Procrastination, Behavioral Analysis, and the Spiritual Life

As procrastination became identified as a predicament for therapists to tackle, most clinicians initially posited that the nexus of the problem was located in personality traits. After all, some people just naturally tend to put off tasks, while others get them done right away. This reasonable assumption, however, kept the focus on a rather intractable problem: to minimize procrastination in those who have a tendency to put off onerous tasks, it is necessary to modify the procrastinator’s personality, but that personality is naturally resistant to any kind of major change. Even more problematic is the fact that personality traits like low-self esteem may be to some degree correlated or associated with procrastination, but that does not mean that they cause procrastination. Without the ability to diagnose accurately the cause of the problem, how can the problem ever be solved?

Radical behaviorists argue that psychologists were using the wrong paradigm or at least a not particularly helpful one. Instead of the murky, subjective world of self-reported perfectionism, anxiety, fear of criticism and the rest, it would be more useful to take a look at the entire fabric of behavior in which procrastination is embedded. This is what Cassandra Ann Braam argues in her doctoral dissertation, “I’ll Do It Tomorrow.” A Radical Behavioral Analysis of Procrastination.

When someone “procrastinates,” there are relevant events that precede it, consequences that stem from it, a concrete physical and social environment in which the “procrastination takes place”, and finally the person’s discrete feelings, sensations, actions, and thoughts while the “procrastination is going on.” Behavioral analysis considers all these factors, but especially hones in on the consequences that stem from an action, the so-called contingencies, which are then internalized as rules for guiding that action. From this vantage point, “procrastination,” according to Braam, “is not considered a trait, response, action, or set of behaviors. That is, a person does not actively ‘procrastinate.’ Instead procrastination might be conceptualized as the failure to behave or do what one should. Thus, in essence, procrastination is a lack of control by relevant contingencies” (29). In simplest terms, the reward for timely completing a task or the punishment for failing to do so are insufficient to insure that the task will be done. Braam employs the analogy, “touching a hot stove results in a burn and this consequence should effectively punish touching the stove in the future. In another example, the immediate taste of sugar for most children directly reinforces eating candy.”

At this point, the problem of procrastination comes into full relief. There is no immediacy to the reward or punishment. Procrastinators’ hands are not burned; their mouths are not sweetened. There is, however, another class of contingencies that are not direct-acting, but are still effective when they are described by rules involving a “delayed, sizable, and probable consequence.” And these kinds of rules could help someone troubled by procrastination. Braam gives the following example “the behavior of most people would probably be controlled by a rule stating, ‘If you mail this certificate by October 22, you will receive a $10,000.00 rebate.” It’s important to stress that what is controlling the person is not the $10,000, but the rule “If I mail this by October 22, I will get $10,000.”

So from a radical behavioral analysis perspective, the problem of procrastination is replaced by the problem of establishing effective rules for task completion. To establish rules that will alter behavior, these rules need to be internalized and become increasingly automatic. This can be accomplished by rehearsing the rules about the task verbally, by having a large number of specific rules related to the task, by generalizing those rules to other situations, by monitoring one’s compliance to the rules, and by pairing non-compliance with an aversive condition.

This brief foray into the radical behavioral analysis of procrastination ultimately aims at finding some additional help for Christians who put off going to confession, saying their prayers, reading the Scripture, and collaborating with God in becoming the new creation they are called to be in Christ Jesus. But is it even appropriate? It seems almost Hobbesian. Thomas Hobbes believed that people needed these rules in order to behave correctly and co-exist in a civil society.  The rules were to be created by the monarch who ruled his people with a carrot and stick approach to governing.  In this schema, there is little room for virtue or vice since human behavior was modified or controlled through the fear of consequences.

For those advanced in the spiritual life, this approach does not appear to be useful or appropriate. After all, when St. Ammon of Nitria came to St. Anthony and asked him, “My labors are greater than yours, yet your name is widespread among people more than mine, why?” St. Anthony replied, “Because I love God more than you do.” Love goes beyond keeping the rules.

But those advanced in the spiritual life also do not have a problem with spiritual procrastination. The fathers have always recognized that people are at different stages of spiritual maturity. Some are in the stage of slaves who serve God for fear of punishment; others are in stage of servants who do so for the sake of a reward; and still others, like Saint Anthony, are in the stage of sons who do so because they love their Father. What matters is pressing forward towards God, serving Him as best we can and through His grace to be transformed into sons and daughters of light. For those who have trouble serving God at all by procrastinating over confession, prayers, spiritual reading, fasting, and doing the good work of God, the insights from radical behavioral analysis could be of some help.

In the spiritual life, we don’t speak so often about rules, but the fathers, the Scriptures, and Christ Himself speak again and again about the centrality of the commandments and following them. The Lord Christ tells every soul who reflects on the commandments, “This do, and thou shalt live!”(Luke 10:28) Behaviorists suggest that for a rule to be effective, the consequences must be sizeable and profitable. Is there any more “sizeable,” more “probable” reward than that offered to those who keep the commandments of Christ? He who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” He who is certainty itself promises and infinite reward: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:20).

If we believe in Christ and his words with all our heart, we have all the incentive we need to follow Christ’s commandments, but even then we need to be reminded of them daily. In terms of behavioral analysis, rules need to be internalized by rehearsing the rules about the task verbally, by having a large number of specific rules related to the task, by generalizing those rules to other situations, by monitoring one’s compliance to the rules, and by pairing non-compliance with an aversive condition. Translating this into the context of the Christian life, we are called to study God’s commandments in detail, to repeat them to ourselves, to apply them to the many situations we find ourselves in, to review daily how well we are keeping them, and to repent when we have failed to do so. Doing so, our spiritual procrastination can only be left behind.

If effective rules can modify problem behavior, how much more infinitely effective are the commandments of God that bring the believer into contact with God by doing His will. Unlike rules that can be felt as external restrictions, believers experience the divine commandments as precious and desirable sources of guidance that bring delight to the soul. That is why they exclaim “I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold” (Psalm 118:127) as well as pray, “Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight. (Psalm 118:35).  Saint Theophan the Recluse sums up quite beautifully what the commandments offer and why the faithful should follow them: “Faithfulness to the commandments brings one closer to God, leads to kinship with Him, and fills one with assurance— he who is faithful to the commandments looks towards God with an open face, submits to him with assurance, and daringly speaks to Him of his needs, both spiritual and material, with conviction that he will be heard. Since everything is in God and from God, this faithfulness obviously brings one to the source of all good things, always open and inexhaustible, and lets one take part in them. He who has come to taste it cannot help but be filled with a feeling of wellbeing, and that is the final goal of all human endeavors. How can one not love the commandments when they lead to such a state?” (Psalm 118, A Commentary, page 275). And we might add, keeping them firmly in mind, how can one still procrastinate about the spiritual life?