Quick Cure for Procrastinators
In this podcast, David and Fabrice answer a question from a listener named Benjamin on the topic of procrastination. He wrote:
“The live therapy with Marilyn was very interesting – like other listeners, I was impressed by her character and strength.
“Towards the end of this most recent podcast, you were musing on what topics to cover in future podcasts. I would love to hear about how you treat people suffering from chronic laziness (“Do Nothingism”). In particular, there seems to be a strong potential of a Catch-22 with Process Resistance: The patient cannot find the motivation to do anything, yet they have to carry out the process (do the homework) to improve.
“Even worse, in “Feeling Good”, you categorize “Do Nothingism” into around 10 different categories, and suggest a different approach for each one. What should a lazy person do, who identifies with multiple categories, but is already starting to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of doing one of those activities, let alone five of them?
“I would love to hear David’s thoughts on this!”
David and Fabrice begin by thanking Benjamin, and David emphasizes how helpful and inspiring it is to receive specific questions like this, which makes it easy to create a (hopefully) informative and interesting podcast.
David says that his thinking about the treatment of procrastination has changed greatly since he wrote Feeling Good. One big change is that he no longer tries to “help” individuals who procrastinate, since this will cause them to continue to procrastinate, and the failure will now be the failure of the therapist, who’s “helping” wasn’t good enough.
Instead, David outlines a multi-step approach, based on someone who has ten years of unfiled papers that have piled up in his office, so that by now 15 feet of desk space is completely covered by piles of papers roughly one foot high. Fabrice plays the role of the resistant patient, and David plays the role of the therapist.
The steps include:
Paradoxical Agenda Setting: David asks, “The procrastination seems to be working for you. Why would you want to change? Let’s make a list of all the benefits of procrastination, and all the reasons NOT to change.” David emphasizes that the patient has to convince the therapist that this is something he really does want to change. It’s NOT the therapist’s role to help or to convince the patient to change!
Miracle Cure Question: What kind of help would you like in today’s session? Most patients say they need help with motivation. David declines to offer this, explaining that it isn’t on the therapeutic menu today—only the “Blue Plate Special!” The patient must agree to begin working on the filing in spite of having no motivation.
David also explains the underlying concept behind this strategy: most procrastinators are waiting for motivation, but that never works. You’ll be waiting forever, because you’re NEVER going to feel like doing all that filing! You aren’t entitled to motivation!
Productive individuals know that action comes first, and motivation comes second.
Specificity: What time would you like my help in overcoming your procrastination? The patient’s requests for help yesterday or tomorrow are declined by the therapist, so they settle on 6 PM today.
Little Steps for Big Feats: Let’s list the first five things you would need to do tonight at 6 PM, making sure that every step can be completed in 15 to 30 seconds. They list these steps:
- Walk into my office
- Choose one pile to start working on
- Pick up the top piece of paper on the pile
- Put it into a blank manila file folder
- Label the file folder
Let’s Be Specific: David asks if Fabrice needs help with Step 1? Step 2? Etc. Fabrice finally admits he can do these five steps.
Five Minute Rule: David asks if Fabrice will agree to do these five steps between 6 PM and 6:05 PM, and if he will agree to work on his filing for ONLY those five minutes. At the end of the five minutes he has completed 100% of the assignment. The rationale is that if Fabrice tries to do it all, he’ll get so overwhelmed that he won’t do anything. But if he agrees to ONLY five minutes, that will be do-able. And if he surprises himself, and gets motivated to do more, he can, be he only gets credit for the first five minutes.
Problem – Solution List: David asks Fabrice to put a line down the middle of a piece of paper, from top to bottom, and list all the problems that will get in the way at 6 PM, and then to list convincing solutions to each problem in the right-hand column. Fabrice lists two problems: 1. I won’t feel like it. And 2. Traffic might be heavy, so I might not get home by 6 PM.
“I Stubbornly Refused” Technique: David asks Fabrice to agree to an unusual phone call at 6:05 PM!
