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Procrastination is a learned behavior

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Catherine W. Idzerda
April 10, 2010
— This story was late.

It’s fitting really, considering it’s a story that addresses the scourge of procrastination.


In it, we’ll address some of the reasons for and ways to cope with the putting-off beast.


But first we’ve got to stop cleaning our desk, making phone calls that could wait and wondering if 1:15 p.m. is too early to go home for the day.


Everybody has a theory about procrastination. They range from the simple—“I had no idea this task was so complicated”—to the complex, involving underlying anxiety issues, depression, attention deficit disorder and even obsessive compulsive behavior.


1:19 p.m. Perhaps this story would go better with a cold Diet Coke. And where’s my lipstick?

Barbara Bendlin and Michael Wirkus both work with returning adult students at UW-Rock County. Wirkus also teaches English composition.


“I think one of the issues is (returning adult students) don’t understand how much work goes into writing a paper,” Wirkus said. “In my classes, I try to break that larger task into small pieces. Students turn in rough drafts, make outlines.”


The most difficult thing for his students? Getting started.


The most difficult thing for Wirkus?


“Sometimes I don’t know how to instill that sense of urgency,” he said.


For many of his students, UW-Rock County is their first college experience, and “there is a sense that there’s a moveable timeline.”


1:33 p.m. Ted’s back. He’s writing about the assaults on the bike trail. On the way to the soda machine, a hunt for chocolate starts. Turns out Gina has chocolate Teddy Grahams. Is Grahams capitalized? Better look that up. Internet distraction ensues.

Bendlin works primarily with math students. She’s found the subject has a built-in procrastination defense.


“With math, every day you have a certain lesson that has to be accomplished,” Bendlin said.


If you don’t learn today’s information, then tomorrow’s lesson will be incomprehensible.


Those who put off math tasks usually fall into two categories: The over-confident and the afraid.


“Some students think they know the material very well and then they realize that it’s way more extensive than they thought it would be,” Bendlin said. “Some students are fearful in general. They were told they weren’t good at math or they have math anxiety.”


1:59 p.m.: I’m sleepy. The school district is stalling—again. Discussion. Not my beat, but interesting. Scroll up and down through story.

Mental health specialists agree the habit of procrastination is a learned behavior, a habit that serves some mental or emotional purpose.


“Habit is a good word,” said Joseph Fairbanks, licensed professional therapist at Mercy Walworth Hospital and Medical Center in Geneva Township. “It’s a habit that comes about through the way we’ve learn to live our lives. It’s a behavior that might help us in some way or give us some reward.”


If that sounds counterintuitive, think of this way: Procrastination helps us avoid tasks that are unpleasant, tasks that seem too big or those that might expose us as failures.


Procrastination usually begins with lies that procrastinators tell themselves such as, “I work best under pressure anyway,” or “I still have plenty of time.”


“Distorted thinking,” which usually arises out of depression or anxiety, is the other leading candidate for putting-off behaviors.


“People get themselves worked up and create these distortions,” Fairbanks said. “And there are exactly as many reasons (for getting worked up) as there are people.”


Examples include: “If everything isn’t perfect at the PTA event I’m organizing, it will be a failure and my kids will find out and be ashamed of me,” or “If this paper isn’t perfect it will ruin my grades and I’ll never get into the college of my choice.”


2:50 p.m. Totally stuck. Can’t find transition to other source. Transition, transition, transitions. I’m never any good at transitions. So wordy, too. Soda? Think about it (the soda, not the transitions) for a long time. Put fingers on keyboard and write until something rational appears.

Bill Hollingsworth, clinical psychotherapist and director of the Janesville Psychiatric Clinic, said the putting-off behavior is in the “anxiety area and is one of the main ones.”


To tackle that anxiety and the distorted thinking it produces, both clinicians use “cognitive therapy,” a method that catches those thoughts and challenges them.


“It’s about changing people’s beliefs,” Hollingsworth said.


Carefully considered, those beliefs are not a reflection of reality.


How you think, what you do and how you feel all are connected and create an emotional trifecta that supports procrastination.


“If the thought is, ‘If I don’t do it all right, it’s a waste of time,’ that thought creates an emotion of feeling defeated,” Fairbanks said.


Those emotions can lead to physical symptoms such shallow breathing, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the task can lead to a variety of physical symptoms such as immobilizing anxiety or a depressed lethargy.


For Fairbanks, it’s important for patients to identify what they feel physically, as the body can be a barometer of the mind’s emotional storms.


Both Fairbanks and Hollingsworth also check to see if the procrastination is a symptom of a mental illness that could benefit from medication: ADHD, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.


They also add the practical methods to support the work done in therapy.


Fairbanks feels it’s important for patients to get some form of exercise to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Other structures such as written schedules, time management tips, checklists, breaking down large tasks into smaller ones and, perhaps most importantly, keeping track of what they’re thinking and its connection to their feelings.


Whatever they do, they shouldn’t lose hope.


“What we’re looking for here is progress, not perfection,” Hollingsworth said.


10:20 a.m. the next day: That’s done. The stress is going to kill me. I’ve got to start these things earlier. Will anyone notice how late it is? Yes, duh, they always do.
OK, well, what’s next on the to-do list? Ah yes, the story about the professional organizer. I’m going to jump right on that.
But first, maybe I’ll have a Diet Coke.

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