Saturday, November 2, 2013

Is Procrastination Addictive?

Well, let’s not go quite that far – we are probably already applying the term “addiction” to too many phenomena that really are not equivalent. But, in my view, there is an important aspect of procrastination that overlaps with addictive behaviors.

A key type of procrastination involves a chronic pattern of avoidance at the moment when it is “time to get something done.” The individual says to him- or hersself (as I myself have done countless times), “I’m too [tired, drained, sick, etc] to do this right now. Instead, I’ll [take a nap, watch TV, play a video game, etc] and I’ll do this task at a later time.”

The three central elements here are (1) anxiety [something about this project that gets you nervous], (2) rationalization [as described above] (3) avoidance [the decision to walk away from the assignment].

More than one of my recovering patients has told me that the moment of rationalization when avoiding a task feels very similar to the moment of rationalization (e.g., “This time will be different,” or “I deserve this”) preceding the decision to drink or drug.

These behaviors happen repeatedly (and typically with increasing frequency) because they are highly reinforcing. It is well known in the field of behavioral psychology that immediate reward is much more reinforcing than delayed reward. In this case, in the split-second when the individual decides “I’ll skip this for now,” there is an immediate reduction in anxiety, just as with the first drink, even though the result is likely to be an increase in later stress (just as drinking tends to generate more negative consequences that must be faced later).

That is part of what makes the temptation to avoid so potent. What, then, is to be done? There are too many aspects of the situation to address here, but some key components of working one’s way out of severe procrastination and facing overwhelming tasks are: (1) breaking big projects down, by stages, into smaller and smaller pieces, so small that they are manageable even when one is very anxious; (2) doing one piece at a time; (3) self-rewarding each accomplishment (e.g., making that nap or video game conditional on completing the small task).