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BAC Sermons

Excerpts re: Self Control


Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd www.mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/

The impressive and growing research showing that self-control (or the lack of it) is important to our mental and physical health has awakened research psychologists to the importance of self-change and volition. Self-help attitudes and skills are becoming major factors in the treatment of physical, mental, emotional and interpersonal problems.


It provides you with a system for analyzing any problem into its manageable parts and for planning self-change. It invites you to first carefully consider what you value and want to accomplish in life. It summarizes science's best explanations of most human problems. It lists the most promising ways of treating a wide range of unwanted behaviors and emotions. It describes in detail how to use about 100 self-help methods. In short, this book gives you a sound, research-based fund of knowledge about behavior; add to this your own coping experiences and you accumulate a storehouse of general knowledge that will help you understand yourself and gain more control over your life. That is offered; absorbing and applying the knowledge is your job.


Sperry (1993) makes an important observation: your values and major purposes for living, if well developed, are perhaps the most powerful determinants of your major life decisions. Therefore, each of us needs to take great care in deciding on the values we will live by (see chapter 3). Moreover, in the absence of a strong, thoughtful value system, if one starts to believe that he/she is at risk of having little control or if one becomes extremely emotional when his/her self-control seems fragile, such a person is at risk of joining others who are threatened and deciding to seriously harm another group through acts of greed and by social domination (e.g. seeking power through wealth, politics and war, or religion). Humans run amuck without effective self-control and values.


Like the person who wants to effortlessly be a great conversationalist or the student who hopes to impress others by doing well on an exam "without studying," we humans may feel just a little inadequate if we have to study and work to self-improve. The truth is: effective living requires hard work, whether it is staying trim and fit or acquiring expertise in our profession or maintaining a loving relationship.


A valuable aspect of the following 10 steps is a simple system for analyzing your problem into five parts, which, in turn, will help you develop a comprehensive plan for changing yourself. This system, described in step 3, will help you understand any problem situation. Every problem has five parts or levels: (1) the behavior involved, (2) the emotions experienced, (3) the skills you may need, (4) the mental processes involved (thoughts or self-talk, motivations, self-concept, values, and expectations), and (5) the unconscious forces that may contribute to your troubles. An old adage says, "a problem well stated is half solved." When a problem is carefully analyzed into these 5 parts, you can more easily see how most treatment or self-help methods available today could be applied to this problem (see step 5).

Summary of Steps in Self-help

 Once you have decided to make some specific self-improvement, there are ten desirable steps in a difficult self-help project; however, not every step must be compulsively carried out every time you try to change something about yourself. Sometimes, you can omit measuring your progress or analyzing the problem into parts or setting goals or some other steps. This is because sometimes, the desired change is very easy to make, as though it is just waiting for an excuse to change. Most of the time, however, it is hard to change, forcing you to pay attention to all ten steps. At least, you should know how to carry out all of the possible steps, in case they are needed:

Step 1: Select self-improvement projects, no more than 2 or 3 at a time.

Step 2: Start collecting and recording data reflecting the severity or frequency of the problem.

Step 3: Try to understand the problem, how it developed, its original  causes, and what causes it to continue.

Step 4: Set realistic goals.  be specific: exactly what behavior, emotions, skills, attitudes, or awareness do you want to change? What do you want to eliminate? What to increase?

Step 5: Select the self-help methods that seem most likely to work, i.e.  "develop a treatment plan."

Step 6: Learn the detailed steps involved in each self-help method you  are using (chapters 11-15) and try out your plan.

____  give the selected self-help methods a fair trial (daily for two weeks).

____  your motivation is crucial; keep it high (see chapters 4 and 14).

____  take precautions in advance if any strong emotions or possible dangers are involved (see chapters 11-15).

Step 7: Continue throughout the project to assess and plot your progress.

Step 8: If needed, revise plan as needed--deal with your resistance to change. Keep up your motivation.

Step 9: Plan ways of maintaining the gains made. use partial and natural reinforcement of the new desired behavior so it becomes intrinsically satisfying. Make it a habit.

Step 10: Make a note of the method's effectiveness: what works for you?


