The Many Forms of Procrastination

A lot can show up when someone settles down to start a task. Procrastination, the act of delaying the completion of a task, is a common response when one is faced with a challenging or multi-step task.

The thought “I can’t do this” can actually have several meanings. It can be helpful to examine the function of this thought in order to take the most effective action. The thought “I can’t” might be related to confusion as to how to start a task, lack of skill to complete the task, fear of how the final product might be evaluated, or wanting to avoid uncomfortable feelings as one engages in the task.

The Cognitive Model Applied to Procrastination

In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and feelings is often discussed. Research shows that individuals with social anxiety have much higher levels of perfectionism and experiential avoidance, which might explain the function procrastination (Buckner, Zvolensky, Farris & Hogan, 2014; Ferrari, 1991; Flett, Blankstein & Martin, 1995). In this sense, procrastination can function as a behavior to avoid uncomfortable internal experiences, regardless of one’s actual ability to complete the task itself.

Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Pain

Behaviors are often maintained due to their short-term consequences. This means that what happens immediately following a behavior often determines if we are likely to perform that behavior again. If the function of procrastination serves to provide a temporary sense of relief from distressing thoughts and uncomfortable emotions, the behavior is likely to be reproduced in similar future circumstances. However, this behavioral pattern often leads to the anxiety increasing over time and individuals searching for a different, and more effective, way of approaching challenging tasks.

Changing the Pattern of Procrastination

It is important to know that responses to thoughts, emotions, and behavioral urges are not fixed. Learning various ways of responding to these patterns can actually change these behavioral patterns and lead to more desired outcomes in the future.

Developing New Relationships with Emotions

Many people unknowingly respond to uncomfortable emotions by trying to ignore, avoid, or invalidate the emotion. Labeling and observing emotions can be a new experience for many people. Indeed, research shows that affect labeling and emotional experiencing are two helpful ways of responding to uncomfortable emotions (Burklund, Craske, Taylor, & Lieberman, 2015; Lieberman et. al, 2007; Torre & Lieberman, 2018).

Developing New Relationships with Thoughts

Evaluating one’s thoughts and mindset is one way to change this pattern. In addition, one can evaluate if their thoughts are actually facts. Other ways of changing one’s relationship with negative thoughts include labeling the thought (“I just had the thought that…”) or visualizing the thought passing like a cloud in the sky.

Developing New Relationships with Behaviors

Responding effectively to one’s behavioral urges can also be helpful. In terms of procrastination, fear is often an emotion that is present. But fear doesn’t have to be in charge. It is important to acknowledge that one can both feel scared and engage in a challenging (yet safe) task. Doing the opposite of the action urge associated with an emotion is often an effective way of both changing behavioral patterns and learning new information (Linehan, 2014).

Written by,
Michelle Dexter, Ph.D.
NSAC – Los Angeles

Buckner, J. D., Zvolensky, M. J., Farris, S. G., & Hogan, J. (2014). Social anxiety and coping motives for cannabis use: The impact of experiential avoidance. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 28(2), 568–574.

Burklund, L. J., Craske, M. G., Taylor, S. E., Lieberman, M. D. (2015). Altered emotion regulation capacity in social phobia as a function of comorbidity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(2), 199–208. doi:10.1093/scan/nsu058

Ferrari, J. R. (1991). Compulsive Procrastination: Some Self-Reported Characteristics. Psychological Reports, 68(2), 455–458.

Flett G.L., Blankstein K.R., Martin T.R. (1995) Procrastination, Negative Self-Evaluation, and Stress in Depression and Anxiety. In: Procrastination and Task Avoidance. pp 137-167. The Springer Series in Social Clinical Psychology. Springer, Boston, MA

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x

Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124.