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Ditch the “I’m a Procrastinator” Label

Ditch the “procrastinator” label and change your procrastination patterns.

You procrastinate. However, pinning a procrastinator label on yourself is an overgeneralization and cognitive distortion. You'd wisely ditch the label and put your time and energy into kicking the habit. Let's see why.

Change Your Thinking about Your "Self"

You can legitimately classify people by gender, political affiliation, and other. However, beyond research purposes, calling yourself either a procrastinator or non-procrastinator is an overgeneralization. Procrastination is a variable.

Whenever you call yourself a procrastinator, you risk linking your worth to the label. For example, you are a success if you act effectively and worthless if you procrastinate.

A colleague and friend, axiological psychologist Leon Pomeroy, developed a psychological science of values. Pomeroy thinks you are prone to filter and evaluate what you experience through your value system. If you value achievement, you are likely to do what you value. The way you value your performance colors self-valuation and self-valuation colors performance in the manner of a dog chasing its tail. Here is one of the fleas on this dog's tail. You could hinder yourself from acting according to your achievement value by measuring your "self" against your performances.

This self-performance value vision builds beliefs, such as "I'm only as good as my last performance" and this clogs the mental channels related to your habitual valuation of achievement. Locked in this mind set, when your performance falls short of what you expect, you may think you are a failure, not just that you had an undesirable performance.

It's a common paradox that people who believe "my performances are me" may seek psychological safety in procrastination. Procrastination gives you an excuse for falling short. You can tell yourself that if you started earlier you would have achieved more. In this convoluted way, you may save face with yourself and avoid blame from others. However, you've gained little except more practice in deceiving yourself and trying to deceive others about your procrastination problem.

Here is a two-step approach to get over a contingent-worth hurdle:

1. If you tell yourself you are a procrastinator, you've fallen into the is of identity trap. Overgeneralization triggers the trap: you are only one thing, a "procrastinator." However, this overgeneralization says more about the fallacy in the label than it does about you. (For a blog written without the verb to be, see ) If you believe you have subverted your value for "doing" with contingent-worth thinking, ask and answer this question: "How can I only be one way, a procrastinator?"

2. You can dump an is of identity deception by adopting a pluralistic perspective. Psychologist and personality theorist Gordon Allport counted over 18,000 different human emotions, traits, and characteristics. These attributes occur in degree. You'll have different combinations of qualities and abilities that surface in different situations. Some will dominate. Viewed from this broad perspective, an automatic procrastination problem habit exists among many positive attributes of you. You may conclude that neither achieving nor procrastination defines your identity.

Labeling Views from Will, Irwin, and Beth

Self-help advocate, Will Ross, has a humorous and highly useful way of viewing labels and procrastination, and why you'd best drop the label. Here is Ross' review:

"If anyone asks me about my work habits, and I tend to delay starting on important projects, then -- to save my breath and to save time -- I could tell them that I'm a procrastinator. But would that be an accurate description of myself?

"One of the problems of labels is that they imply permanence when their intended purpose is to refer to a temporary activity or situation. For me to be a procrastinator I would have to (1) always procrastinate, and (2) do nothing but procrastinate. The minute I did something other than procrastinate (say, play golf) I would cease being a procrastinator and become a golfer. Then after my game of golf, when I adjourn to the bar, I would cease being a golfer and become a drinker. At the same time, because I can multitask, I would also be a breather, a chip muncher, and a (hopefully silent and undetected) farter. At that moment, would I still be a procrastinator?

"A second problem with labels -- especially when they are preceded with some form of the verb "to be" -- is that they imply a oneness between subject and predicate. The statement "I am a procrastinator" implies that "I" and "a procrastinator" are exactly the same thing. Yet surely, there is more to me than my habit of procrastination?

"A third problem, and probably the most dangerous one, is that labels imply immutability. If I believe that I am a procrastinator, then there is a danger that I will believe that there is nothing I can do about my procrastination habit. I'm stuck with it; once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator.

"So yes, labels can provide a verbal shortcut, but they contain inherent dangers. Unfortunately, most of us use labels without being aware of the danger and thereby compound our cognitive, emotive, and behavioral problems. We would do well to use labels -- especially pejorative labels -- with caution."

Canadian psychologist Irwin Altrows thinks that "...some people have a harder time giving up procrastinating than others. So they will need to work extra hard to be aware of their procrastination tendencies and habits, and to use their positive abilities more effectively. However, there is no need for those plagued by this habit to wear a scarlet P on their forehead (for Procrastinator). Not only is that notion demonstrably counterproductive (e.g., see any of the works of Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman, Aaron Beck, and Bill Knaus), but it's not scientific."

