A 12-Step Program for Procrastination
If you’ve ever been or loved someone with obsessive habits, you know that recovery is a journey of many steps — and setbacks. The 12-step program originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous provides clear and helpful sign posts along the way — reminders of direction and purpose. I have personally benefited from the 12-steps and I’ve started using them as a framework in my work with teens battling procrastination.
As a mental health professional, one of the biggest challenges I see in my patients is procrastination. Everyone procrastinates, including myself. One of my shortcomings is folding laundry. I’ll take one article of clothing out of a packed dryer and shut the door rather than fold a whole load. As you can imagine, this makes my wife’s head explode.
Procrastination is annoying, but the problem is larger than that: The more we do it, the more habitual and tough to break the procrastination habit becomes. Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author of books on productivity, explains that habits are formed and reinforced with a predictable pattern: Cue, routine, reward. It may look something like this:
- Cue – Sitting in front of my computer thinking about writing my report
- Routine – Watch videos on YouTube instead
- Reward – Anxiety is reduced in the moment (key words being in the moment.) I will probably feel worse about neglecting to do my report later, but that doesn’t really enter the equation in the present)
Habits can follow a similar pattern. For example:
- Cue: Feeling insecure in a social setting
- Routine: Going for a drink
- Reward: Feeling better in the moment.
While the effects of drug or alcohol abuse are more immediate and life-threatening, for sure, chronic procrastination can result in painful consequences with poor work performance, lost opportunities, and/or health concerns. Piers Steel, who teaches human resources and organizational dynamics at the University of Calgary, suggests one way to stop procrastinating is to follow what people do in recovery with their particular vice — putting off one thing after another for days, even weeks before you pull it together.
As someone in recovery, I can relate to this approach and often use it when working with teens with ADHD. The 12-steps were originally developed to treat alcoholism and have been adapted over the years to successfully address a wide range of issues such as Al-Anon (family and friends of alcoholics), Gamblers Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc. The language of the 12 steps may not directly apply to the chronic delaying of tasks, but the general themes can be helpful. I use these themes as a framework for breaking a bad procrastination habit.
Group 1 (Steps 1-3): Theme – Honesty, Hope, and Faith
This is where we admit we have a problem with procrastination, admit it’s causing major difficulties in our lives, and become willing to accept help.
- Identify the problems procrastination is causing you.
- Identify the ways you have tried to manage your procrastination in the past and decide if these really worked (hint: Would you be reading this article if they did?).
- Play the tape out to the end: If you continue to procrastinate, what future problems do you see happening?
- Write a new happier ending: If you change your procrastination habit, how might things be different for you?
- Become willing: Are you willing to try a new approach to combating your procrastination?
- Ask for and accept help: Are you willing to accept help with your procrastination?
Group 2 (Steps 4-7): Theme – Courage, Integrity, Willingness, and Humility
This is where we get into the details of our procrastination habit and why it is happening. We also discuss this with another person and begin to take actions to change problematic patterns of behavior.
Make a list of common things you put off.
- What feels unfair or annoying about each of these things?
- How do the above feelings impact you?
- What parts of these situations are you responsible for and what parts are out of your control?
- Can you bring acceptance to those things that are not under your control and a willingness to take responsibility for those things that are under your control?
Now look over your list and identify your common patterns of behavior and triggers that lead to procrastination.
- What are your cues to begin procrastinating? These might be your location, time of day, your emotional state, particular people around you, or what you did right before you started procrastinating.
- What is your common procrastination routine? For example, I start watching YouTube videos or look at social media.
- What is my immediate reward for procrastinating? For example, I avoid writing that difficult report and immediately feel better.
- Now that you have a better idea of the cue, routine, and reward, begin to introduce changes to that pattern. For example, if I know my cue is I turn on my computer in my room to start writing my English essay. I can move my computer to the dining room table or perhaps write the essay at the library (location change), or do homework with a friend (change the people around me).
- Discuss what you have discovered about your procrastination habit and your plan for change with a trusted person. It is best to choose someone who will be non-judgmental. This might be a coach, relative, mentor, or mental health professional.
- Many people at this point will wish to seek professional help to support them in breaking their procrastination habit and to provide additional strategies. This might be a coach, tutor, or mental health professional.
Group 3 (Steps 8-9): Theme – Self-Discipline and Forgiveness
Here, we take responsibility for the negative impact of our procrastination — on ourselves and others — and try to make it right. This phase really is about forgiveness and releasing shame.
- Make a list of people (including yourself) your procrastination has negatively impacted and note how. For example, Jenny because I didn’t finish my part of the group project in time and we got a lower grade. Or myself because I missed out on joining the baseball team due to putting off asking my parents to sign the permission form.
- Take steps to fix the situation caused by your procrastination, if possible. This might be taking some corrective action or simply apologizing and committing to do better in the future.
Group 4 (Steps 10-12): Theme – Perseverance, Spiritual Awareness, and Service
This is the maintenance phase of combating procrastination, through monitoring our behavior, aligning with our values, and acting in ways that are of service to others.
- Now that you are well on your way to breaking your procrastination habit, you will want to stay vigilant. Monitor your procrastination behavior and promptly take action to right the situation with yourself and others whenever you slip.
- Identify your personal values and live in accordance with those on a daily basis.
- Try meditating every day. Even if it’s for 5 minutes or less. This will help strengthen your ability to monitor your own behavior and regulate the emotions that drive procrastination.
- Use your new behavior patterns to help others in small and large ways and where appropriate, share what you have learned about combating procrastination with others.
One of the key missing components traditionally found in a 12-step program is frequent social support. As such, you may find it helpful to buddy up with someone who also struggles with procrastination so that you can support each other’s efforts toward positive change.
While some tasks will inevitably be avoided or delayed from time to time, you do not have to go down the slippery slope into a procrastination bender. And if you do find yourself on a bender, try not to judge yourself too harshly. As they say in recovery, “We strive for progress not perfection.” Once you notice you’re delaying, jump back into Step One again and resolve to break the procrastination habit. Or as my wife likes to say, “Just get back in there and fold the whole load, please.”