In the first stage, I'll call it "avoidance," we just don't think about the problem, even though it is perfectly clear to others. Or, we may briefly wish to change but have no serious intentions or plans for changing. Often, we blame others for the problem and resist change or believe we can't do anything about it. We must move to the next stage, call it "contemplation," before we can begin to change. In this stage we become more aware of the problem and we think about changing, but we haven't definitely decided to do something about it yet. We may wonder if change is worth the effort; we should weigh the pros and cons of changing. Many people remain in this stage for a long time (smokers for an average of two years). To actually change, however, we must move to the next two stages of commitment, called "planning" and "action." When we make explicit plans, we have decided to take action soon. We may have already tried to change and want to try again. Ideally, we will not obsess too long with understanding the problem and developing a perfect treatment plan; it is important to actually start changing. In the "action" stage we stick with an effective plan until we reach our goals. The last stages are "maintenance," in which after making gains we do whatever is necessary to avoid relapse, and "termination."

If so, then your first job is to get motivated and overcome your fears of changing. You need to decide for sure that a particular problem must be faced and conquered. You need to realize you may lose certain pleasures when you give up a bad habit. You may need to "psych yourself up." You may need encouragement. You certainly need to accentuate the positive reasons for changing. There is evidence that impulsive action on a self-help plan is likely to fail (1) if you do not have acute awareness of the probable benefits and losses, (2) if you try to change without an hopeful, exciting plan (including some faith in your ability to change), and (3) if you start without determination and a commitment to fully solving the problem. So, what can you do if you can't get started changing?


 Current wisdom says we get to action by learning more about the problem and about ourselves (e.g. how the bad habit harms us and how we profit from or need the problem, e.g. smoking helps us relax). Also, significant others may powerfully confront us about our problem: the kids say they want us to stop smoking and live longer or our lover hints that our rolls of fat are not real sexy. Serious thinking on our own about what kind of person we would like to be may also help us get to action, especially if self-discipline and personal growth are valued traits. Many people are inspired to try to change by talking to others, either others who have changed themselves or others who will listen and understand our gnawing self-dissatisfaction and desire to be better.


Denying your problem is appealing because it is easy, there is nothing to do, you can't fail, you can blame others, and others quickly see your resistance to changing so they stop bugging you. We also use a variety of excuses for doing nothing, such as "you can't get better until you hit bottom," "I've tried everything," and "people can't change." Amazingly, many people think self-change is impossible, including an estimated 2/3rds of our physicians. Notice how we expect experts to change us but not ourselves. That's nonsense.

 What are the barriers we need to overcome in the process of "just deciding?" For the person who hardly thinks about making a needed change, the common barriers are (1) a reluctance to admit the problem ("I'm only 10 pounds overweight," "I'm just big boned," "It came from having babies," "My wife is overweight too," etc.). (2) Rebellion against pressure ("I hate it that Mom makes me study before dinner," "I like the way I've been teaching, this new cooperative education is nonsense," "I hate it when he/she mentions my weight when we are making love," etc.). (3) Resignation to staying the same ("I can't do anything about it," "I've tried to quit a 1000 times," etc.). (4) Feeling a victim and believing that someone else is responsible for your troubles; therefore, THEY owe it to you to fix it! You shouldn't have to do the work of changing (Dombeck, 2000). (5) Rationalizing that the problem behavior is really all right ("I know smoking isn't good for you but I only smoke 15 a day and usually I don't inhale and I smoke "light" cigarettes and I didn't start until I was 25 and my grandpa smoked 2 packs a day until he was 95 and I need them to relax but I'm going to quit!"). These are the kind of obstacles you face--they are powerful.

 What can we do about our avoidance and denial? First, we can become aware of our use of excuses and mental tricks to avoid changing. Certain personalities consistently use specific defenses, e.g. if someone said something demeaning about you and you responded by laughing it off or saying "they didn't really mean it--no big deal," you are probably prone to use denial or minimization. If you responded by saying "that person is just mean-spirited, besides you can't please everybody--these things happen" or "there are deep psychological reasons why he/she said what he/she did," you are a rationalizer or an intellectualizer. If you boiled over, verbally or physically attacking the person or assuming they are totally evil, you are "externalizing" the causes of the problem. If you became self-critical and felt blamable for his/her opinion, you are "internalizing" the causes of the problem. In short, learn what defense mechanisms you use (see chapter 15) and do something about it, e.g. force yourself to face upsetting problems, avoid explaining away criticism of you, empathize with others (even critics), find less destructive ways to vent your anger, avoid feeling totally responsible for every bad happening, etc.

