NLP Practitioner Training:
Working with Procrastination

by Carl Buchheit

Imagine you are at a lunch buffet that offers you two selections: there’s a tray of congealed mystery meat stew (it looks cold and there are some shriveled carrots on top); next to it there’s a beautifully presented tray of something you really love, prepared exactly the way you like it. Which do you choose? Would you feel bad about making that choice? Would you accuse yourself of being weak?

No. Of course not.

Our brains are wired this way. We always choose the thing that is associated with the best feeling (or kinesthetic representation, abbreviated as K). If there were an “Iron Rule of NLP”, this would be it: our brains always and only select the best K (feeling) available from life’s menu at the moment. Whenever this seems not to be the case, whenever someone appears to choose something that feels worse than something else, they are still not actually doing that. For example, soldiers can move toward danger and death because, among other things, to do this feels better than to not do it–at that moment, in that situation, with those comrades, etc. In this example, the person’s system is selecting for the least bad feeling which, although not exactly positive, is still the best feeling item on life’s menu at that moment.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

procrastinate, v.
[f. L. prōcrastin-āre to put off till the morrow, to defer, f. L. prō, pro-1 1 d + crastin-us belonging to tomorrow (f. crās to-morrow): see -ate3.]
1. trans. To postpone till another day; to put off from day to day; to defer, delay. Now rare.
2. intr. To defer action, delay; to be dilatory.

So, typically, we think of procrastination as being an action of delay. This is “to procrastinate” in the intransitive sense, “to defer action; to be dilatory.” But I prefer the transitive meaning which, although “now rare,” is more descriptive of what our brains are actually up to. Good transitive procrastination is the pro-active re-location of something perceived to be unpleasant–what we don’t want to do–to a place in our perceived time/timing where it feels better, which is, of course, tomorrow! Transitive procrastination is our best way to make something that feels bad, feel better! When it feels better, we are more willing to do it, which, of course, will be tomorrow. In addition, good procrastination requires significant internal creativity and initiative, and a superb sense of timing. It is not just the selective delay of what we don’t want, so that we can tolerate wanting it, it is also the pro-active, preferential selection of something we do want–at least at the level of how things feel, which is pretty well where we actually operate.

The actions of procrastination, both transitive and intransitive, are gorgeous demonstrations of our survival-approved, evolution-certified, perfectly normal, completely elegant brain strategy to always select the best K available. As a practitioner, this is the first thing to normalize for the procrastinating client. They are not wrong, lazy, or a bad person with no will power or self discipline. Their brain is simply executing a strategy to select the best available K. If you are someone’s brain, and if we think about this in NLP strategy terms, this is what is happening:

Step 1) Make picture/sound/smell/taste representation of what you “should do.”
Step 2) Get automatic negative K representation (get a bad feeling).
Step 3) At light speed, sort through all of the representable–and possible–other behaviors and experiences in the universe that you occupy.
Step 4) Select one of the other possibilities, register (pretty much not consciously) the feeling that this produces.
Step 5) Compare the first feeling with the second feeling.
Step 6) Select the one that feels better.
Step 7) Prepare for moderately fruitless internal moral/ethical conflict, but put that part of things off as well.

In the way this plays out in the real world, it comes down to the following:

Step 1) Make pictures of dealing with taxes.
Step 2) Feel bad.
Step 3) Make pictures and get sensations of TV and pizza.
Step 4) Select the representational set that feels better right now (the only time there is!)
Step 5) Yummmm….piz-za!
Step 6) Do what comes naturally
Step 7) Notice all the windows of time still available for taxes and that you really do deserve a break, mentally (and at light speed) prepare any other moral and ethical justifications as you heed the call of the couch.

Obviously, if these are the two options, taxes or TV and pizza, taxes are not going to happen, unless you hate TV and or pizza (in which case there is something else wrong with you!) In the above example the TV and pizza were most likely represented in the exact “chunk size” (time needed and scope of endeavor) plus the exact sub-modalities (color, size of internal representation, brightness….) designed to maximize our positive internal feeling reaction. Whereas the activity that we think we are supposed to be doing, is usually represented in too large a chunk size (the taxes are all done as is the filing from the last three years and current bookkeeping, we’ve written an entire book, and cleaned the house including the basement and attic) so that we feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. Or in too small a chunk size to get any K of pleasure, accomplishment, or momentum when we visualize it (locate one receipt, write one word, put one pen in the cup). Plus, other sub-modalities designed to maximize displeasure when we think about the task are being utilized.

