Procrastination – Part 3 – The Psychological Side

Zach Procrastinate


Welcome back to the Procrastination series – the only blog posts you can read instead of doing work, where you might be able to justify it to yourself or your lecturer.

If you’ve not had a look at Parts 1 and 2, it is worth checking them out (yes, that is a bit of shameless self-promotion). That being said, you don’t need to read them to get something from this post.

So a quick reminder – I’ve been drawing the content for the procrastination series from an interesting if not boringly titled book called ‘Counselling the Procrastinator in Academic Settings’ – This edited book contains chapters written by counsellors and researchers who describe the theory and practice they draw on in helping students overcome procrastination.

In today’s post, I am drawing on content from Chapter 5 called “A Student Course on Self-Management for Procrastinators”. The authors of this chapter (Tanja Van Essen, Sary Van Den Heuvel and Marjan Ossebard) describe the content of two self-management courses, developed in universities in the Netherlands.

In reading the chapter I was particularly taken with the way they weave psychological concepts into their self-management programs, particularly ideas from Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Don’t worry if that term means nothing to you. I will explain further.

At the beginning of the chapter the authors describe how they used to run basic study skills/ time management programs, but these weren’t particularly successful for a couple of reasons.

First, students taking these programs would often learn the study skills but still not be able to put them into practice. Basically, they would procrastinate putting the skills to use (gotta admire their commitment to procrastination!).

Second, many students didn’t like the didactic (i.e. being taught) approach of these programs, preferring instead to learn stuff that was customised to them

Hence the programs were modified to include a self-reflective psychological process in which students understand the unique factors that drive their own procrastination. It is that process that I want to expand on in this post.

So lets dig in….


Wait a second Gareth, what is a self-management course?

Good question – I should probably clarify that first.

Self-management courses encourage individuals to take significant responsibility for their own behaviour and well-being. Self-management programs are popular in health care because clinicians like to offload their work patients who take some degree of responsibility for their health (e.g. through making and sustaining lifestyle changes) tend to do better in the long-term.

Self-management does not mean that people need to do everything on their own. For example, self-management courses in cardiac health teach people the skills and knowledge they need first (e.g. what their medications do, how much exercise is appropriate), but then encourage and support them to implement those skills in their everyday life.

The idea is, having learned the right set of skills, patients can go on to manage their conditions quite successfully on their own.

In some ways you could consider this blog a little bit like a self-management course. I write articles in which I provide you with a number of ideas and techniques for improving your well-being, but ultimately, the onus is on you to fit these to your own situation.

The self-management courses described by the authors of Chapter 5 follow this basic idea – teach students the skills they need to analyse and address their procrastination behaviour, and then support them to implement these skills. Note, that these courses are commonly delivered in 6-7 face-to-face group session over a couple of months. Group sessions have dynamics that assist in the learning of content (e.g. sharing) which I can’t reproduce here, writing in this blog. However I do hope you can get some benefit from hearing about the skills taught.


Ok I get that now – what was that self-reflective psychological crap you were talking about earlier?

Woah! Careful with the potty mouth.

The courses described in the chapter aim to help students reduce their procrastination by:

1) helping them develop some insights into why they procrastinate and the nature of their procrastination; and
2) implement some specific techniques and tactics to control their procrastination

Central to achieving these aims is helping students understand some of the psychological contributors to their procrastination. This is done using ideas from Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).

REBT assumes that people generally feel and behave the way they think. So if you understand the way a person thinks (their thoughts, attitudes, values and beliefs), their feelings and behaviours make sense.

REBT says that our beliefs can be divided into rational and irrational beliefs. Rational beliefs hold together logically and typically produce appropriate emotional and behavioural reactions. For example the belief “I am a human” leads me to logically align myself with other humans (my previous belief “I am monkey” led to some awkward zoo visits).

Irrational beliefs are those that are typically distortions of reality. They commonly lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. For example the belief “we are about to get hit by an asteroid” is on the surface somewhat plausible, but reflects a gross exaggeration of the likelihood of it happening. Not surprisingly, that belief would be associated with significant anxiety.

The first thing you need to do is draw up something like this on a piece of paper or start an electronic document if you have given up on using paper (trees say thanks). Give yourself more than 2 rows. I’ve simply made it short for this post. This is a thought record.

Irrational beliefs can take many forms, but common themes include:

Musts – such beliefs demand that things work out the way they want them to. They are absolute and inflexible – “I must do well”, “it should not be this hard”.

Catastrophising – such beliefs label unpleasant things as awful and the person thinking them unable to handle them – “its awful when I fail the exams”, “its a big disaster if I make a mistake”.

Low frustration tolerance – such beliefs present labelling life as too hard and ignoring that a typical life has setbacks and hassles – “i can’t stand reading this boring book”.

Human worth rating – such beliefs rate the worth of the person based on their behaviour – “i’m an idiot if I can’t stop procrastinating”) and fail to take into consideration the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.

Procrastination is therefore hypothesised to be driven, at least in part, by irrational beliefs we hold in relation to study/work, our abilities, the time taken to complete tasks and the task at hand.

Procras 1

For most people who procrastinate though, the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and values that sit behind their behaviour are not immediately obvious. They might say “i just keep doing it” but have not reflected much on why. So REBT gets us to do that reflection.


Ok smarty pants – how do I identify my irrational beliefs?

Lets face it, no-one really wants to admit to having irrational beliefs. We’d all like to think our beliefs are nothing but accurate and profound.

