An Interview with Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., on Procrastination
David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 30th 2010
Procrastination, defined by putting things off, falling behind, and then feeling badly, is a normal behavior but one that can cause real problems when taken to extremes. It can present as a symptom of depression or anxiety or perfectionism. Its remediation can help create a sense of relief or respite from these other conditions. A first step in addressing problematic procrastination is to raise awareness that procrastination is occurring so that it becomes more of a conscious choice rather than a simple reflex. Next, it is helpful to understand the motivations that cause the behavior, which vary across different people. Some people procrastinate as a simple short-term means of avoiding having to do tasks they find aversive. Others avoid due to social evaluation fears or self-doubt. Others procrastinate due to poor organizational skills and difficulty accurately estimating the time it will take to accomplish a goal. Procrastination can also occur as a practical means of social manipulation (such as when delay in cleaning one's room will cause another to do it for you), or as a result of existential paralysis over not being able to complete tasks with a (self-imposed) required level of skill or quality. It's important to pick a single instance of procrastination to address rather than try to stop the pattern globally. Keeping change goals small and manageable makes it possible to maintain motivation to change and to measure change as it occurs.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show, we'll be talking with Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco about procrastination and overcoming it. Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy, a clinical psychologist, and a founding fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She's on the psychology faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington, with a secondary appointment in psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. In addition to The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done, her books include the best sellers Never Good Enough and The Bipolar Workbook. Now here's the interview.
Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco, welcome to Wise Counsel.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, thank you very much. Good to be here.
David: You've had a very distinguished career as a behaviorally oriented psychotherapist. How did you first become interested in psychology?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, actually, I think it was sort of a fluke. I was looking for a major as an undergrad and went through four or five different options. Seemingly, I switched every semester till I finally figured out what I liked.
David: Oh, I remember going through that myself.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Part of it was there weren't enough classes weren't necessarily available, and psychology had a few openings in the time slot I wanted and signed up for a class and got very much hooked on the subject. But the deciding factor in actually pursuing it as a career was an opportunity to get involved in research with my mentor, Gayla Margolin, at the University of Southern California. And she taught me a lot about research, and then I couldn't get enough of it, so I pursued that path and developed skills as a cognitive-behavioral therapist along the way.
David: Okay. So your initial interest was in research, but then, as you went along, you got interested in applying it in a psychotherapy setting.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, it's interesting. It's actually kind of the reverse. I left graduate school saying I would never do research ever again in my entire life -
David: Oh, really.
Monica Ramirez Basco: After suffering the trauma of doing a dissertation project.
David: Oh, yeah.
Monica Ramirez Basco: But the very first job I was offered after graduating was in a clinical research program, a depression research study under the direction of John Rush. And I got a chance to do both clinical service as well as research at the same time, and it was just a wonderful opportunity to be able to get the best of both worlds without the trauma that you go through as a student. So it was actually very enjoyable. I learned a great deal.
David: Well, it's wonderful when people are able to combine the two because, of course, it's important that psychotherapy be informed as much as possible by research.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Absolutely.
David: And visa versa, to some extent.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes, absolutely.
David: So, let's talk about your recent book, The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done. Now, what drew you to this particular topic?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, actually, the editor of a prior book. I write for Guilford Press sometimes, and one of the editors had asked me to consider writing a book on procrastination because it was such a common problem, but I kept putting it off and working on other projects. And then she'd raise the question again. I'd say, oh, that I didn't think it was particularly interesting; I didn't think I had a lot to say, and so I put it off even longer. And then I realized what I was doing was procrastinating on procrastination and began to - so I met with her and we talked through an idea, and I realized that I actually had been addressing problems of procrastination all the time with people who I treated with a variety of other kinds of problems. They wouldn't come into therapy saying "I'm a procrastinator; can you help me?" They 'd come in and say, "I'm depressed," or "I'm anxious," or "I have bipolar disorder," or "I've got some other kind of problem." And often procrastination was a common thread: putting things off, getting behind, and then feeling really awful about it.
And then I teach. I'm a college professor, so students, the same thing: you know, those people who write their papers the night before they're due, and then they do an awful job on it because they procrastinated. And I began to observe just my own encounters with people and realized that not only is it a common problem, but there are some fairly common solutions to it.
And I realized, as I reviewed my records of who I'd been treating with this particular problem, is I was pretty much following the same pattern of solution for problems with procrastination, and it seemed like they were things that I had done fairly systematically that others could probably do for themselves if they just had some rules and guidance and some exercises in front of them.
