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New Ways to Battle Procrastination As digital distractions proliferate, psychologists are coming up with new strategies—and early studies show promise
New Ways to Battle Procrastination
As digital distractions proliferate, psychologists are coming up with new strategies—and early studies show promise

By Andrea Petersen (andrea.petersen@wsj.com)
Dec. 11, 2019 11:58 am ET

New strategies are emerging for the cause of many a blown deadline, late fee and irritated boss: Procrastination.

As digital distractions proliferate, psychologists are adapting tactics from cognitive behavioral therapy to target procrastination. They are also developing smartphone apps to reinforce thoughts of industriousness and weaken the allure of procrastination. While therapists and productivity gurus have long offered techniques to prod people into action, these new approaches are being subjected to more rigorous scientific study—with promising early results.

The efforts come as some researchers believe that procrastination is on the rise. The fault partly lies with the endless supply of distractions we carry around in our smartphones, carefully targeted to our tastes, says Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary and the author of “The Procrastination Equation.” “All those beautiful AI algorithms are pushing the next most addictive thing it can think of in front of your nose. How could we do anything but procrastinate?” he says.

Studies have found that between 15% and 20% of American adults chronically procrastinate. Among college students, the numbers are markedly higher: About three-quarters consider themselves procrastinators and nearly half say their procrastination is chronic and problematic. Procrastination can cause stress and wreak havoc on people’s work and relationships. It is also linked to mental health issues: People who procrastinate are more likely to have anxiety disorders and depression.

Procrastination is “deferring commitments even though you know about the negative consequences that lie ahead,” says Christian Aljoscha Lukas, a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

Alexander Rozental, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, has developed a treatment for procrastination—it can be delivered online or in person by a therapist—that is based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that focuses on changing the thoughts and behaviors that drive peoples’ distress. Here are its core components:

Revamp Your Goals

Goals need to be specific and scheduled. “Instead of saying, ‘Next week I’ll start studying for my exam,’ say, ‘On Monday between 9 and 11, I’ll start studying for my exam,’ ” Dr. Rozental says. Since motivation increases the closer you get to a deadline, larger goals should be divided into smaller subgoals. Then schedule regular rewards when you meet those subgoals, such as a cup of coffee or a quick walk after two hours of work. “You want to have something to look forward to,” he says.

Start Small, But Start

For procrastinators, the first step is often the hardest. They wait for a burst of motivation or inspiration that often doesn’t arrive. To overcome the resistance to beginning a project, Dr. Rozental has people start very small. “If it is hard to start with reading one page, start with reading one paragraph. If it is hard to start cleaning your kitchen, clean one cupboard,” he says. “Usually people say, ‘It wasn’t as bad as I thought, I can continue.’ ”

Eliminate Distractions

This seems like a no-brainer, but remove everything that isn’t important for the task at hand.

Assess Your Values

Dr. Rozental has participants identify their core values to help them see the relationship between the tasks they are putting off and their larger life purpose. A college student who is failing to complete an assignment may be able to find some motivation by connecting to her desire to help people as the doctor she hopes to become. You can see the “value of doing something that is very boring because it helps get you closer to the things that you value in life,” Dr. Rozental says.
Psychologist Alexander Rozental has a new treatment for procrastination that includes dividing larger goals into smaller subgoals and identifying core values.
Photo: Henrietta Asplund

In a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that involved 150 procrastinators, those who did the online treatment, either on their own or with the guidance of a therapist, saw statistically significant improvement on a scale of procrastination, compared with a control group. (And, yes, the procrastinators actually did the treatment.)

Other researchers are experimenting with game-like programs. Dr. Lukas has developed a smartphone app treatment for procrastination. Users are presented with a series of images of procrastination, such as a person reclined in a lounge chair, feet up, with a glass of beer. They are also shown pictures of industriousness, like a stack of papers with a highlighter and pen at the ready. The pictures include corresponding statements. Users are instructed to physically push images of procrastination away via a swipe upward and draw the images of industriousness closer via a swipe down. “It is very much like Tinder,” says Dr. Lukas. Images shrink as they are pushed away and grow as they are brought closer. Participants earn stars for correct responses.

Dr. Lukas says the technique, which is a component of cognitive bias modification, helps to override the automatic thoughts that drive procrastination (“This is boring—I’d rather be hanging out with friends”) and replace them with healthier thoughts (“I’m going to finish my assignment”).

“We break up these automatic routes that are dysfunctional. You start to reflect on what you do automatically and think, ‘I probably should be doing something else,’ ” says Dr. Lukas.

In a small pilot study published in 2017 in the journal Internet Interventions involving 31 procrastinators, those who used the smartphone app for two weeks (for an average of about five minutes a day) and also received two sessions of in-person group counseling had a statistically significant greater drop in their scores on a measure of procrastination, compared with a control group. Dr. Lukas and colleagues have formed a company, mentalis, to sell the smartphone app to consumers.

Dr. Steel says that the most important thing you can do to combat procrastination is to get enough sleep. “When your energy levels are down, your willpower is weak,” he says.

Robert Schachter, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, says he has identified 20 different reasons for procrastination (being a perfectionist and being impulsive are two), with each type needing a tailored treatment. Since procrastination can be a feature of ADHD and depression, he screens people for those disorders.

He has patients write a list of the personal costs of their procrastination (paying more for last-minute plane tickets, for example) and a list of the pros of procrastination (videogames are fun, for instance). “If in fact they say the negatives really outweigh the positives, they’ll really want to do something about it,” says Dr. Schachter, who also runs the Procrastination Centers of America. Dr. Schachter had planned to open a series of centers around the country, but now the only center is his own private practice. There just wasn’t the demand, he says. “People don’t really want to fix it.”
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