What is Procrastination?

A person who procrastinates will put off doing an activity until the last minute as a way of coping with the anxiety or negative feelings associated with that activity. Procrastination can occur in many areas of life including social activities (e.g., returning or making phone calls), work or school (e.g., finishing an assignment), health-related activities (e.g., making a doctors appointment or committing to a lifestyle change), and household or financial activities (e.g., filing taxes). The anxiety or negative feelings associated with the activity can be avoided in the short-term by making the decision not to do it at that time. However, putting it off can create more stress in the long term, since doing something at the last minute adds greater time pressure. In addition, many other negative emotions are commonly associated with procrastinating, such as guilt, remorse, or depression. Procrastinating also increases the likelihood that the activity will not get done in time, creating external consequences. For instance, someone who puts off completing an assignment at work to the point that he or she turns it in late risks the disapproval of his or her boss. Likewise, someone who files his or her taxes late must pay a penalty fee. These consequences may, in turn, produce more worry and stress. The long-term costs of procrastinating quite often outweigh the short-term benefit.

How is procrastination treated?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to treat procrastination. One way CBT can help is by challenging the thoughts and beliefs associated with completing an activity. Some common thoughts include:

  • “I have to do this perfectly.”
  • “I don’t have enough time to do this right now.”
  • “I need to be in the right mood to get this done.”
  • “I’d rather do something else.”
  • “I have to wait until _____ happens before I can do this.”
  • “I don’t know how to do this.”
  • “If I wait long enough, someone else might do this for me or help me with it.”
  • “If I do this now, I’ll just be expected to do more.”
  • “I can’t stand doing this.”

In CBT, the therapist will help you to examine the accuracy and utility of these thoughts. The therapist will also help you to alter the behavioral contingencies (i.e., rewards and punishments) associated with procrastination. When you procrastinate, the reward is that you avoid short-term anxiety. The therapist can help you to create your own rewards system for completing each small step along the way so that your rewards system becomes more reinforcing than the avoidance. The therapist may also help you to analyze the costs and benefits of procrastinating so that you are reminded of long-term punishments if you do not complete the activity on time and long-term rewards if you do complete the activity. In addition, the therapist may teach you other skills in tolerating negative emotions, so that you can complete activities even if they are very unpleasant.