David: Okay. Now, procrastination isn't in the DSM. I wonder, do you think it should be? Or might ever be?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Oh, I don't think it should be because then we'd all be diagnosed.
David: Aren't we already?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, probably. You know, I think procrastination - it's not a question of are you a procrastinator or not; it's a question of how much do you procrastinate, how often do you do it, how severe is it, does it cause functional impairment. And I know that's how we think about other criteria that are in the DSM, but this is something that's pretty normal. Procrastination, especially on things that are unpleasant, it's part of our nature. I think there's a very small group of people who never procrastinate, and they maybe have another problem of being sort of compulsive.
David: Yes, right.
Monica Ramirez Basco: But I think it's a fairly common human behavior, so I think to diagnose it, again, you'd be diagnosing all of ourselves. But I think it varies in degree of severity, and there certainly are some people who procrastinate to the point where it really impairs their ability to function day to day. Now, those are folks who may also have other kinds of problems like depression or severe anxiety or some other kinds of things that would interfere. So I think the procrastination is one piece of the puzzle, one symptom amongst a cluster of others.
But it's a symptom that's fixable, so sometimes, regardless of what DSM category you might be suffering from, if you can get a handle on your procrastination, you feel a whole lot better. And if you feel better, then it's easier to function in the other areas of life that are difficult. So it's sort of addressing a common problem, but I don't think it falls in the category of a disorder.
David: Okay. Now, I get the impression that, coming from a behavioral perspective, you're inclined to see procrastination as a habit. But I'm wondering if there might also be somewhat more, oh, psychodynamic factors at work such as a lack of self-confidence, fear of failure, perfectionism, or unconscious self-sabotage.
Monica Ramirez Basco: I think all of those apply, so I do see things from a cognitive and behavioral perspective in terms of the solution, but in terms of the assessment - like how you're understanding why we procrastinate, what's behind it - I think all of those factors apply. And so I do think that fear is one of the more common factors: fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of doing it wrong, fear of making a mistake. So I think fear is very much a driving force in procrastination.
I think there's other ways in which procrastination shows itself. I think some people use it as a tool. I mean there's those who procrastinate long enough so somebody else does things for them, or they procrastinate long enough that somebody else makes a decision for them or the decision is made by default. So I think that in relationships you can use it as a weapon if you're digging your heels in because you don't want to be told what to do.
So there's all of those. If you look at from a systems perspective, those issues certainly tend to fuel procrastination for sure. And then perfectionism - obviously, if you're trying to get things done exactly right and you can't, then it's easy to put it off because you don't feel like you can do the whole task. I actually wrote another book on perfectionism, and this is just one piece of the problem that perfectionists deal with, but it is one of those problems where, if you don't have the energy or the time to do things exactly the way you want to get it done, or you don't have the resources to do it exactly the way you want to have it done, then you put it off.
So, I think all the factors apply, and you can look at this problem from a variety of perspectives. I've chosen to do it - to approach the solution from a cognitive-behavioral perspective because that's what I do, that's my thing.
Monica Ramirez Basco: So, I understand how to operate. And I think because those methods are fairly easy to describe, not only can clinicians learn to help people using those methods, but I think people can self teach quite a bit of it.
David: Okay. You may have already touched on this a bit, but you talk about procrastination as a way to cope. And how so? To cope with what? What is it that people are coping with?
Monica Ramirez Basco: That's a good question. I think that we cope with things that are difficult or unpleasant, so I'll give you a couple concrete examples. My students, they wait to the last minute to prepare papers or projects or quizzes or homework assignments. Now, why do they do that? Now, some of them fool themselves and say, "I do my best work under pressure," which I don't think is actually true at all, but a lot of people believe it; a lot of young people in particular believe that.
But I think they're coping with the concern or the fear of doing the project wrong or getting a bad grade, and I think we often cope by putting things off because in the short run it actually makes you feel better. So if you're having to face balancing your checkbook and you just don't want to deal with what you're likely to find - maybe errors, maybe a lower balance than you thought you had - you sort of say "I'll do it later," and you put it off and you go watch TV for a little bit. And while you're watching TV for that little bit, you feel better. So in the short run, procrastination actually makes you feel a whole lot better because it's a momentary escape from the thing that's unpleasant.