TIC – TOC Technique: David plays the role of Fabrice’s “Task-Interfering Cognitions” (TICS) that will tempt him to procrastinate, and asks Fabrice to play the role of the “Task-Oriented Cognitions” (TOCS) he can use to combat the TOCs. The TICS include the familiar ones such as:
- Five minutes won’t help, the job is overwhelming.
- Even if I get started, I’ll just relapse, so there will never be a permanent solution.
- It’s not such a big problem, I don’t need to do my filing now.
- I can watch Game of Thrones on TV instead. That will be more fun.
- It will be too anxiety provoking to get started.
- It’s too late to get started anyway.
- Tomorrow will be a better day.
David confesses the problem is one that he actually had, and describes how he solved it, using this exact approach!
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Hi David, I’m 15 minutes into the podcast and getting frustrated :-). Why not help poor Fabrice select a pile by doing a cost benefit analysis on each of the piles? The poor guy is confused.
It WAS awkward. Here’s my take on it, Rob. The obsessing about something meaningless is not true confusion, but simply a way of avoiding the anxiety of getting started on the task. Trying to “help” in this situation would be, to me, the most fundamental therapeutic error. Try to help the procrastinator is the cause of therapeutic failure! My error was not doing a good enough job with Paradoxical Agenda Setting before jumping in with my M = Methods! david
Thanks David. Also, I know you demonstrate empathy with the patient so I’m sure the patient knows you do care and are not being insensitive or sarcastic.
Now its time for me to stop procrastinating and get my snow blower fixed before another Boston winter arrives! TIC-TOC
Thanks, Rob. I, too, have to practice what I preach. I am now doing some preparation for upcoming workshops, and I’ve been procrastinating and feeling anxious. Now I feel better because I am diving in, and it turns out to be fun and creative! Good luck with the snow blowing! We are having a really nice (almost) fall day today! david
A thank you to you and to Fabrice for putting this podcast out. I observe that you do this to help people and this fills my heart with happiness and gratitude… all of your work that I have studied so far has been instrumental in my continual evolution as a human being. Severe procrastination from childhood has been my “entrance” into growth and so much more understanding about existence.
Thank you for being you!
Hi James, so good to hear from you. Did we ever have contact in the past? I do recall a “James” from my days in Philly. At any rate, thank you for your kind comments! All the best, David 🙂
No we’ve never met. I live in Italy. i would really like to become a T.E.A.M therapist. I think your offering to the world has been tremendous. I see your work as integral in helping people along the path of self-healing, I tip my hat to you sir.
If Descartes’ cogito ergo sum embodied the zeitgeist of primacy of thought then you have been integral in helping the Western world towards a primacy of existence. You thereby open the door to change, a door to allieviating unnecessary suffering. For many , your work is, has been and will continue to be a bridge from darkness towards light . At least that’s the way I see it on this rainy Friday morning in the Alps.
Thanks, James, I deeply appreciate your kind and generous comments! keep in touch! david
unable to pull up the podcasts on my iPhone 8
I’m not an iPhone expert, but I have not seen this complaint before. Likely a problem at your end. This link to all the podcasts works great for me: https://feelinggood.com/list-of-feeling-good-podcasts/
Give it a try and see if it works better. If not, I think maybe a problem with your iPhone. d
David, Thank you for your fantastic podcast. I have been listening to your podcasts for the last 2 years. I have something that I have been putting on and off for the last 20 years. It has affected my self-worth, my confidence and I have felt like a fraud in my field. I will use this technique over the weekend & let you know if I make any progress.
Thanks, remember, you only get credit for five minutes of work on the task you’ve been putting off! Let me know what happens! d
Dr. Burns, I wanted to prove you wrong and show you that I was the exception and that it wouldn’t work. But once again, your treatment worked. I did wake up very anxious about the task ahead of me. I did get started and made some progress. I do still have negative thoughts while I’m doing the work such as ‘What if what I’m writing isn’t good enough?’ , ‘What if the evaluator thinks I stink and all this work is for nothing’?
Great work! You’ve also got some juicy negative thoughts for a Daily Mood Log! d