How to Break Negative Thought Patterns to Quit Procrastinating

How do negative thoughts cause procrastination? How do you go about breaking negative thought patterns?

Immediate Action by Thibaut Meurisse says that to stop procrastination, you must recognize faulty patterns of thinking. These thoughts include: relying on motivation to act, accepting your feelings as facts, and thinking your future self will act for you.

Let’s discuss each one as well as Meurisse’s advice for correcting each pattern.

We Think Motivation Enables Us to Act

Breaking negative thought patterns isn’t easy, but it’s possible if you recognize them. The first fundamental error in our thinking is that we assume that the level of motivation we feel determines whether we can apply ourselves to a task. But Meurisse writes that this is a misconception: We don’t need to feel motivated to make meaningful progress toward our goals

One way to counter this kind of thinking is to stop waiting for motivation. Meurisse writes that you need to cultivate the habit of sitting down and starting work, even if you don’t feel like it. If you take that first step and start to make progress on your task, you’ll start to feel more motivated. 

(Shortform note: None of us can feel motivated all the time. Many productivity experts agree with Meurisse’s advice that you don’t have to wait for motivation. Experts recommend several strategies for moving forward even when you don’t feel like it. One strategy is to pair a small reward with the task—like watching Netflix while you run on the treadmill or drinking your favorite tea while you work on a report. Another strategy is to take a few minutes to think or write about your values to understand how your work will help you put them into action. Or, you might turn to your social connections to boost your energy: Collaborating with your colleagues or even just asking their advice can increase your motivation.)

We Accept Our Feelings as Facts

A similar illusion also tricks us into believing that there’s truth in the emotions we feel about ourselves and our work. Meurisse explains that our misconceptions about motivation are an example of “emotional reasoning,” which traps us into thinking that just because we feel something, it must be true. The reality is that our feelings aren’t necessarily the truth. For example, when it comes to procrastination, we think that because we feel scared of a task, it must be outside of our abilities.

You can avoid the trap of emotional reasoning by recognizing that your feelings are just feelings. Meurisse explains that when you feel the impulse to procrastinate and then act on it, you accept that not feeling like doing something is a legitimate reason to put off doing it. The first step in breaking this pattern is to acknowledge that your feelings aren’t necessarily true. You aren’t obligated to believe them or act on them. 

How Do We Mix Up Emotions With Truth? 

The term “emotional reasoning” describes a kind of thinking where we assume that an emotion must indicate something that’s objectively true. (If you feel unintelligent or incompetent, for instance, then emotional reasoning would lead you to believe that you must really be one or both of those things.) When we fall into this irrational thought pattern, we don’t really care about the facts. And typically, evidence won’t change our minds. The phrase “emotional reasoning” was first used by Aaron Beck, the psychiatrist who founded cognitive therapy. It captures what it’s like for your emotional reaction to a situation to take over your thinking and therefore define your reality in that situation.

It’s one thing to know that even if you’re prone to emotional reasoning, your feelings aren’t facts. But it’s another to figure out how to handle strong emotions in the moment. Practicing a strategy taught in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy—which combines cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness strategies—might help. This form of therapy encourages participants to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings—and to recognize that those thoughts and feelings aren’t reality. For example, you can feel very strongly that a task is too hard for you. But if you recognize that it’s just a feeling that will pass, rather than a statement of truth, you can stop treating it as an objective truth. Then, you’ll realize you don’t need to keep putting off the task. 

We Think Our Future Self Will Handle Our Tasks for Us

A third way in which our thoughts and feelings trap us is by making us believe that our “future self” will solve our problems. Meurisse writes that when we put off tasks, we often think that some future version of ourselves—one who’s better than we are at present—will take care of the task for us. 

He recommends sidestepping this faulty logic by realizing that your future self doesn’t exist. Meurisse points out that your future self isn’t real—at least not as an individual who has different capabilities than you do. If you aren’t actively working toward improving yourself today, then the version of yourself that you’ll be tomorrow or next week won’t be any different than the person you are today. 

Who Is Your Future Self, Anyway?

Even though we acknowledge that we’ll still be the same person tomorrow, next week, or next month, we often can’t resist leaving difficult tasks for our future selves. Experts say that procrastination is a great example of the present bias, a term that describes how we tend to prioritize short-term rewards over longer-term ones. We’re much more concerned about how we feel today than about how we’ll feel in the future. So it follows that we care more about what we want to do today than what our future self will have to do tomorrow.

It doesn’t help that even though we know our present self and future self are the same, that’s not how it feels. Psychologist Hal Hershfield, author of Your Future Self, explains that your brain thinks about your future self almost as if it were a stranger, rather than a part of you. That means that when you procrastinate, a part of your brain really does feel that somebody else will deal with the task in the future. 

Typically, we’re not nearly as empathetic or concerned with our future selves as we are with the version of ourselves we are today. But psychologist Timothy Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, explains that people who are more in touch with their future selves tend to be less likely to procrastinate. Pychyl writes that you can get more in touch with your future self by imagining your future self—and putting yourself in their shoes. He also suggests forgiving yourself for procrastinating (and creating headaches for your future self) and then taking a small step to get started on the task you’ve been putting off. This will make you feel better about the task. Then, you’re likely to keep going—and your future self will thank you. 
How to Break Negative Thought Patterns to Quit Procrastinating

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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