Another concrete example might be having to return a phone call that you anticipate being unpleasant. So, someone calls, leaves you a message; you know you're going to have to deal with them. You're going to have to either give them bad news or hear bad news, and you just don't have the energy to deal with it. And so you put it off. You wait, and while you're waiting, you're focusing on something that's easier or more pleasant, and you're distancing yourself from the stress of that phone call, and so it works. It helps you to cope in the short run, so it's a good short-term coping strategy. The problem is that usually the problem sticks around, so it's going to come back and haunt you or come back and demand your attention sooner or later.
David: Right. You know, as I hear you talk about your students' procrastination, it certainly takes me back to my own student days, and it makes me wonder if it might also be a bit of a developmental issue having to do with the maturation process. I know when I was in the early days of my studenthood, I think it was anxiety that would cause me to procrastinate. I just felt so anxious about I guess doing a good job or something.
Monica Ramirez Basco: I think that is part of it, sure.
David: Yes, and it took years, actually, through some time in working on a Ph.D... Somewhere along that pathway, it finally got through to me that there was more anxiety attached to putting it off than to just doing it.
Monica Ramirez Basco: You're right, and I do think that's a motivating factor for some people, where the anxiety of not getting it done has to get bigger than the anxiety about making a mistake. So it's like really as you get down to the wire and you start to worry about not getting it done on time or not completing it, and then you just sort of rush through it and get it done.
Developmentally, the other thing is that I think sometimes people - it takes awhile before you learn organizational skills, and part of procrastinating is when we tell ourselves "I've got plenty of time; I'll get it done later," we actually believe that's true, that we do have time later and it can get done. And sometimes when you're not really good at time management, you might underestimate how long your task is going to take, and you might overestimate how much time you really have. And so we learn a bit by trial and error of how long things take to complete and certainly that it's not always done as quickly as we might optimistically believe. And you learn a bit by trial and error, and you develop your time management skills. Not everybody does, but most people develop them over time, so that's another developmental process.
David: Yes. I've found that I had to tell myself, okay, I'm going to write a C paper. I'm just going to write a C paper. And most often they would turn out to be an A paper, but somehow being willing to write a C paper helped me to get it done.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Um-hmm, you took the pressure off yourself.
Monica Ramirez Basco: I think that's a good point.
David: So, you talk about six types of procrastinators. I don't know if you have your book in front of you -
Monica Ramirez Basco: I do, I do.
David: So, I hope you can remember all six.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, I can give it a try.
David: Yes, I was hoping you could kind of take us through them.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Okay, sure. I can do that. So, I'm actually going to open up the book. I put a quiz in the book where you can answer some questions about your procrastination behaviors, and if you add up your score in each of these categories, it helps you to figure out what type of procrastination you're typically using or what might be behind your procrastination. And if you understand the type or the kind of procrastination, then it's a little bit easier to read the book because then you can just go to those chapters that cover the type of procrastinator you might be.
David: Oh, that's great.
Monica Ramirez Basco: So that's kind of the gist of it. So, let's talk about the different types. So, the avoidant type is kind of what we've been talking about right now, the person who avoids things because they think it's going to be unpleasant or uncomfortable. I think that's a very common type of procrastinator. So, getting the bills in the mail but not opening them up right away because you don't want to see them - that kind of thing.
David: Right, right.
Monica Ramirez Basco: That would also fall in the category of not returning phone calls or not taking care of things that you think are going to be unpleasant; so you're trying to avoid discomfort. Or even just doing a task that you know you have to do. It's not scary necessarily; it's just going to be unpleasant, and it's not very much fun, like doing your taxes. It's easy to procrastinate on putting your taxes together because it's not fun.
Monica Ramirez Basco: And so it's uncomfortable, and it can be painful for some folks.
David: Or going to the dentist I imagine falling into that category.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Or going to the - oh, yes, yes. Or the gynecologist or the gastroenterologist or all those various things we have to do.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Oh, yes. It's going to be unpleasant, and so if you avoid it in the short run, you can feel a little better in the long run - and in the long run, the problem's still there, but in the short run you can avoid discomfort.
The second type is the disorganized type, so that's the group that is bad with time management, doesn't really realistically estimate how long it takes to get tasks done or how much needs to be done. So, I do think you see that quite a bit in students. I think it kind of - some of these types will obviously overlap with one another, but I do think that, in addition to perhaps avoiding unpleasant tasks, sometimes people who are just disorganized with their time don't allot that amount or don't prioritize their goals or their tasks, so it's hard to get things done.
