Procrastination and The Four Steps
Posted by Stephane Gaskin PhD on Mar 18, 2014
You Are Not Your Brain
In his book “You are not your Brain” Jeffrey Schwartz introduces the four-steps method with the aim of helping people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In OCD people have obtrusive thoughts or images (obsession), which give rise to high levels of anxiety. This anxiety is reduced when the person engages in a certain repetitive action, counting or checking. The prototypical example (often portrayed in movies or the media) of a repetitive action is compulsive hand washing in response to an obsessive though having to do with contamination. People with OCD know that their thoughts and actions are irrational but they feel compelled to engage in them.
To Schwartz, alleviation of the symptoms of OCD through the realization that the symptoms they display are not “them.” The symptoms are things that are happening to them and that they have a biological basis. Schwartz believes that once the person suffering from OCD becomes mindful of that they are on their way to having their OCD under control. Once this realized, the person learns to refocus activities away from the compulsive behavior when obsessive thoughts arise.
Below, I briefly outline the four steps proposed by Schwartz and show you how, with a few tweaks, to apply them to helping people who procrastinate.
1) Relabel: When an obsessive though arises, recognize it as such. Call it what it is… a symptom of OCD. These thoughts are part of a disorder.
2) Reattribute: This is where you give your symptom the real cause for them. The symptoms are not “you.” You are not causing them. They are caused by some biological imbalance and overactive parts of your brain.
3) Refocus: This is the part that requires more work. You must shift your focus away from the compulsive behavior onto something else. Choose another behavior, one that is pleasant to you. Refuse to do the compulsive act and replace it with something that has nothing to do with the thought. One trick is to give yourself 15 minutes when you feel the urge to do the compulsion to go through the relabeling and reattributing steps before going onto your other behavior.
4) Revalue: The OCD symptoms likely took up a large space in your life. The goal of this step is to realize how much less value you place on them after learning the steps.
Applying the Four Steps to Procrastination
People procrastinate in different ways and do it for different reasons. One reason is fear of failing after having given their best effort. More or less consciously, the procrastinator says this to him or herself: “If I work hard on this project (or give it my best) it may still not be good enough. That will mean that I am not good enough. This will feel horrible, so I may as well push back that feeling as far away in time as I can by doing something that makes me feel good now.” However, the immediate reward is somewhat ruined by the guilt of not doing what needs to be done.
Procrastination often takes the form of perfectionism. Perfectionists work on all the little details but lose the big picture of the finished product. Perfectionism is often a way to delay finishing for fear that the end product will not be perfect and that if the product is less than perfect it will mean that they are less than a perfect person. Without going further into all the different reasons for procrastination (although these are “biggies”), let’s take a look at how Jeffrey Schwartz’s four steps can help.
1) Relabel: When thoughts of putting something off or of perfectionism arise. Call them what they are… procrastination.
2) Reattribute: “I am not the procrastination. This is just the way I learned to deal with my fear of not being good enough.” Neural connections in my brain that represent my fears and what behaviors preserve my self esteem make me behave that way.
3) Refocus: Shift your focus away from procrastinating and on what needs to be done to complete the task. Refuse to procrastinate.
4) Revalue: Procrastination likely took up a large space in your life. The goal of this step is to realize how much less value you place on them after learning the steps.
You may procrastinate for different reasons than perfectionism and the fear of failing. But think about it, those are common reasons that you may not realize at first. However, whatever the reason for your procrastination is the stuff of the second step. Try it the next time you feel the urge to put something off.
Jeffrey Schwartz, You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life, New York: Avery, 2011.
Stephane Gaskin PhD
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