Do You Have a Client Who Procrastinates? Strategies for Therapists

Help clients address their primary problems without procrastinating

Posted Jun 15, 2011

Persistent forms of procrastination practically always co-exist with primary problems, such as anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. Thus, you can anticipate that practically every client will sometimes procrastinate on following through on dealing with the problem(s) she or he came to you to resolve.

Your client has a fear of public speaking. This fear has recently proven costly. It’s the main presenting problem. However, instead of addressing the fear, your client substitutes computer games and blames others for this disability. These distancing techniques are consistent with procrastinating on combatting the fear.

Here are some tips to help your client address their primary problems by getting past their self-imposed procrastination barriers.

A Non-judgmental ApproachBottom of Form

Clients who procrastinate may already suspect that they are needlessly delaying and are prepared to give excuses so they can put off experiencing the uncertainties that they may associate with addressing a primary problem(s). In this context, it is important to interact with them in a non-judgmental, matter-of-fact manner.

When excuse making cloaks guilt, you can help mitigate your client’s guilt over procrastinating by noting that procrastination is normally an automatic reaction to an unwanted or uncomfortable task.  Practically everyone has trouble addressing procrastination.  However, choosing to do better will do nothing unless followed by taking corrective steps. That means cutting through procrastination barriers and directly facing the problem.

Client self-labeling, such as "I'm a hopeless procrastinator," is a form of foreclosure. It’s also an excuse to justify abandoning hope for making a positive transformational change.

Some clients will identify with the label and feel stuck. I explain, "A procrastinator label says more about the folly of making sweeping generalizations about you than it says about you." That intervention typically causes the client to rethink the issue. Once past the "procrastinator" label issue, your client may be inclined to focus on the problem that they came to therapy to resolve.

A Cognitive Emotive Behavioral Approach

By putting the procrastination process into a cognitive, emotive, and behavioral framework, you can help your client take a three-pronged approach against procrastinating on addressing a primary problem.

Cognitively, your client can discover the art of self-deception by falsely optimistic assertions that lead to dead ends. "I'll get to it later" is a classic example of this thinking.

Emotively, how does your client feel about meeting the challenge? By probing this area, your client may make a connection between an aversion for discomfort, discomfort dodging, and “later thinking” where presumably life will be better in the future.

Behaviorally, what does your client do in lieu of working to make the changes? You are likely to find that your client substitutes safer activities, such as watching TV.  Consider Premack’s principle. As a behavioral assignment, flip things around. For every affirmative step to address and correct the problem, use a fixed time for watching TV as a reward.

Clients with tenacious forms of procrastination may profit from reading and applying techniques from: The Procrastination Workbook

Addressing a Procrastination-Anxiety Connection

Clients suffering from public speaking fears normally suffer for a performance anxiety where they anticipate worse outcomes. When anxiety propels procrastination on combatting the subject fear, you can help speed your clients' progress by helping them see and break this connection.

With your guidance, your client discovers recurring anxiety beliefs, such as "I'd look like a fool if I spoke before a group." This metacognitive awareness can be a prelude for defusing this parasitic anxiety thinking. However, your client won't get far beyond the joys of self-revelation without following up with corrective actions.

Let’s suppose that this is your client’s negative anticipation:  "If I spoke before a group I'd look like a fool." To avoid the anticipated result, your client finds multiple reasons to delay.  Here’s a sample cognitive intervention. Therapist: "If you fear looking like a fool, what do you ordinarily do?" Client: "Something different." Therapist: "Such as?" Client: "Tweeting my friends." Therapist: "That's an example of procrastination as a defense against anxiety and fear." (Now, you, the therapist, take it from here.)

Clients, who procrastinate on combatting needless anxieties and fears, may profit from reading and applying techniques from The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.  This work includes methods for overcoming procrastination on combatting anxiety.

Addressing a Procrastination-Depression Connection

Activity is an important remedy for depression, but often not easy for your client to execute.  If your client believes that he or she is too immobilized to do anything to do and get better, they obviously were able to get to the session and probably can do a five-minute self-help exercise.

A five-minute plan for breaking a procrastination cycle may help spur action against mild to moderate depression and sometimes the more severe variety. The method involves getting a client commitment to engage a meaningful, measurable and achievable antidepression activity for five minutes. After the first five minutes, your client can choose to do five more minutes, or stop. Here are steps that I follow:

1.     Explain the exercise and its purpose. (I'll normally describe the technique as an activity to help break inertia.)

2.     Have your client pick a counter-depression activity, such as light exercise.

3.     When feasible, simulate conditions in the session where your client tests the technique and gets feedback from you.

4.     The client tests the method as an activity homework assignment between sessions.

Clients combatting depression may profit from reading and applying techniques from: The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression (Second Edition). This work goes into depth on overcoming procrastination on following through on antidepression activities.

Many clients will accept the idea that if they work with you to combat their primary problem they can get a twofer benefit. They can lessen their tensions and avoid future problems by procrastinating less. This can help strengthen a therapeutic alliance. It may also be a client motivator.

© Dr. Bill Knaus