You know, we do better when we have deadlines, right? We know that we have to file taxes by April 15, or you know your rent's due by the first of the month. When there's specific deadlines we do better. When they're aren't deadlines, when things are more open ended, like getting your teeth checked, for example, it's harder to organize yourself around getting them done. So the disorganized type, that's really kind of their deal. They don't manage their time well, and then they run out of time, or they get overwhelmed because they have too much to do and too little time to do it in.
David: That makes sense to me. I've known some of those types, even in my family, but I won't go any further.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes. I mean it's not unusual. I think, again, we usually learn over time how to get organized, but not always. Sometimes we don't ever learn those skills.
The third type is the self-doubting type. It has a little bit of overlap with the avoidant, but what's different about the self-doubting type - this is a group that doesn't trust themselves to make good decisions or trust themselves to go down the right path. So the self doubter is the one who says, "Should I change jobs or should I stay with the one I'm at? I'm not really sure what the right choice is." " Should I stay in the apartment I'm in now, or should I move to a new one?" I don't know what to do, so I'm going to do nothing while I ponder an unpleasant situation. "Should I break up this relationship I'm in because it's not going well? But maybe that's a mistake. Maybe I should stay with it longer. I'm not sure, so I'm going to do nothing."
So you put off dealing with things when you just doubt your ability to make a good choice, make a good decision, go down the right path. Some people want to do positive things like go back to school perhaps or maybe retrain for a new job, and they may put that off because they're not sure that's really the right direction to take. Again, I see it with college students who come and are trying to select a major. "I don't know which major to choose." They put it off until the last possible minute.
But it happens with people who are not students, who are trying to make a decision about a particular job path or a training opportunity that might come up, making a change that has some risk associated with it. It may not turn out well, and if you have doubt in yourself, it's hard to make that leap. It's hard to make a change when you're not entirely certain how it's going to work out for you. So the self doubters - does that make sense?
David: Yes, that's another category that makes sense to me.
Monica Ramirez Basco: All right. The next type is the interpersonal type and that what I kind of mentioned briefly: the ones that might use procrastination in their relationships. I think of them as - in different ways you can use it. You sort of can use procrastination as a weapon against somebody, so if someone is demanding that you do something for them and you don't want to do it and it's important to them, you just dig in your heels and put it off and intentionally procrastinate and drive them crazy. So, you irritate your boss or your co-worker or your spouse or somebody else because you just don't really want to be told what to do, or you don't want to deal with it, so you use your procrastination in that way.
Sometimes you can use your procrastination as a tool to get your way, to get other people to do things for you. Moms who tell their children repeatedly to pick up their toys and then eventually go pick them up themselves because they know their kids are not going to pick them up. They've trained their children into knowing that if you hear Mom say pick up your toys three times, on the fourth time she'll just do it herself. So, that's sort of an interpersonal kind of situation where you're using that procrastination as kind of a tool.
And another way I think about it in relationships is it's sort of a shield. If you anticipate criticism from others for what you're doing, you procrastinate so that you don't have to be criticized for doing something wrong. So the shield sort of protects you from those harsh words or that criticism or that disapproval from others, and so that's another way that you use procrastination in a relationship.
David: It sounds like there's some overlap with what we used to call - or maybe still do - a passive-aggressive stance.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes. I do think so. I think definitely part of that is passive-aggressive in that interpersonal type, because definitely the focus is the relationship. The focus is how your procrastination will impact the other person. Now, we don't always do this with full awareness.
Monica Ramirez Basco: I mean we're not always insightful about it, and so we might be passive-aggressive without realizing it.
Monica Ramirez Basco: But once you become aware of how you're using your procrastination to get your way, you might choose to do it a different way.
Monica Ramirez Basco: The next type is the all-or-nothing type, and this is where those perfectionists kind of fall into place.
Monica Ramirez Basco: So that's the group that really - they either go 100 percent or they completely become overwhelmed and exhausted and do nothing, and they don't have a middle. So this is a group that, when they are on top of things, they are completely on top of things. And when they're not able to be completely on top of things, they can swing in the opposite direction and just fall way behind and not take action. And perfectionists have a tendency to be sort of all-or-nothing in their approach to things in life, and the same thing for this type of procrastination.
