1. Describe the activity you put off.

2. What were you thinking when you started to delay?

3. What were you feeling when you started to delay?

4. What did you do instead of the priority activity?

There is no perfect way to do a log. The scientific literature offers no meaningful guidance. Indeed, the phrase procrastination log turns up in five lackluster references on the American Psychological Association research database. Bottom line: create one that works best for you.

After about six weeks of recording your procrastination episodes—sometimes sooner—you can often see patterns and trends that can help you define the general process you follow when you procrastinate, and to see opportunities to change course quicker. Once you decide to keep a log, you may have fewer acts of procrastination to record because the log reminds you to stop procrastinating, and so you procrastinate less.

Next, I’ll give an example of how to convert procrastination information into a self-help format.

Evaluate What Is Happening

In unusual circumstances, a procrastination log can be extensive and distracting.

When I first met Debbie, she brought her 208-page procrastination log for me to see. I quickly scanned over what she had done and asked, “What have you learned from this logging exercise?”

Debbie quickly realized that she fell into the contingency mañana procrastination trap. This is where you make doing a priority contingent on doing something else first, and then you don’t start or finish the contingency.

Debbie convinced herself that she needed to understand completely what she did when she procrastinated before she could make a change. She saw her 208-page tome as still incomplete. Within a few minutes, she understood she could start anywhere to take corrective actions, and she could fill in the gaps as she progressed.

Once you’ve recorded a handful of procrastination examples, you are ready to play the procrastination detective game. Here are three places to look for clues: 1. Look for examples of procrastination thinking. 2. Look for priority actions that you duck doing to avoid or escape unpleasant feelings or emotions. 3. Look for distracting activities. (Click on any of these three hyperlinks for more information on each dimension.)

Let’s sort things out with an example of procrastinating on reading a technical report.

1. Procrastination Thinking. Once you write out your procrastination thoughts, you may see the subterfuge. You tell yourself, “I need to feel motivated before I can read the report.” Ask yourself, “Where’s the evidence that waiting to feel motivated to read a report is a solution for procrastination?” Your answer can expose a paradox. When you rely on the magic of motivation to do the unpleasant, you found a prescription for procrastination.

2. Emotional Triggers. Emotions play a central role in procrastination. You are motivated to escape and avoid what you find unpleasant to do. You may put off reading a technical report because of negative self-talk that evokes unpleasant feelings. You may experience negative emotions from a conflict between fulfilling your responsibilities and avoiding tension. To get beyond emotional barriers, accept that feeling tense about reading the report is a lame excuse for delaying. Read it whether you are tense or not. This adage applies: slow and steady wins the race.

3. Behavioral Distractions. A behavioral distraction is what you do instead of the activity you are putting off. Rather than studying the technical paper, you go to the Internet to read the latest news. That diversionary activity rewards an APH. It’s also a core feature of procrastination. Flip things around. Agree with yourself that you’ll read the newspaper after you finish studying the technical report. You now give yourself an extra incentive to finish the report.

Logging what you think, how you feel, and what you do as you procrastinate promotes metacognitive awareness. This is your ability to think about your thinking and to connect the dots between your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and results. This awareness opens opportunities for changing.

After a few trial runs, you may find it easier to directly plug information into these categories and work on each as you simultaneously follow through on pressing productive activities. However, to get good at this combatting procrastination process, you’ll need to keep broadening your knowledge of how to combat procrastination thinking, emoting, and behaving. Science and Sensibility provides a wide array of tested techniques.

Prevent Procrastination

By nailing down what goes on when you procrastinate, you put yourself in the catbird seat. However, personal change is ordinarily a process, not an event. It takes time to test and integrate new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. However, with practice, you may find that you have the choice of overriding your procrastination urges with do it now actions.

By increasing your number of successes in combatting procrastination, you’ll accumulate examples of how you acted efficiently and effectively in fulfilling your responsibilities. Take what you learned from your successful follow-through actions. Apply this knowledge to preventing procrastination.

To frame this proactive approach:

1. Describe a productive activity you executed effectively.

2. What were you thinking when you started?

3. What were you feeling when you started?

4. What did you do to stay on track?

5. Repeat this process in high-risk procrastination situations.

On the following page, you’ll find a comprehensive, field-tested, Procrastination Inventory. Use it to record and organize information, and as a tool to combat and prevent procrastination.

Procrastination Inventory*

(By Dr. Bill Knaus The Procrastination Workbook. New Harbinger. 2002)

1. Cite the main area where you procrastinate that you want to change. (Take on your toughest challenge; even the toughest has "soft spots.")

2. What do you hope to accomplish through combatting procrastination in this area? (Consider thinking and emotional, as well as behavioral, advantages.)

3. What activities do you normally substitute for the priority activity that you put off? (It's wise to avoid substitution distractions and to keep your attention and actions focused on your priority.)

4. What do you tell yourself to justify putting off the activities you described under item 3 above? (Example: You tell yourself you will do better tomorrow.)

5. What emotions do you experience when you procrastinate? (Do you feel frustration, "imposed upon," anger, guilt, discomfort, anxiety, insecurity, depression, or other?)

6. What are the short- and intermediate-term behavioral consequences of of this procrastination episode? (What do you lose?)

7. What positive gains would result from overcoming procrastination? (Is it a sense of relief? Do you obtain a concrete advantage or reward?)

8. What future problems would you eliminate if you stopped procrastinating? (Avoiding a problem can feel rewarding.)

9. What have you tried that you found effective in curbing procrastination? (This can give you cues as to what will work for you.)

10. How long have you been able to break your procrastination habit before returning to a procrastination pattern? What do you think causes the setbacks? (These two questions, and enlightened answers, set the stage for relapse prevention.)

*You can use this inventory only for personal self-help purposes. Beyond that, you need permission from the author and publisher.

For more on procrastination logging and using procrastination self-help forms, see End Procrastination Now and The Procrastination Workbook.

Special to this blog: Time Crossing PhotoArt thumbnail image by professional photographer, Mr. Liafail, Fayetteville NC

Dr. Bill Knaus

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