There are a lot of ‘motivational speakers’ out there from the Anthony Robbins School of Positive Self-Talk – Awaken the Giant Within – who first inspire and then depress us with their mantra of ‘just do it’. (Maybe they’re all Nike salesmen.) While there is some truth to the idea that taking action is self-realising, it can still be very hard for many of us to take that first step. As we said in Part 1 of this series on procrastination, extroverts may have a more natural tendency to action than introverts, (or most of us who find ourselves at various times towards the introversion end of the spectrum). So how do we overcome this natural inertia? How to we take action when we feel stuck?

Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement first made his mark with the publishing of his book Learned Optimism (Random House, 1990, 1998, 2006). It is not our intention to review the entire work here but to consider a few critical points that may provide some insights to the problem of procrastination.

The optimism/pessimism dichotomy may be a lot like the extroversion/introversion pair – more a continuum; it is not either-or but some of each. In any event it turns out that some people have a natural tendency to Optimism, and this may provide a genetic, though not perfect advantage:

“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist. The optimist, however, is more resilient, bounces back from defeat, and starts over; the pessimist tends to become discouraged, give up and fall into lethargy, even lasting depression. Because of this resilience, the optimist achieves more at work, at school and at play, has better health and may even live longer.”(Learned Optimism, p. 207) But first they have to get through their teens and 20s intact. Optimists take risks, but sometimes incur damage to themselves and others along the way. I wonder how many quadriplegics were optimists before they jumped?

Pessimism also has value – why else would the pessimism trait have survived evolutionary biology if it didn’t provide some advantage. Pessimists are good at evaluating risk – if they don’t exaggerate it. They are better equipped to determine whether the planned action can have adverse consequences. Pessimists are good at formulating contingency plans to be implemented if the first course of action doesn’t work out. Pessimists also prepare themselves psychologically for disappointment and in their own way are resilient.

Who would you rather have flying your airliner, an optimist or a pessimist?

According to Seligman pessimists can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of their lives. Optimists can also benefit from recognizing the value of the pessimist’s outlook – having a keener sense of reality in some situations. Optimism must be paired with “reality testing” – conscientious checking on the results of their efforts – to make sure that overly positive expectations are not leading them astray. “What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism – optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.” (Learned Optimism, p. 292)

To bring us back to the problem of overcoming procrastination, itself a failed strategy for dealing with adversity, adopting an optimistic explanatory style is very useful. Natural optimists are not consciously cognizant of what makes them optimists – they don’t engage in a cognitive process for reframing their thinking; they just are. Pessimists – those with a negative explanatory style – on the other hand need to reframe their thinking to help them get unstuck. But even optimists when facing a new situation can have moments of doubt and get stuck. Everyone can benefit from learning a positive explanatory style:

An optimistic explanatory style is a bit like positive internal locus of control; for a person with a positive explanatory style their internal wiring allows them to believe that they have some control on what happens to them in life. When good things happen to the person with a positive explanatory style (+ e.s.) he or she tends to interpret the causes as permanent, pervasive and personal; that is to say they think the good times will keep on rolling, that the good event will spill over into other parts of their lives, and that this is largely because of their own personal circumstances or abilities. But that’s not all. People with +e.s. also take the opposite view when bad things happen: the bad event is temporary, not permanent, is specific to one aspect of their lives, not universally pervasive, and that it is external to them, not of their doing or responsibility.

With this sort of mind-set, it’s no wonder that optimists tend not to get stuck when facing a new situation, and so do not suffer procrastination, at least not for long.
Adopting optimistic thinking and a positive explanatory style can help a lot in overcoming procrastination.

How to do that is the topic of the last chapter in this series: the ABCs and DEs of Cognitive Therapy.