To see the problem--

What makes you think this is a problem?

What difficulties have you had related to this problem?

How have you been harmed by this problem? Have others been harmed too?

What things might happen if you continue doing this?

Do you have lots of reasons why you don't want to change this behavior?

 To clarify your feelings--

How do you feel about this problem? How strongly do you feel?

What worries you about the future if you don't make a change? How concerned are you?

How do you feel about yourself and your unwillingness to change up until this point? or

How do you feel about getting into this situation and not getting out before now?

 To determine if you are really interested in changing--

Can you summarize your reasons for making a change?

What reasons are there for remaining the way you are? (pay offs for the "problem" behavior)

Considering the pro and cons, how strongly do you want to change?

What is keeping you from making a firm, specific commitment to changing right now?

 To see how optimistic or pessimistic you are about making the desired changes--

If you decide to try to change, how confident are you that you could do it? (Give your reasons)

Do you have some ideas about how to make the changes? Will you need any help?

Have you read about self-help methods for changing? or about therapies for changing?

Do you know other people who have made these changes?

When will you start?

 The idea is to maximize in your mind the gap--the distance--between changing and staying the same. The greater the advantages of changing, as you see it, the greater your motivation. This is a crucial start. Reading more about your problem and its development, hearing more about other people solving a similar problem, and learning more about various methods of attacking the problem should give you even more hope and determination to get the job done. If you can't become firmly convinced to change and find yourself making a lukewarm attempt, you will probably not succeed. If changing doesn't seem worthwhile, maybe you should seek professional help or talk with a successful self-helper. Others can help you think more about the above questions and your future. You need determination to change.

Third, other people are often a crucial factor in determining if we change or not. Some people encourage our bad habits, e.g. an enabler minimizes our problem and doesn't confront us, instead they help us neglect or cover up the problem because they are afraid of straining the relationship. So avoid enablers. Helpers gently help us think about our problems and the solutions; yet, they don't push us into premature action. Admit your reluctance to change to a helpful friend and ask him/her to share his/her view of your defenses and your reasons for avoiding changes. This could be an eye opener.


Describing the problem: look at all five parts

 As mentioned in this chapter's overview, the basic idea or system utilized throughout this book is that problems become clearer and more manageable if you break them down into five parts: behavior, emotions, skills, attitudes-values, and unconscious factors. Most problems manifest themselves in all or, at least, several of these five parts. For example, shyness may involve (1) withdrawn, quiet behavior, (2) tense, nervous feelings, (3) a lack of social skills, (4) a negative self-concept or expectation that most people will see you as insecure, and (5) unconscious factors, like fearing being stupid because you were called stupid as a child or being a loner because you resented your mother being very sociable.

 Here is another example (obviously, not an actual person). The description of this troubled student, John/Jane, is in considerable detail, illustrating the breakdown of procrastination into five parts:

Part 1: Behavior

I always put off studying and papers until the last minute. I end up being rushed and doing a poor job or trying to find any "easy way out."

I have no organization, no schedule for studying, no list of what needs to be done, and I frequently forget assignments. I pretty much do what I feel like doing.

I never study or read unless it is required the next day. I usually study 2 or 3 hours at most for difficult exams. I prefer to watch TV, party, listen to music, sleep, be with friends or my boy/girlfriend.

I look for shortcuts, including cheating, getting someone to write papers for me, talking my girl/boyfriend into doing my homework for me, e

I harass the students who do their homework and do well on exams.

Part 2: Emotions

I hate to study, courses are boring, school seems useless. I can't wait until I get out of school and make lots of money.

My studying is always rushed, I never feel well prepared, I feel anxious in class. I hate to get exams and papers back. I'm embarrassed by my work and grades.

I feel forced to study and resent it. I would rather talk to friends and do fun things, it makes me mad when I can't do what I want to do.

