New methods are rising for the cause of many a blown deadline, late payment and irritated boss: Procrastination.
As digital distractions proliferate, psychologists are adapting techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy to focus on procrastination. They’re also creating smartphone apps to strengthen thoughts of industriousness and weaken the allure of procrastination. While therapists and productivity gurus have long offered techniques to prod individuals into action, these new approaches are being subjected to more rigorous scientific study—with promising early outcomes.
The efforts come as some researchers believe that procrastination is on the rise. The fault partly lies with the infinite supply of distractions we carry around in our smartphones, carefully targeted to our tastes, says Piers Steel, a professor on the University of Calgary and the writer of “The Procrastination Equation.” “All these stunning AI algorithms are pushing the next most addictive thing it can think of in front of your nose. How could we do something but procrastinate?” he says.
Research have discovered that between 15% and 20% of American adults chronically procrastinate. Amongst college students, the numbers are markedly higher: About three-quarters consider themselves procrastinators and almost half say their procrastination is chronic and problematic. Procrastination can cause stress and wreak havoc on people’s work and relationships. It is usually linked to mental health issues: Individuals who procrastinate usually tend to have anxiety disorders and depression.
Procrastination is “deferring commitments even though you already know about the negative consequences that lie ahead,” says Christian Aljoscha Lukas, a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.
Alexander Rozental, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, has developed a treatment for procrastination—it can be delivered online or in individual by a therapist—that’s based mostly on the ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy, an method that focuses on changing the thoughts and behaviors that drive peoples’ distress. Listed here are its core components:
Revamp Your Goals
Goals must be specific and scheduled. “Instead of saying, ‘Next week I’ll begin learning for my exam,’ say, ‘On Monday between 9 and 11, I’ll begin studying for my exam,’ ” Dr. Rozental says. Since motivation increases the closer you get to a deadline, larger goals must be divided into smaller subgoals. Then schedule regular rewards if you meet those subgoals, such as a cup of coffee or a quick walk after two hours of work. “You want to have one thing to look forward to,” he says.
Start Small, But Start
For procrastinators, step one is commonly the hardest. They wait for a burst of motivation or inspiration that usually doesn’t arrive. To beat the resistance to beginning a project, Dr. Rozental has people begin very small. “Whether it is hard to start with reading one page, begin with reading one paragraph. If it is arduous to start cleaning your kitchen, clean one cupboard,” he says. “Normally people say, ‘It wasn’t as bad as I thought, I can continue.’ ”
This looks like a no-brainer, but remove every little thing that isn’t important for the task at hand.
Assess Your Values
Dr. Rozental has participants identify their core values to help them see the relationship between the tasks they are putting off and their larger life purpose. A college student who’s failing to complete an assignment might be able to discover some motivation by connecting to her desire to help people as the doctor she hopes to become. You can see the “worth of doing something that may be very boring because it helps get you closer to the things that you worth in life,” Dr. Rozental says.
In a research published in 2015 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that involved 150 procrastinators, those that did the online treatment, both on their own or with the guidance of a therapist, saw statistically significant improvement on a scale of procrastination, compared with a control group. (And, yes, the procrastinators really did the treatment.)
Other researchers are experimenting with game-like programs. Dr. Lukas has developed a smartphone app therapy for procrastination. Users are presented with a series of pictures of procrastination, such as an individual reclined in a lounge chair, feet up, with a glass of beer. They’re also shown photos of industriousness, like a stack of papers with a highlighter and pen on the ready. The photographs include corresponding statements. Users are instructed to physically push images of procrastination away via a swipe upward and draw the images of industriousness closer via a swipe down. “It is very very like Tinder,” says Dr. Lukas. Pictures shrink as they’re pushed away and grow as they’re brought closer. Participants earn stars for correct responses.
Dr. Lukas says the technique, which is a component of cognitive bias modification, helps to override the automatic thoughts that drive procrastination (“That is boring—I’d rather be hanging out with pals”) and replace them with more healthy thoughts (“I’m going to finish my assignment”).
“We break up these automatic routes that are dysfunctional. You begin to reflect on what you do automatically and think, ‘I probably should be doing something else,’ ” says Dr. Lukas.
In a small pilot study published in 2017 in the journal Internet Interventions involving 31 procrastinators, those who used the smartphone app for two weeks (for an average of about 5 minutes a day) and also received two sessions of in-person group counseling had a statistically significant greater drop in their scores on a measure of procrastination, compared with a control group. Dr. Lukas and colleagues have formed a company, mentalis, to sell the smartphone app to customers.
Dr. Steel says that an important thing you are able to do to fight procrastination is to get enough sleep. “When your energy levels are down, your willpower is weak,” he says.
Robert Schachter, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry on the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, says he has recognized 20 totally different reasons for procrastination (being a perfectionist and being impulsive are two), with each type needing a tailored treatment. Since procrastination can be a feature of ADHD and depression, he screens people for those disorders.
He has patients write a list of the personal costs of their procrastination (paying more for last-minute airplane tickets, for instance) and a list of the professionals of procrastination (videogames are fun, for example). “If in reality they are saying the negatives really outweigh the positives, they’ll really want to do something about it,” says Dr. Schachter, who also runs the Procrastination Centers of America. Dr. Schachter had planned to open a series of centers across the nation, but now the only center is his own private practice. There just wasn’t the demand, he says. “Folks don’t really wish to fix it.”