Cognitive Restructuring to Manage Procrastination

One of the more common challenges I hear from my clients is “I wish I didn’t procrastinate so much.”   Although we all struggle with procrastination at times, being stuck in its cycle can be distressing because it can suffocate us with guilt while a mountain of seemingly impossible tasks pile up.   Worst of all, it can feel like our most meaningful goals in life are slowly slipping away.  In short, in can be really tough.

Below are some goals to guide you in applying cognitive restructuring techniques to this challenge.

Try to better understand your underlying belief pattern(s) by examining your thoughts about the project or goal.  Although thoughts are unique for each person, below are some common profiles I’ve observed:

  • Perfectionist – This person procrastinates mostly because of the underlying beliefs that the end result of the project must be perfect for fear of being negatively evaluated.  This belief system puts undue pressure on the person.  It also inflates her or his self-importance.  The perfectionist often passes up perfectly good opportunities to make small chunks of progress by saying, “It’s not worth getting started if I can’t really spend the time to do the whole thing and do it right.”
  • Fearful Avoider – This belief pattern has thoughts like:
    • “This is going to be such a pain…”
    • “I don’t want to even think about that now…”
    • “I just can’t stand working on that project…”

To achieve a state of calm, this person may attempt to distract the mind by cleaning the house or getting involved with unimportant projects.  Sadly, the fearful avoider can get so good at developing uhealthy strategies, that she or he can eventually drift away from true life goals.

  • Overcommitted Wishful Thinker – This person sabotages plans by setting unrealistic goals.  In a way, this irrational belief system provides a safe escape psychologically in the short term.  “Because I have too many things to do (or this task is too difficult for me), it’s not a big deal that I don’t follow through with my goals.”  Though this pattern may or may not be distressing to the person who procrastinates, it is often very frustrating to others and can be viewed by others as being passive-aggressive.

Chances are that you are able to see more than one of the above profiles in yourself.  If so, that’s alright.  It means that you are human.


Step back for a moment, and evaluate your own thoughts.  How true are they really?  What are the pros cons of thinking this way?  For example, consider the Perfectionist profile above: The thought “It’s not worth getting started, if I can’t really spend the time to do it right,” What is the evidence for and against that belief?  Is this a habitual or even reflexive way of thinking, and if so, what purpose does it serve?

Lastly, take time to learn and practice how to think differently.  Write down some options and rehearse them.  If you have difficulty finding alternative ways to talk yourself through it, consider reading a book on the topic or seeking the help of a skilled cognitive therapist.  The key to this third step is practice, practice, practice.  Eventually, if you stick with the process of changing your automatic thoughts, your underlying thought patterns will change .  And I can assure you that if you change these underlying beliefs, you will procrastinate much less!

Keep in mind that the strategy above is only one of many.  If it doesn’t ring true for you, try a different approach.   As always, be kind and compassionate with yourself.

Jim Carter, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Specialty Behavioral Health
San Diego, CA