I feel little or no guilt about cheating, instead I feel clever and pleased when I can "beat the system" and get better grades than the "stupid" kids who do the "useless" homework.


Realistic, effective goals must be attainable, important, and taken seriously. Being goalless is a serious problem. Goals serve us well. They focus our energy, reduce distractions, get us looking for new solutions, keep us striving, and give meaning to our existence (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). Demanding-but-reachable specific goals motivate us more than a vague "do your best" or too easy goals, resulting in better plans and more effort. For example, when exercising, the goal "to do your best" does not result in as many sit-ups as "do 10% more sit-ups than you did last time." On the other hand, overly demanding, perfectionistic goals are more likely to lead to failure, disappointment, and giving up (see chapter 6). It may not be easy to find the optimal middle ground between too hard (seeking perfection) and too easy (not trying hard enough) goals; try both extremes until you find what serves you best

Part 3: Skills (Lack of)

Poor reading ability and speed. I can't learn the details unless I read the material twice and I can't stand to do that.

Poor writing ability, poor grammar and spelling.  I'm able to persuade or threaten others into lending me their notes, into typing my papers and correcting the errors, into letting me cheat off their tests, etc.

Part 4: Mental processes

I think what you learn in school is a waste. What I think is important is how well a person can control people or "work the system." I'm good at it.

I think that I will be a responsible, honest, successful, hard worker just as soon as I get into the real world and away from this stupid school.

I think I am very intelligent because my friends are constantly impressed with the things I do, like giving excuses for missing class or talking teachers into letting me take the exam later (after I get the answers from someone).

I think the students who study hard or "show off what they know" in class are jerks and stupid because "they are making it hard on the rest of us."

I expect to get average grades but I let people know that I haven't studied, so they will not think I am dumb. I'd like to be seen as smart.

Part 5: Unconscious processes (these are possibilities which I can't know for sure at this point or, for that matter, ever)

I may avoid putting myself to the test, i.e. studying hard to see how able I really am. I'm afraid I'm not very smart; I don't like to think about it.

I may resent my father who is a workaholic; I probably hated my father's work, success, drive, organization (everything in its place), and pushiness. I felt rejected by mother because she admired father's successes so much. I may push this out of my mind, except for the resentment and distance I feel.

Many teachers remind me of my father, so this may make it especially satisfying to blow off studying or to cheat on a paper.

I sometimes think I am an impostor, a manipulator, and a lazy liar. When I think that way, I feel guilty and have some awareness that my future is bleak. I push these ideas out of my mind. Wonder if my conscience thinks I deserve to fail in life?

There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance. Strength is the lot of but a few privileged men; but austere perseverance, harsh and continuous, may be employed by the smallest of us and rarely fails of its purpose, for its silent power grows irresistibly greater with time.

 If you persuade yourself that you can do a certain thing, provided this thing is possible, you will do it, however difficult it may be. If, on the contrary, you imagine that you cannot do the simplest thing in the world, it is impossible for you to do it, and molehills become for you unscalable. -Emile Coue'

Why We Need Values and Morals

 It is important to carefully consider your values for several reasons: (1) they could guide your life minute by minute towards noble goals, rather than your life being controlled by self-serving motives, customs, accidental occurrences, bad habits, impulses, or emotions. You have to know where you are going before you can get there. (2) Values and morals can not only guide but inspire and motivate you, giving you energy and a zest for living and for doing something meaningful. (3) Sensitivity to a failure to live up to your basic values may lead to unproductive guilt or to constructive self-dissatisfaction which motivates you to improve. (4) High values and some success meeting those goals are necessary for high self-esteem. (5) Professed but unused values are worthless or worse--phony goodness and rationalizations for not changing. We must be honest with ourselves, recognizing the difference between pretended (verbalized) values and operational (acted on) values. Of course, no one lives up to all their ideals, but values that only make us look or feel good (including being religious) and do not help us act more morally must be recognized as self-serving hypocrisy.