To make more useful choices for ourselves, we have to 1) have a choice, 2) notice that we have a choice, 3) have a way to evaluate the options included in the choice, and 4) have a way to know that we have selected what we want. This is complicated stuff, but the long-standing NLP “strategies” makes it fairly easy to work with.

If you went to IHOP and the pages of the menu were all stuck together, you wouldn’t look past the first page where the Waffle-Mega-Rama and the Triple Cream Stuffed Pancakes are put on offer. The brain of a person who procrastinates is essentially choosing from a similiarly shortened, biased, impoverished, and manipulative menu. If the things that she wants to be doing are even on the menu – listed as potential choices – they are in plain small type on the stuck together pages, while the procrastinating activities are bolded and have accompanying glossy and alluring photographs designed to awaken her appetite. The brain doesn’t really have a chance to generate good feelings about the the small type items. It’s always going to get a better K from the glossy and alluring photograph of the Waffle-Mega-Rama and pick that. Every time. (And yet we doubt ourselves, wondering why we don’t choose the things we “should” be choosing and doing, and instead spend our precious time taking courses in how to be better organized, more motivated, etc.)

The task of the Transformational NLP Practitioner is then to intervene, strategically (literally, by working with “strategies,” in the NLP sense of the term) to have the client add the choices she would like to be making to the menu, and to have the client represent these new choices in such a way that the brain will be able to notice them and generate positive K signalling that gives them a high priority. In other words, the practitioner’s work is to assist the client to change the content, chunk size, and sub-modalities of the representations that carry meaning about the choices he or she would like to have consciously available. If all of this is arranged properly, the client will automatically move toward the behavior and experience that he or she truly wants.

When we cannot find a positive feeling to move toward, our other possibility is to have our systems generate negative feelings to move away from. One of the most useful things about negative K’s is that they feel bad. They are supposed to feel bad! What possible use would bad feelings have if they didn’t feel bad? So, it feels positive to move away from or eliminate a negative! Of course, making representations of external threats, of the bad consequences, etc., of not doing what we want to be doing are excellent and convenient ways to generate the necessary negative K’s. So, when not doing something feels worse (when internal representations of failure are coded to produce feelings of discomfort or pain, to just the right degree and with the right timing), the brain eventually chooses the option that is less painful, which is also the one that is most positive. Perfect! However, it is stressful to have to continually manage negative K’s. Although many of us are incredibly talented about it, it’s just generally bad for us over time.

So, the art of working with procrastination is not to have the client learn to power through their pain, and to then select something that still doesn’t feel good to them. This is “will power.” Over the long term, will power can work only if we can also teach ourselves to have good feelings about using it. Otherwise, it is an exercise in internal conflict and, even if we succeed in defeating ourselves for a time, just who is it, exactly, who wins? Humans can destroy their rapport with themselves, and with life itself, if they work hard enough to defeat themselves in their quest for self-respect and happiness. This can lead to reliance on what we call “The Second Worst Belief in the World,” which is some version or other of: “Well, at least I have enough self-respect to loath and despise myself.” This is bad business. It is costly, destructive, and unnecessary. It is an expression of the despair that develops when we try to make self-defeat a pathway to success.

The reframing that is most often useful while taking the client into this realm called strategy work is to continually point out that the brain is just making the best choice available, that it is not useful to dwell on or solve the “procrastination problem,” but to notice how the brain is making choices. The basic presupposition of NLP, that we are always making the best choice we can, based on menu options and availability, so to speak, is the essential thing to keep in mind.

NLP strategies are a form of behavior-level change. They involve revising patterns of internal behavior, called representations. However, by the time the client walks into a Transformational NLP Practitioner’s office with procrastination pain as the main presenting issue, the person has no doubt had years to refine the beliefs about self and the world that are necessary to get the procrastination to make sense. They’ve probably had years upon years of experiencing themselves as failed versions of an ideal self. They will probably believe (to hold dear) the identity: “I am a procrastinator.” So, it is likely that the work will involve a fair amount of belief and identity revision, eventually. Revising Virtual Systems, in support of the new behavior changes, is useful as well. (“What would I do or choose, now, if my thoughts and choices mattered?”)

This, however, is for another article.

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