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OCD and Compulsive Procrastination

Understanding OCD and breaking the cycle of compulsive procrastination.

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Did you know that OCD can actually inhibit your ability to clean your house?

Ask why people procrastinate, and you’ll likely get answers such as avoidance, distraction, or sheer laziness. One you probably won’t hear is OCD, a disorder commonly associated with excessive focus and attention to detail. However, the devilish nature of OCD allows it to manifest in counterintuitive ways. Associated with OCD are symptoms that feed directly into procrastination: repetitive behavior, compulsive avoidance, and anxiety about the future. Understanding OCD can help us recognize and escape the cycle of procrastination — whether or not one has the disorder.

Procrastination is related to a cognitive error in the coordination of cause-effect relationships, as described by Niklas Törneke: "Take the rule 'In order to recover, I have to avoid pain.' Based on this rule, the individual might act in a way meant to keep pain away, and as a result, he won’t experience that the short-term and long-term consequences specified in the rule (not feeling pain and recovering) are not coordinated over time. The person takes action to avoid pain and pain is avoided, so the behavior is negatively reinforced… tracking of relatively short-term consequences (limited physical activity → no pain) will block tracking of more long-term consequences (activity → pain → recovery). This becomes a vicious circle where well-functioning short-term tracking does not work in the long run. However, the fact that this tracking works in the short term means there is a risk that the governing function of the rule as a whole is reinforced." (Törneke)

Once you understand this cycle, it’s apparent that OCD can feed into procrastination. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is fueled by a cycle of uncertainty, aversion, and repetition. It starts when you experience anxiety related to an uncertain threat, like illness or death; you perform an action intended to hold the threat at bay; and, when that action doesn’t completely eliminate your feared outcome with 100% certainty, you repeat it until it becomes a compulsive ritual.

With procrastination, you are faced with a particular task that you desperately want to avoid; you devise another activity to perform instead; and when that activity is over and you find yourself back where you started, you begin another cycle to hold it off a little longer. And, as is always the case with Obsessive-Compulsive rituals, this can easily spiral out of control, wasting time and energy on useless repetition while exacerbating the original problem.

So how do you break the cycle of compulsive procrastination? Here are two suggestions that might be helpful:

1. Look creatively at the task you’re trying to avoid and see if there’s a less burdensome way of approaching the problem. Here’s a simple, personal example: I used to hate shaving and put it off for as long as possible; my facial hair would oscillate between “ruggedly handsome” and “borderline neckbeard” on a regular 3-to-4 day cycle. This went on until, as I was consciously experimenting with different strategies, I discovered that shaving with a safety razor under a hot shower only took me a minute or so, and was virtually effortless. The solution was simple in retrospect, but if I hadn’t tried out new strategies I’d still be procrastinating and wearing a neckbeard twice a week. Brainstorming a list or consulting with friends or treatment providers is a good place to start. Even if an idea seems silly, it’s usually at least worth a try. Trying and rejecting a hundred somewhat inane ideas is all worth it when you find the one that turns your pet peeve into a nonissue.

2. A second method for challenging compulsive procrastination is to break down the task you’re avoiding into smaller, more manageable chunks. Making small but measurable progress on a task fosters a sense of accomplishment, while reducing associated aversion. If you hate vacuuming, maybe start by just vacuuming a single room or piece of furniture — sometimes just flipping the "on" switch is a good place to start. Even if it seems inconsequential, it helps to build momentum and disrupt the cycle of inertia. Any progress is still better than none.

One of the things that makes OCD so frustrating is its ability to manifest in unanticipated ways. Procrastination is just one way OCD can catch you off guard and complicate your life from an unexpected angle. But like all OCD symptoms, understanding procrastination reveals obvious patterns — and opportunities to change for the better.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2020


Niklas Törneke, Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application. Context Press, 2010.