 Thus, self-help is not just for overcoming problems; it also involves learning to become what you truly value, achieving your greatest potential. That is why your values and strengths should be considered along with your problems. For every fault or weakness you want to lose, you have a valuable strength to gain; for every crude emotion to control, you have an opposing good feeling to experience; for every awkwardness, a helpful skill to acquire; for every denial, a truth to be found. Optimally, you will identify your problems, as in chapter 2, but also decide on lofty goals that are worthy of your life. I would like to help you find out where you truly want to go. Then, I hope you and I become sufficiently discontent with our shortcomings and dedicated to our highest goals so that we are motivated to achieve our greatest potential. Trying to be good is important, perhaps more important than solving personal problems. Both are self-help.

 Moral development teachers often say that becoming moral requires enough emotional development to feel guilty when we do wrong, enough social development to accept our responsibility for behaving in agreed upon ways towards our group, and enough cognitive development to be able to place ourselves in another person's shoes. But just because you develop some of these qualities, it doesn't guarantee that you will develop a wise and effective philosophy of life.

. Psychology Today (August, 1997) recently reported a survey showing that about half of American workers did something unethical at work this year--padding the expense account, stealing property, lying about what they did or did not do, using sick days inappropriately, etc. Even at the highest levels, half of the top executives admit they are willing to "fudge" figures to look good. More than that, a whopping 75% of MBA students say they would be willing to distort the facts to make company profits look higher. This lack of moral restraint, according to Secretan (1998), is epidemic in the workplace. He says we can change that. Buford & Whalin (1997) take a different approach, namely, change your goals in mid-life from success to significance. Still others suggest simplifying your life by doing what really matters (Aumiller, 1995).

better books are Sherwin (1998), Twerski (1997) and Kushner (1996), all three Rabbis. Gough (1997) has a book that is perhaps more appropriate for teenagers and apparently is well received by them. Their point is that being good is part of being successful--having self-esteem as well as being a good worker, good parent, and kind/grateful/forgiving towards others.

Everyone needs a philosophy of life. Mental health is based on the tension between what you are and what you think you should become. You should be striving for worthy goals. Emotional problems arise from being purposeless.
-Victor Frankl (1970)


Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost
a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is filled with educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
-Calvin Coolidge, former President of the United States

Edison: genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Atkinson: achievement is 50% ability and 50% drive.

Motivation gets you started, habit keeps you going

Harvey Mandel and Sander Marcus (1988, 1995) have an interesting view of the "unmotivated" student. They say an underachiever with an "academic problem" is not unmotivated, but in fact is highly motivated to do poorly and get mediocre grades! Why? Because they want to avoid success! Why and how would anyone choose to blow off school work which is clearly connected with what one does for a lifetime? Because they are afraid of achievement and want to avoid responsibility. The underachiever unconsciously utilizes excuses to explain why he/she is doing poorly and why it isn't his/her fault. They say, "The exam didn't cover what the teacher said it would" or "everybody did bad" or "my parents had all kinds of things planned for me the night before the exam." The trouble is they believe they want to succeed and they believe their own excuses. The authors call this self-deception "the crap gap." The underachievers also believe that the situation is beyond their control, that they are innocent victims of circumstances. They aren't uncomfortable enough to fight their way out of the gloomy situation they are in.

 Since the underachiever is afraid of achieving, the usual efforts of parents and teachers--e.g. offering rewards, threatening punishment, and being assigned a terrific teacher--are ineffective because these methods don't deal with the self-deception and the fears. These underachievers don't want to look honestly and carefully at themselves, their motives, their values, or their future. Why not? Because being successful and realizing that one has the ability to make "A's," take out the garbage on time, change the oil, pay one's own expenses, choose a career, work full-time, etc., means the person is ready and able to "be on his/her own," to be responsible, to be independent, and to keep on taking care of him/herself for the rest of his/her life. On the other hand, being unable to manage your life (without it being your fault) keeps others from expecting you to be mature and capable. Growing up is scary and some, like Peter Pan, don't want to do it (on a conscious and/or unconscious level).