Another all-or-nothing might include people also who take on too much, over-committers. People try to do so much, but they can't say no very easily, and so then they become overwhelmed with all of their responsibilities, all the things that they have agreed to do, things they want to do, things they've chosen to do. And then they sort of shut down. You kind of hit your limit, can't handle any more, sort of maybe not even realize you're hitting your limit until you're there. And then they sort of shut down and stop taking phone calls, turn on the television, lay on the couch, and they're not doing anything until they recoup; and recoup their energy and then come back to that all-or-nothing approach, come back to high intensity. So they sort of sling back and forth between the extremes. Obviously, moderation may be a goal for that group.
And the last group are pleasure seekers. Now, those are actually people who are probably just plain old lazy, but my editor thought that lazy was a negative term and we shouldn't call readers lazy, so I rephrased them and we're calling them pleasure seekers.
Monica Ramirez Basco: But it's really kind of just plain old run-of-the-mill laziness, just "I don't want to." I don't feel it. I'm not in the mood. I've got chores to do - yeah, they're important. I'm not afraid to do them; I'm not disorganized about it; I'm not trying to make a point. I'm just not in the mood, and I'd so much rather play than work, given the choices. Now, that would probably describe me. I enjoy having fun, and I don't want to miss an opportunity to have fun, so it's hard for me sometimes to give up the fun and do the work, because there's some times I'm just not in the mood to work hard and pursue those tasks.
So, pleasure seekers can have a lot of fun, and there's nothing bad about being a pleasure seeker, nothing bad about goofing off and relaxing rather than doing chores, at all. That's not a problem unless you do it too much. You fall out of balance so that the things that are your responsibilities or the tasks that you're required to do suffer. They don't get done or they get done poorly because you're spending too much time goofing off. So that might be true of people who sort of get hooked on computer games or video games or television or things that are sort of addictive, fun activities that they would much rather do. And there are so many distractions like that available.
David: Yes, actually I was going to ask you about all the digital distractions that are in our lives these days.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes, yes.
David: There's always that lure of Facebook or email or Twitter or YouTube.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Absolutely.
David: And I'm wondering if they might contribute to the problem of procrastination.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Oh, absolutely. I mean those are so much more fun than cleaning toilets or mowing your lawn or doing your laundry or paying your taxes or whatever else you need to do. I mean, I think that we tell ourselves "Oh, I have to return this phone call. I need to check my email. I have to update my Facebook page." We think of them like requirements: I have to do that; I can't not respond to someone who just contacted me by one of those electronic mechanisms.
But if we're really honest with ourselves, we probably ought to be doing something else with our time, and there should be limits placed. And they are sort of addictive because the more friends you have, the more contacts you have, the more contact you have with other people through these various means, and so, yeah, you can use procrastination. I mean, if I have some work-related task I don't really want to do - I mean I really don't want to do it - I'll go check my email, which once you start checking your email, that can go on for hours. Yes.
David: It used to be sharpening your pencils, you know. Trying to write something and you'd have to go to the bathroom, and then you have to sharpen your pencils, and then you have to have a cup of coffee.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Exactly.
David: But now we're sitting at the computer doing our writing, and there's the email and there's the instant messaging. And particularly for the younger population that you're working with, I would think that.
Monica Ramirez Basco: It's definitely a distraction, but it's all ages. There's lots of folks that - these mechanisms of communication are really quite wonderful. I mean they do allow people to stay in contact with one another, and they really are valuable tools, but they are really - yes, they are kind of addictive. If you have to choose between work and play, it's hard to not choose play sometimes, and it requires us to be really self-disciplined, and that's just a hard thing, even for grownups, even those of us who raise children and tell them to be self-disciplined.
Monica Ramirez Basco: It's hard to practice what we preach all the time.
David: It certainly is. Now, you have a chapter on guilt. Tell us a bit about the role of guilt in procrastination.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, a funny thing about guilt is that I think if we could all be pleasure seekers - pleasure seeking is kind of guilt-free procrastination. You sort of have some fun, and you know there's things to be done, but you can actually really enjoy the moment and relax and not be bothered by that long list of to-dos. But the people who come to treatment and complain about procrastination, and the ones that really want to fix it, are the ones that can't do that, what pleasure seekers can do. They might delay or procrastinate, but their mind keeps working, so they are thinking about what they should be doing instead of the relaxing task they're trying to do. And that nags at them. It nags at them and makes them feel guilty for not getting work done.
