Procrastination and Attachment

A Community Contribution by  Jennifer George

My fellow procrastinators and I are well acquainted with the mental drama that goes on as we torture ourselves about that important task left undone. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that the thing we’re not doing signifies all sorts of icky emotions and unconscious ideas about ourselves and our lives.

In our more lucid moments, we can see that there really is nothing fundamentally different about playing GTA IV versus writing that paper that’s due tomorrow. Both activities involve synthesizing information, making decisions, and moving our hands and eyes to make the right things happen on our computer screen.

The real difference between the two is what Buddhists call “attachment” — the clinging, coveting emotions and beliefs we have about ourselves and the world, including pride, fear, and desire. In more modern terms, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy describes our habitual maladaptive thoughts as “cognitive distortions.” Both schools argue that examining our existing thought patterns and developing new, productive ones can help us reduce suffering and build more useful behaviors.

It may not be enlightenment, but next time you’re not doing something you’re supposed to, think about the attachments, emotions, and thoughts that are getting in your way. Remember that they are illusory and temporary, and try to squirm out of their grasp for a while.

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  1. Amen. It’s amazing to me, after years of studying business (I’m a business journalist), how many business mistakes are made from simple mis-attachments. People get attached to pet projects, pet subordinates, pet concepts — instead of pulling back, trying to figure out what’s *working*, and then setting a course to take more useful actions. And as far as I can tell, it’s the same in groups dynamics (albeit more complex) as for individuals.

  2. On the contrary, Playing Grand Theft Auto is an interactive process that involves dramatic audio-video feedback and a reward system that is both ongoing and immediate. Doing the paper will produce a grade in a week or two which may either raise or lower self-esteem. Moreover, if you are playing a game by yourself (not online versus humans), you do not feel judged by any other human beings–much less threatening.

  3. Very helpful analogy. Simplifying one’s thoughts to allow you to do what you’ve committed to doing is a powerful habit, but elusive in the noise of the day.

  4. @Mike Capron, that is an excellent point! The issue of feedback and reward is definitely a big part of procrastination. Goofing off gives you instant gratification and a perverse thrill too, because you feel you’re sort of rebelling, even though you’re the one who’s going to suffer in the end.

  5. There is a psychological theme running through these posts: first of all is the Skinnerean theme, which attaches action to immediate reward, the second is Cognitive Behavioral, which specifies mental distortions. There is a third theme which is just becoming known: ACT Therapy. The best known books on ACT is “Get out of your Mind, and into your Life.” by Hayes, New Harbinger. ACT identifies your values as goals to be implemented. Dysfunctional attachment, or mental distortions, are acts of avoidance, hence procrastination. The solution is to allow the distortions to parade by as if they are happening to someone else without engaging them pro or con. This has a lot in common with the concept of mindfulness. As or after the distortions have paraded by, you are free to act according to your values and goals.

  6. Great cartoon. Amazing just how much Buddhist thought has affected the practice of therapy in the past decade plus. Big shift. And the inverse of attachment, acceptance seems huge. Not resigned, hopeless, acceptance; but acceptance with perspective, that is able to take in the bigger picture.
    I don’t see any clients where that concept isn’t at play in one way or another. Of course the same is true of my life.

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