 Since this kind of underachiever is not aware of this self-deception, it may be hard for him/her to help him/herself. So, let's see how, according to Mandel and Marcus (1988), a therapist would close the "crap gap," the difference between what the student thinks he/she wants ("good grades") and his/her actual behavior (mostly avoidance of all responsible behavior through the use of excuses). The critical first step is to simply ask the student how well he/she would like to do in school. Get them to state a specific goal, e.g. a "B" average. Second, the therapist, assuming the role of helper, would find out everything about course requirements and exactly how the student prepares to meet the requirements. Third, ask the student what is the problem in one of his/her courses (actually this usually solicits an excuse). Then get all the facts, e.g. if he/she says, "I study about an hour a day but it doesn't do me much good," the therapist will find out exactly how much and how effectively the student studied yesterday (maybe 10 minutes because TV was on).

 Fourth, make sure the student realizes the connection between studying and his/her grade two months later: "What will happen if you continue to only study 10 minutes a day on math?" "I'll probably get another D." Fifth, the therapist asks the student for some solution for this particular problem or excuse. A detailed plan, including how to handle barriers, is worked out by the student, e.g. "I'll put in a full hour every night." Sixth, make sure the student knows exactly what he/she proposes to do before the next therapy session. This is done knowing that the student will probably not follow his/her plan--he/she hasn't done what they intended to do before, so why now? The therapist's goal, at this point, is "excuse-busting," i.e. to merely to reduce the "crap gap" by getting the student's views of the situation ("I will study one hour without TV") closer to his/her actual behavior (10 minutes again), to recognize his/her use of excuses, and, eventually, to see his/her role in causing the underachievement.

 Seventh, find out if the plan was actually followed. Usually, as expected by the therapist, the student avoids the plan or does poorly for some other reason. Almost always he/she gives the therapist another excuse, e.g. "I forgot my books," "I studied the wrong stuff," or "I tried to study for an hour but friends kept calling," because to stick with the old excuse (TV was on) is admitting that he/she really wants to do poorly (the student is strongly motivated to not recognize this fact). Eighth, excuse after excuse is eliminated by going through steps 3 to 7 with each excuse for not reaching each goal. Gradually, the student begins to see his/her self-conning use of excuses, that he/she is responsible for his/her behavior (and the resulting grades), that he/she has some power to control his/her life. Lastly, as the excuses are striped away and insight gained into procrastination and avoidance of responsibility, the student will want to openly discuss his/her fears, what does he/she really want in life, and how does he/she get there from here. Therapy now becomes a very different process, more nondirective, because the student is responsible, introspective, self-directed, far more emotional and alive but ready to face life as an independent individual, even if scared.

 Hopefully, some people will be able without therapy to see that they are lying to themselves by the use of excuses. Then by consciously taking control of their lives (stopping the self-conning), they can help themselves. Others will not be able to see why they are underachievers but they will realize they are not performing up to capacity; they should seek professional help.

Becoming motivated to study

 A recent study by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi indicates that to become motivated to learn in school, (a) you must learn to genuinely enjoy reading and studying and using the information (usually telling others about it), (b) you must be given support and challenge at home and school so that you willingly take on tough assignments, realizing that you will occasionally not do well or not get done, (c) you must feel competent and be taught or tell yourself that doing poorly on an assignment or a test basically means that you need to work harder or take a different approach or both, and (d) you must, in most cases, believe the information learned is worthwhile (at least for passing the exam).

 So, if you were an undisciplined person, like John, how could you become motivated to study and gain self-confidence?

Learn "I am responsible"--that the more you study, the more you learn and the better your grades are. Thus, you begin to feel more responsible for what you get out of school. How exactly can you do this? (a) Keep records of how much you study and compare your grades when you have studied a lot with times when you study very little. (b) Prove to yourself that you are in control of your grades, no one else, not the teacher, not the exam, not luck.

Learn "I can be in control"--that you are capable of directing your life. How? (a) Schedule more study time and reward your promptness and increased effort. (b) Carefully measure the greater efficiency you achieve, e.g. how much more of the last few paragraphs do you remember when studying intensely (see SQRRR method in chapter 13)? (c) Remember: doing poorly simply means you should try harder. Take pride in your self-control.

Learn "I have ability"--that you have more ability than you previously thought. How? (a) Have more success by developing skills, like reading and test taking skills. (b) Get more information about your ability, such as aptitude test results or a respected person's honest opinion. (c) Increase your feelings of competence.

