Mindfulness and Procrastination 1

Procrastination: What are you avoiding?

Procrastination: What are you avoiding?

Mindfulness and rocrastination 1

I was once interviewed by a  journalism student for a college newspaper regarding my book. He had a particular interest in how my approaches would be useful for college students with procrastination issues. The irony was that the deadline for this article was at midnight on the day of the interview. The interview took place by telephone at 10pm that evening:) Clearly his interest was personal as well as academic. At my practice, I see a number of college students from the local university. Many are c0ncerned with issues related to procrastination, or the tendency to delay commencing or completing work on some important task or pursuit. Of course this issue does not reside exclusively in the realm of higher education, but all avenues of life. Anything that is difficult, taxing, stressful, emotionally challenging, physically uncomfortable and so on, have an increased likelihood of being put off or delayed.  This in turn has the effect of further heightening one’s levels of personal stress and anxiety which in turn fuels the tendency to further delay task execution.

So what are psychological explanations of procrastination? In psychological learning theory, behavior is often regarded as a product of natural consequences and the contingencies or arrangements between behavior and its consequences. So for example there is an understanding of the effect of various “schedules of reinforcement”. Thus, as an example there is something called the Fixed Interval Reinforcement Schedule in which a reward is only available after a set or fixed period of time regardless of how many responses are emitted. So lets say we have a rat in a “Skinner Box”, which is an experimental apparatus in which one can deliver reward (food pellets) to our little furry friend in a prescribed schedule, based on the rats emitting a specific response, like pressing a little bar. So assume we have an arrangement such that a food pellet is only released for a bar press only if one minute has elapsed. The rats will pretty quickly learn this contingency and after a while, they will learn to delay responding until very close to the end of the required one minute interval until they start bar pressing. It’s as if they are trying to not waste energy and conserve their responses until the probability of reward is maximized. This pattern when charted graphically has a scalloped appearance and thus this response phenomenon is known as the “fixed interval scallop”.

Ok, now that you have all completed your first lesson in applied behavior analysis, it is important to recognize that research indicates that such observations can be generalized to all manners of life outside of the sterile laboratory environment. So, for example, research was once conducted with the United States Congress and perhaps, not surprisingly, it was found that they delay responses until almost the last minute as they approach difficult deadlines. This issue is in fact increasing which is causing such frustrating consequences as the “Fiscal Cliff” and other byproducts of their insistent delays in passing critical legislation.

So whereas the fixed interval effect may be an important factor in predicting performance delays in humans, other factors also need to be considered. Clearly for many of us, the tendency to procrastination is serving the function of avoidance. Behaviorally speaking, avoidance behavior are those behaviors (or lack thereof) that remove or delay the onset of aversive or unpleasant stimuli including unpleasant behaviors, activities, emotions, consequences and so on.

OK, so the question becomes, what are you avoiding? A primary point to make here that in fact, when procrastinating, one is not avoiding the task per se, but rather the unpleasant feelings and emotions associated with, or elicited by the task in question. So let’s take the example of studying for an exam. As one contemplates beginning the process, one may feel a variety of  strong and aversive feelings. One might experience fear of failing or performing poorly, and the associated shame, embarrassment, interpersonal disapproval and rejection, consequent loss of opportunities, feelings of being overwhelmed, helplessness and so on.  Especially those with shame based core values may feel the need to prove their worth to themselves and others, producing unachievable or rigid expectations which may greatly contribute to anxiety. For such individuals who feel inherently flawed and unworthy, everything can be become a test of their intrinsic worth and value.  Many others of us are simply just inherently risk averse and thus predisposed to avoid that which is perceived as uncomfortable, challenging, or difficult.

As we put off engaging in the task, the anxiety, pressure and guilt escalates. This the increases the perceived aversiveness of the task which in turn causes more avoidance. What a nasty little cycle! Often times however, the anxiety and guilt of not performing, outweighs the avoidance and we kick into gear and get going. Occasionally, one feels so overwhelmed by the feelings, that they are unable to break through the avoidance cycle and the task remains uncompleted.

The main point here is that as with most things, it is our attempts to control and avoid the so called “dark emotions” that is responsible for our suffering. Therefore the antidote is clear… to mindfully embrace and expose these difficult feelings. In my personal and professional experience, it has become quite evident that as we face the feelings, the tendency to avoid  and procrastinate with difficult tasks will sharply decline. For then there is nothing to control and nothing to avoid.

More on this in the next post. Stay tuned.

So don’t procrastinate, face your fears and post a comment!

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Great post. I was looking up “mindfulness” but love the procrastination association. Its a habit I’m trying to overcome. Looking forward to your next post.
    All the best, Zain

    • mm
      March 24, 2013 7:26 am

      Thanks Zain….stay tuned for the next post. I’ll try not to put it off anymore:)


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