Therefore the process of identifying our irrational beliefs can be a bit jarring. In setting out on this process you need to keep an open mind (i.e. “it’s possible I have lots of rational and irrational beliefs”), and also know that just because you might hold some irrational beliefs, it doesn’t make you a bad person. We all have them.

The first thing you need to do is draw up something like this on a piece of paper or start an electronic document if you have given up on using paper (trees say thanks). No need to restrict yourself to six columns. I’ve simply made it short for this post. This is a thought record.

Thought record
Click to enlarge

Thought records are used to stop and reflect on our internal worlds during specific situations.

The situations we are interested in with regards to procrastination are those where you are procrastinating (e.g. watching TV instead of studying) or likely to procrastinate (e.g. leading up to a time you’ve scheduled yourself to study.

During those situations, try taking a moment to attend to how you are feeling, the different thoughts in your head and the different actions you took in the moment. This process takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if the first few times you try it, you sit there blankly staring at the thought record.

Some people find it helpful to think back to a previous episodes of procrastination, and try to remember as best they can how they were feeling and thinking at the time.

If successful, you might end up with examples like the ones below. You’ll note that I’ve used the same situation in all cases and sorted the examples by different types of procrastinators described by Linda Sapadin (you can check out this sheet if you want to know more about the different types). Don’t be weirded out if your records don’t match those below. They are just examples. {click to read}

Thought Record 2
Click to enlarge

Some tips on completing a thought/belief record:

1) I’ve used the terms “thoughts” and “beliefs” interchangeably in this post so far. There are distinctions, but its not worth trying to elaborate on that in this post.

2) Related to 1, for some people, thought/beliefs are like a commentary in their head (words). For others, they are more like images or memories. Either way, jot down the basics of the thought/image (e.g. had the thought “i will fail” or had the image of myself quitting university).

3) Try different times of the day and situations. When you are studying full-time there are honestly lots of periods of time in which you might be putting off your study.

4) Repeat as many times as you like, until you start to get the hang of it.

5) Don’t aim for perfection. Its much better to write something down, than aim to get it perfect and write nothing down.


So I’ve completed my thought record. What now?

First up, congratulations! To be honest, not many people even bother with that first step if there isn’t someone egging them on regularly.

If all has gone to plan, you now have an emerging picture of the thoughts in your head at times of procrastination.

Now we have to look at those thoughts/beliefs more carefully – specifically – which ones might be irrational and how are they irrational. This process is known as disputation – or disputing your irrational thoughts.

To give you a sense of what this involves, I’ve copied the thoughts column from the table above into a new table. You can see this new table has two new columns. In the middle column we are going to have a crack at identifying how some of these thoughts might be irrational. In the far right column, we will construct some more rational versions of the thoughts.

Procras 3
Click to enlarge

So below is what I came up with in terms of disputing some of the thoughts and offering alternative ones. Please don’t think I am saying I have done a perfect job here. The goal isn’t coming up with the perfect disputation, but rather regularly engaging in identifying and disputing your irrational thoughts. The underlying question you are asking yourself is “is there a more rational way to look at this situation?”.

Procras 4
Click to enlarge


So I did my thought records, I disputed my thoughts, now what?

Just sit back and wait for an amazing new life to come to you!

Actually, that is probably not the case, but hey, you just learned a new skill! Take a moment to reflect on the fact you just learned a new way to access and challenge the content of your own mind.

Well Done

You perhaps also learned that you have some funky and irrational thoughts – some of which might be sabotaging your efforts to complete the things you want in a timely fashion. You might have identified with one or more of the procrastination types described, which is useful for naming your procrastination behaviour in the future (e.g. “I am acting like a “dreamer” with regards to this assignment).

I’d love to say that having done this once, you are now immunised against all future irrational thinking, but that isn’t the case.

Like any skill, the more you use it, the better you will get at it. There is nothing stopping you using this process with other parts of your life.

One way to strengthen the impact of this process is to mentally rehearse and imagine ahead of time, situations in which you think it is likely you will procrastinate. Use your thought records to imagine how you might initially be thinking, and then use the disputing process to imagine how you will talk to yourself to counter those thoughts.

For example, if I know from my thought records that I commonly engage in worrier type procrastination, I can mentally rehearse how I will calm myself and respond to those anxious thoughts.

The proof of whether this process is helpful to you will be whether you find yourself procrastinating less. In an ideal situation, you will come to quickly notice when you are having “procrastination thoughts” and will be skilled in disputing and challenging them. Armed with a more rational outlook, you may commence assignments in a more timely fashion. You’ll be aware that your mind can both sabotage but also promote good study habits and have at least one technique in your toolkit to reduce the sabotage.


Final words

In this post, I have outlined a very specific process that is used in self-management programs for procrastination.

This process involves identifying and challenging the types of beliefs and thoughts that contribute to procrastination and comes from Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).

It is not a simple matter to teach these techniques through just a blog, so let me know if it needs further explaining.

Whilst I don’t expect that every technique or idea presented in this blog will be helpful to everyone, we are, in this series on procrastination (Part 1, Part 2) starting to build up a set of ideas and tools that I hope you can use and are helpful.

If you’ve got questions about the process or this article, feel free to contact me (details below). Let me know how it went if you tried it out.

In the next post, we are going to look at the other main part of self-management programs – time management and study techniques. However we will return to some of these psychological tools in later posts.

Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student?
Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (


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Academic skills Psychological Tools

2 thoughts on “Procrastination – Part 3 – The Psychological Side

  1. I have been using these techniques for years but always find it so helpful to refresh and to remember that knowing about them and actually using them have two very different outcomes. Thank you from a recovering worrier

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