Why do we procrastinate? I'm sure that each of us has different reasons for putting our responsibilities for later, but what's common in most cases is that procrastination could be approached as an emotional problem.
Cognitive behavioural theory states that the way we interpret our experiences influences our feelings and behaviours. When I'm evaluating my experience or a particular event in a positive manner, I will experience positive emotions and I will act accordingly. The same is true when we flip the positives into negative. Quite straightforward.
This theory has been widely used in therapy (CBT) and coaching (CBC). Although cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC) is still in its infancy, it has already demonstrated promising results in terms of supporting people in finding solutions, managing emotional difficulties, and achieving goals , , .
How can we use this theory to our advantage when dealing with the problem of procrastination? Let's break down the concept of procrastination first.
When we procrastinate, we usually know very well what we should be doing, and yet, we are not doing it. Alternatively, we procrastinate because it is not clear what we are supposed to be doing. Whichever the case, procrastination is fundamentally an example of avoidance: we avoid the task because XYZ.
The XYZ is the most important element we need to understand. Think about the last time you procrastinated. What caused it? Was it because the task seemed boring? Or was it because of fear of failure or success? If you would like to find the exact cause, think in terms of the last time you performed this or similar task and how did you feel in that moment. Bored? Frustrated? Anxious? Impatient? What sort of feelings do you experience in regard to that task?
Investigating your emotional reaction to a task you procrastinate on will enable you to find an exact aspect of your experience that you avoid. That's not all, however, as we can go even deeper and find the cause of having such emotional reaction in the first place!
To use a simple example, I usually procrastinate on starting my university essays. Starting an essay is frustrating to me, because I simply don't know when to begin, and I also feel a little bit anxious because it seems overwhelming. So, I will procrastinate not so much in order to avoid writing the essay, but in order to avoid the emotions associated with writing it. Furthermore, before I experience these emotions, I usually think “I can't do it”, “This is too difficult”, “What if I fail”. Bingo – that's the very cause of my procrastination: my evaluation of the task.
By using the same pattern (ABC model), you can find the actual cause of your procrastination:
A = what's the activating event? That would be the task you are avoiding (procrastinating).
B = what are your beliefs/thoughts about this task and about your experience of engaging in it? Be honest.
C = what are the emotional consequences of thinking in that way? How performing this task makes you feel?
Accordingly to the CBC theory, in order to change our behaviour (in this case, procrastination), we need to change the way we think (in this case, what we think about the target task and about our experience of it).
The ABC model can then be extended into D and E stages:
D = Disputation: How can you challenge your evaluation of the task? (thoughts in stage B). What's the evidence supporting your belief? What's the evidence against it? Is the way you think about the task supportive, valid, or is it an example of a cognitive distortion?
E = What's the effect of challenging the negative thought/belief? What will happen if you start thinking differently about the task you are procrastinating on?
It takes some time to learn new ways of thinking and behaving, so it's important to stick with implementing the above steps over and over again until your brain learns the new way of interpreting your experiences.
In order to illustrate this model in action, let me use the same example of me procrastinating on writing university essays. In order to change the pattern, I have addressed the negative appraisals of the situation: “I can't do it”, “What if I fail”, “That's too difficult”. By analysing the validity of each of these thoughts/beliefs, I have been able to challenge this way of thinking: “I have been able to do it in the past”, “I can't know if I fail unless I complete the task”, “I will break the task down and develop a plan in order to make the task easier”. Changing these thoughts automatically changes the way I feel: my anxiety and frustration levels go down because I evaluate the situation differently – the task doesn't seem so difficult anymore.
The biggest advantage of the Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) is that you can learn to do it by yourself. If you would like to learn more about this approach, how to use it in practice, and ultimately become your own CBC coach, get in touch and schedule your 1 to 1 private coaching session.
“Life Coaching – A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach” by Michael Neenan and Windy Dryden
“Cognitive Behavioural Coaching” by Michael Neenan and Stephen Palmer