So that's when - you were saying that when the uncomfortable feeling in procrastinating sometimes becomes more uncomfortable than the task, guilt is part of that. When part of your brain - you can't even enjoy the moment because part of your brain is telling you, you really should be up; you really should get moving; you really should get this taken care of; it would really be better if you stopped goofing off and got this thing out of the way; then you wouldn't have to think about it any more. And those messages come from within ourselves. We may have picked them up from a parent or a school teacher or a coach or someone else who told us that we needed to stop procrastinating along the way. But I think guilt is what makes the procrastination so unpleasant.
And the people I've treated, they come in and they're frustrated because they'll say, "I realize; I understand in my head that procrastinating feels bad and makes me feel guilty, and I understand entirely why I am procrastinating, but I still do it anyway." And so I tried to actually write this book for that group. That's really the group that I had in mind as I was considering all these different types of procrastination.
David: Now, you've touched on treatment. What is your approach to helping people overcome their tendency to procrastinate?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, it kind of depends on which type we're talking about, so the interventions are a bit different for each one, but let me give you sort of a general idea and then maybe we can talk about specifics.
Monica Ramirez Basco: I think the first one is to actually become aware of what you're doing, that you're actually procrastinating, kind of be mindful of it, catch yourself, ask yourself that question: do I really need to check my email again or am I just procrastinating on something else? And start to pay attention to how often you do it. So that's one of the goals, is to kind of be mindful of how often it's happening and really questioning do I really need to do this distracting task, or am I just trying to put something off - do I really need another cup of coffee, for example, or am I just trying to avoid having to return these phone calls that are unpleasant.
So, self awareness does help to get you started. It isn't the be-all-end-all, but it does help. I also think that you have to have some basic understanding of what's behind your procrastination, what type you are, why you do it. Are you a fearful person? Is that what this is about? Are you afraid that either you're going to have to face something unpleasant, or are you afraid that you're going to make a mistake or an error or regret what you've done? So, you're kind of asking yourself some of questions that go along with these different subtypes of procrastination. So, self-evaluating: am I really disorganized? Is that what the problem is? Or am I using this in this relationship when I really don't have to procrastinate? Am I trying to approach the world in an all-or-nothing way like being completely on top of things or completely falling apart? Or am I just a plain old, run-of-the-mill pleasure seeker?
And I think if you understand the type that you are, then you can sort of zero in on what to do about it. I think big picture intervention-wise, once you have some sense that you're doing these procrastinating behaviors and you've decided that you probably want to change - that's probably what got you to read the book or read the article or look online for information is that you probably think you ought to change - I think you start off, no matter which type you have, I think you start off with a reason to change. I mean, why would you want to change? I mean, procrastination works in the short run. It doesn't work in the long run, but it works in the short run to avoid discomfort. So, I think before we take on any major effort, any behavior intervention, for example, to change how we handle tasks, I think we start with, well, what would be the reason to do that.
Now, I know there's a lot of different reasons, and it has to be one that's unique to the person, the individual. Some people will do it because it'll relieve their guilt. Some people will do it because it'll get their mother off their back, so it could be something like that. Some will do it because they can't handle the stress of waiting till the last minute. Some people do it because they just want to stop having to think about the task that they're putting off. They just want it out of their life and out of their mind. So there's a lot of reasons why we do it.
Some people do it because they just don't like the fact that that's who they've become. They've become a procrastinator and that becomes their persona; that's just who I am. That's how I roll, my son would say; that's just how I roll. Sometimes people just don't want to be like that any more, and so the reason to change is they just don't like that about themselves and they really want to handle or cope with things a different way. And so you got to find your reason.
Then the next step I think generally, again regardless of which type, is to pick a target of what you want to fix, what do you want to stop procrastinating on. You can't take it all on at one time. It won't work. None of us do well when we try to change everything about us all at one time. We usually fail and then we feel more guilty, or we say, oh, that's hopeless; I'll never get any better because I tried to change and I couldn't change. And that sometimes is because we've tried to take on too much at one time.
So, finding a particular target: so, for example, maybe you want to procrastinate less at home rather than at school or work, so you might pick a place that you want to procrastinate less on. Maybe it's in your personal life with your social life. It doesn't matter what it is, you got to just pick something. And you don't have to pick the most important thing first; you just got to pick some place to get started and get centered on something that will give you an opportunity to practice these skills and to try to develop some control over your procrastination. So you pick a target; you pick a thing you want to do better at: I would like to stop procrastinating on laundry; I want to be more on top that. Or I want to stop procrastinating on paying my bills; I don't want any more late fees, so that's going to be my target.