Science and Sensibility subscriber, Beth, sees it this way: “It makes no sense to label yourself as a procrastinator unless you are unwilling to change and want to continue to hassle yourself for the rest of your life with 'being a procrastinator.' I don't think anyone likes procrastinating and even if one doesn't want to change a procrastination habit right now, most people don’t enjoy the effects of procrastination. I think labels like procrastinator can be harmful and self-defeating. I think this kind of labeling is cold and not helpful.”

Scientific Actions against Procrastination

If you want to overcome procrastination, ditching the label is useful but not sufficient. However, you can use the procrastination label to identify a scientific and self-help literature for information on understanding and controlling the process.

Procrastination is a recognizable, predictable, process. If you can predict procrastination, you can teach yourself to control the process and procrastinate less.

Taking a scientific approach, you can measure delays by time (duration) and consequences (lost opportunities, stress, and penalties). Those two general measures are examples of standards for gauging your progress. For example, reduce an expected procrastination time lag and you lower your risk for procrastination consequences. Like reducing any unwelcomed condition, such as anxiety, it's an accomplishment to limit the time you spend procrastinating while simultaneously building your self-efficacy beliefs on a foundation of accomplishments.

Taking a scientific approach, you can tie your counter-procrastination solutions to changes in time lags and consequences. Does listing your daily priorities on a cross-out sheet and crossing them off when done, jump-start productive actions? Does making a daily progress report to a "buddy" reduce the duration of procrastination? Does identifying and questioning procrastination thinking shrink the time you spend procrastinating? When you test these techniques, you are testing hypotheses, not yourself.

Testing techniques and evaluating their effects is different from defining yourself based on the outcome. You test techniques, such as the above, to find out what works, what doesn't, and what is promising.

(See following page on four perspective building techniques to control procrastination and other self-help resources.)

Four Perspective Building Techniques to Control Procrastination

You can call yourself anything that you want, including a procrastinator. However, from a self-help perspective, you gain more by solving procrastination problems that arise when (1) procrastination interferes with your priority goals; (2) reflects a breakdown in your value system; (3) you make yourself miserable pinning a procrastination label to yourself; (4) the label is a slippery slope for more procrastination.

You have many ways to reduce time frittered in procrastination thinking, emotions, and behaviors. Can you effectively use the following four perspective-building techniques to spur proactive efforts against procrastination? Test the ideas (not yourself) and see.

1. View a pressing priority activity as unpleasant and inconvenient, and you have one foot on a procrastination banana peel. Apply the So What If Technique to this event. Tell yourself "so what if" the task is unpleasant or inconvenient. If everything in life was pleasant, you'd live in a different world. Is it possible to use this technique to cut through your currently most pressing procrastination barrier?

2. You have an urge to diverge into a safe or comfortable alternative activity. Use the Where Does that Get Me Technique to sharpen your perspective on future results by exploring the advantages and disadvantages of delays over doing. How do the benefits of delay stack up against the advantages of starting and sustaining a pressing priority activity?

3. Tell yourself that you'll get to it later, and you've fallen into a classic procrastination-thinking trap. Use the Question That Later Belief Technique. How is later better? By honestly answering the question, you'll find that you are fooling yourself into thinking that something that is unpleasant to start today will become convenient to do tomorrow. Consider that if you will eventually start, why not start now to break the inertia that is part of a procrastination impasse?

4. Beware of half-truths, such as you work better under pressure. Use an Incongruity Intervention Technique to get the other side of the story into focus. For example, if you explain away procrastination by telling yourself you work better under pressure, and dislike the pressure you put yourself through, and swear that you'll start earlier next time, you have an incongruity. For example, if you really worked better under pressure, why not keep pressuring yourself? As an alternative, consider how you can time and pace your actions to avoid pressured last minute rushes. (Click on "next" for more.)

In your scientific efforts to predict and control procrastination, you may find that you can get your nose off your procrastination grinder. You can create more quality time for leisure activities and achieve more in areas that required typical or accelerated work performances. Can you test these hypothesis and profit from a longer-term view on the value of progressively mastering techniques to control procrastination?

For more information on self-accepting ways to stop procrastinating, see End Procrastination Now

For a free eight-part program on combatting procrastination, Part 1 is available at Combatting Procrastination Part 1. Part 2 is available at: Combatting Procrastination Part 2

Dr. Bill Knaus