An interview with clinical psychologist, Dr. Joel Minden, discussing strategies for beating procrastination.
Joel Minden, PhD, is currently a clinical psychologist who although has always favored the applied sciences, first started out as a music major. Dr. Minden soon realized that he didn’t have the best ear for music and soon went on to study dietetics. However, he eventually began taking psychology courses and a passion to learn more about the human experience quickly developed. Minden is now the director of the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and he is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at California State University in Chico, California. He is also the owner of an ongoing blog called CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) and Me which can be found on Psychology Today.
What was the drive behind your becoming a clinical psychologist? Before Psychology, was there any other field(s) that intrigued you or that you worked in?
I’ve always been attracted to applied sciences. There’s something about using the scientific method to inform practice that I find intriguing. As an undergrad, I started out as a music major because I loved the idea of using the principles of music theory to explore the boundaries of creative expression. After accepting that I was a lousy guitarist, I studied dietetics because I thought I could use my knowledge of digestion and metabolism to help athletes perform better. Eventually I found myself taking psychology courses to learn something practical about the human experience, and I was surprised to find that the scientific method was emphasized so heavily in psychology. I was sold on the importance of things like operant conditioning, research design, and statistics, and realized that a doctorate in clinical psychology would allow me to integrate science and practice in a variety of ways–through research, teaching, and clinical work. It’s intellectually stimulating and interpersonally rewarding. Easy choice.
Aside from what people might already be aware of when it comes to you, what is your biggest accomplishment thus far?
Clinical psychology is a challenging field. There’s just so much to learn. I know psychologists who chose highly specific career paths in their early 20s and they’ve maintained that focus and interest for decades. I wasn’t able to put it together like that. For many years it felt like I was putting a “career puzzle” together. I would acquire knowledge or experience in one area and then realize that I had more work to do in another. After exploring so many opportunities in the field, I’d say my biggest accomplishment is that I’ve been able to integrate my interests and find a career path that I believe in, that inspires me, and that gives me a sense of fulfillment. I realize that may not be as exciting as things like writing a book or directing a clinic, but having a strong sense of purpose and direction means more to me than achieving a specific goal.
Recently I got the opportunity of reading one of the articles featured in Dr. Minden’s CBT and Me blog titled “Beat Procrastination in 3 Steps.” After reaching out to him with a few questions he explained in further detail what it really means to procrastinate and how we can individually combat the issue.
For the readers who may not be fully aware of it, what exactly is clinical psychology and how does it impact the mental health field overall?
Clinical psychology is the study and treatment of mental illness or psychological disorders. Personally, I prefer not to think of social, emotional, or cognitive problems as “illnesses” or “disorders,” because these terms suggest that there’s a medical foundation to the functional challenges people experience in life and that a person either has “the condition” or not. Word choice aside, clinical psychology includes such practices as researching the causes of psychological syndromes, testing and evaluation, and delivering treatment.
Dr. Minden, in your article, “Beat Procrastination in 3 Steps,” you discuss strategies to combat the ills of procrastinating. From a mental health background, what exactly is procrastination?
It’s difficult to discuss procrastination in a mental health context because the causes and consequences can vary so much. If procrastination involves delaying unpleasant or difficult tasks, I think it’s fair to say we’ve all been down that road. But some people are highly distressed by procrastination, either because they do it excessively and then spend a lot of time worrying about the things they need to get done, or because they avoid completing important projects and the consequences are quite serious. For example, a lot of college students say they procrastinate because they work on school projects or papers the night before they’re due. But some of these people get their work turned in on time, and they conclude that maybe they just do better when they work under pressure. On the other hand, someone who procrastinates and is unable to complete a task might ruin a group project or fail a class because the follow through is so poor. Procrastination doesn’t have to be viewed as a mental health problem—the frequency, duration, and consequences of procrastination are important to consider.
Through your time as a clinical psychologist, have you found that our need as humans to put off or delay responsibilities is more linked to our conditioning, lack of discipline or is triggered by a particular section of our brains?
I think most of us appreciate an immediate reinforcing consequence when we engage in an activity, which is why it’s so easy to pick up an iPhone or watch a show on Netflix instead of doing work. Some people are better at delaying gratification than others, and I believe that this is in part due to their traits (high conscientiousness), their experiences (social demands that emphasize consistency in addressing responsibilities), and their cognitive styles (believing that it’s better to get work done now to increase productivity and reduce anxiety later). It’s possible to overcome procrastination with cognitive and behavioral strategies, but people with a conscientious personality style will find it easier.
In your article you mentioned that people “often [we] avoid activities that are anxiety provoking,” and that one way to combat this is by making productive work more of a routine. What knowledge can you share with individuals who are struggling with daily anxiety that causes them to avoid productivity at nearly any cost?
It’s important to set time aside each day to be productive and I recommend doing so when you have the most energy. For many people, that would be first thing in the morning, but some people are more effective at night. The advantage of being productive early is that you’re less likely to worry throughout the day about your responsibilities. Whatever time you select, schedule it in your planner or electronic calendar, and work on making it easy to get started (turn on music, get snacks, sit outside, meet a friend at a coffee shop to work together, etc.) and devote even a small amount of time each day to productive work. It’s also good to use self-talk or other cognitive strategies. Anxiety about work is related to threat perception (“This is going to be difficult”) or the belief that it will be difficult to cope (“I should do this later because I can’t concentrate on this for even a few minutes”). Instead, practice restructuring the belief with a more useful idea: “I may never feel like doing this, so I should just get started now, and even if I only work for 20 minutes, I’ll be more productive and I’ll have less anxiety in the long run.” Trying this once or twice won’t help much, but with regular practice it gets easier.
According to your article, consequences are not always bad. Can you further explain that concept for those may have been socialized to believe the opposite?
A consequence is just an outcome. Some are unpleasant and others are enjoyable. The tricky thing about procrastination is that the natural consequences of our favorite activities (the ones we do without complaining) are desirable emotions. This is why it’s not enough to rely on natural consequences to stay productive. Instead, it’s important to introduce a consequence that increases the likelihood that we’ll continue to be productive. I hear from a lot of people that Netflix is their go-to activity when they’re procrastinating. If you let your roommate choose your Netflix password and she won’t let you watch shows until you finish your paper for class, it’ll probably be a lot easier to get the work done right away.
Many people nowadays claim to be procrastinators. There are several think pieces and articles about it. Do you think that the majority of people who claim to be procrastinators truly can’t help themselves or are simply being lazy?
When we get to choose what to do with our time, it’s much easier to do something fun or relaxing than to be productive. People will call themselves lazy, but an alternative explanation is that they lack the skills to change, they’re engaging in a stable pattern of behavior that’s reinforced by immediate gratification, and the social demands are inadequately influencing them to move toward work. Think about kids—they want to play and relax as much as anyone, but they’re also more likely to have parents and teachers around to monitor them so they’ll do their schoolwork and chores. I think it’s arguably normative to procrastinate, so it can take quite a bit of effort and creativity to get past it.
Lastly, in your article you shared three steps with us on how to beat procrastination. Now can you give us the twitter version of those steps in just one line for us to keep in mind?
Beat procrastination with reliable cues, small but consistent blocks of behavior, and pleasurable consequences. How’s that?
Once again, thank you for taking out time to contribute to our wealth of knowledge from amazing mental health professionals as yourself. It is greatly appreciated and we wish you continued success in your career.
If you would like to find out more information on Dr. Minden be sure to check out his blog on Psychology Today and for more information about his current work at the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. You can also stay connected with him through social media at http://twitter.com/joelminden.