So, you find your target, you got your good reason to change, and then you pick a way to manage it, and this book has dozens and dozens of different strategies that are, again, specific to the type of procrastinator you are that actually help you to overcome these obstacles and learn new skills, new skills to cope, so that you're coping in a new way rather than using procrastination as your way of coping. But that's a lot of information. Did that help?
David: Yes, yes. I'm hearing that there are both cognitive and behavioral skills that need to be learned, and among the cognitive ones are the sort of assessment, the self-assessment, self-observation pieces that you mentioned. And also in the book you talk about self talk, that a lot of times we have negative messages that we're giving ourselves that are only helping to feed the fire of procrastination.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes, absolutely. I think becoming aware of that inner voice - I mean, I think sometimes the inner voice is not always negative. Like the negative ones might be the ones that say - that give you maybe more self-doubt, like "You're going to mess that up. You don't know what you're doing. This is not going to turn out right." So that certainly would cause you to procrastinate.
But we can have a positive voice that makes us procrastinate; because the positive ones, I think of them as a seductive voice. It's like, oh, you have plenty of time; don't worry about it. You'll get it done; you always get it done. It won't be that hard. You're so smart or you're so quick or you're so capable. It'll take you two minutes. People seem to think everything takes either two minutes or five minutes. It'll take you five minutes. I can do it in five minutes. Which is it's rarely true that it takes two. It takes two minutes to find my pencil and five minutes to figure out where I'm going to start before I even get to work. But that's that self talk; it's that seductive, oh, it's going to be just fine; you've got plenty of time; don't worry about it.
I think that's the cognitive part as well, is listening for that cue that you're about to procrastinate because you're telling yourself this stuff. You're either frightening yourself, or you're giving yourself way too much credit for getting things done, and the reality is probably both are just are inaccurate, so that's part of it as well.
David: And then I heard the behavioral part in terms of picking a specific situation or specific set of behavior and focusing on that initially.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Yes. I do think it helps to be as specific as you can, primarily to avoid trying to take on too much, but also so that you can know if you've improved. So, if you say I'm going to - if it's something concrete, like I'm going to procrastinate less in paying bills so I have fewer late fees, or something even simple like I'm going to stop procrastinating on returning my videos to the video store so I have fewer late fees, that, even of itself, you can measure that. You can see if you've improved. You'll see that you have fewer late fees.
And I think we need to see ourselves make improvement to believe it can occur. So if you pick something concrete, then you can see it get better, and that kind of reinforces you, makes you feel better about your activity and your performance, and you want to do more of it. And that's easier to get a handle on than something more like I just want to feel better about myself. If that's a goal - I want to feel better about myself - I don't know how to measure that. I don't know how you'll know tomorrow if you feel better about yourself than you did today.
Monica Ramirez Basco: So, it's just easier for the person who's trying to change to focus in on something much more specific like that.
David: Well, I think you've given us a terrific overview of this whole area, and as we wind down, is there anything else that you'd like to say, any kind of final thought that you'd like to leave our listeners with?
Monica Ramirez Basco: Well, I think primarily that we are all really capable of improvement, and we may want to change everything about ourselves. I think people read self-help books like this one because they want to make changes. And change is possible; otherwise a psychologist would have nothing to do if we couldn't really help people make changes.
I think the trick is to take one step at a time and try to make tomorrow better than you were today, try to improve on something, so that tomorrow you procrastinate less than you did today, and the next day you procrastinate even less. And you just try to take a step in the right direction, one after another after another, and you'll be surprised at how change can occur.
So, I guess what I would suggest is optimism and try a strategy and if it doesn't work, then try something else. There are many ways to accomplish goals including overcoming procrastination, and you got to find a way that works for you, addresses your need. And the trick is to just keep working at it until you feel like you're at a better place.
David: Words to live by. Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.
Monica Ramirez Basco: Thank you so much for having me.
David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco. You can also find a video clip of her talking about her book on YouTube. Just go to YouTube and do a search there on Procrastinators' Guide. I believe you'll also find a link to it on our site. Her book is available in paperback and should be quite useful for that procrastinator in your life, whether it's you or someone else.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Monica Ramirez Basco, PhD, is an internationally recognized expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy, a clinical psychologist, and a founding fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She is on the Psychology faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington, with a secondary appointment in Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. In addition to The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done, her books include the bestsellers Never Good Enough and The Bipolar Workbook.