Learn "I value learning"--that you can value studying and success in school more. How? (a) Write down all the benefits of doing well in school. (b) Remind yourself that each successful step in school means three things--you are earning a chance to continue, you have what it takes to succeed, and you have done something worthwhile. (c) Make use of what you learn, e.g. tell others, interact with others who can add to your knowledge, apply the knowledge in other classes or at work, etc.

Learn "I may deceive myself"--that you, like others, are capable of remarkable self-deceiving and self-defeating thought processes which interfere with many important activities in your life, ranging from doing your best in school to trying out for the track team or asking the smartest person in school for a date. How? (a) Observe your attributions, especially your excuses, and double check their accuracy. (b) Overcome your fears (chapter 5) by doing whatever scares you (if it is safe)! (c) Attend closely to your self-concept, including self-efficacy and attitudes about changing, and find the best views for you (see chapter 14).

 You need to realize that change is possible before you can change. In recent years, a procedure called attribution retraining has been successful in increasing peoples' motivation to do better in school and other settings. In most cases, the experimenter persuaded the subjects that their failure at a task (e.g. grades) was due to a lack of adequate effort. Not surprisingly, later the subjects tried harder and did better. In other studies, seniors told freshmen about their grades improving markedly or a professor described almost flunking out as a freshman, but, with help of a friend, he started to take his studies seriously, eventually excelling in graduate school. By implication or explicitly, these success stories tell us that we too can change and that good grades result from hard work and persistence day by day, not just before exams and during the last week of the semester. Furthermore, the more effort you put in, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more able you are to do well.

We are most motivated when we feel capable, responsible, self-directed, respected, and hopeful.

You have to cope with all parts of life, so it is important for our work to be satisfying, but a history of hard, rewarding efforts involving long delays of reinforcement may also be important in preparing us for the unavoidably hard and uninteresting parts.


About 35% of the relapses occurred during periods of negative emotions, such as depression, anger, stress, or boredom. An additional 16% relapsed while having the same kind of feelings but in a social situation--a conflict or argument with a spouse, relative, friend, or co-worker. A health crisis in the family is a common cause. Here again we find an important relationship between behavior and emotions. About 20% relapsed under social pressure, either being with people doing what you don't want to do (smoking a cigarette, using drugs, eating) or being verbally pressured to participate ("Come on, John, have a beer with us"). About 10% of the backsliders felt the forbidden urge or temptation when all alone. None of this is a surprise but it can help us search for the conditions that might reduce our self-control. We all have our "weak times." Old temptations may return months or years later.

 Prochaske, et al, found that certain mental mistakes lead to relapse: (1) over-confidence ("I've got this drinking problem beat for sure"), (2) self-testing ("I'll keep a bottle...some candy...some cigarettes hidden in my desk just to prove I'm cured"), (3) self-blaming ("My smoking made my kids sick and caused by husband to start smoking again"). In short, some confidence is needed, but don't get too much of it, don't get cocky! By denying the risks and rationalizing one's risk-taking behavior, in effect the relapsing alcoholic sets him/herself up for another failure (which he/she doesn't feel responsible for). These cognitions must be attended to... and challenged by the addict.

 Secondly, Marlatt and his colleagues recommend several methods for avoiding relapses. Learn to recognize your own high-risk situations by (a) considering the data above and in the following paragraphs, (b) self-monitoring (see chapter 11) what's going on when we are tempted or slip a little or relapse, (c) self-testing in fantasy how well you would handle several high-risk situations (imagine how would you respond if a good friend encouraged you to try cocaine?), and (d) observing your lapse and relapse fantasies or temptations, i.e. imagine how you might relapse. After identifying your dangerous situations, you can avoid some and learn to cope with others. Certainly take credit for avoiding the risky situations.

But, also admit that getting into high-risk situations are a result of a series of decisions you have made (without much awareness?), seldom is it an accident or someone else's fault. No alcoholic gets seated at a table in a bar with drinking buddies (nor a philander with a tempting, attractive person) without making many choices leading to that high-risk environment. Identify those decisions or choice points; they are your means of staying out of trouble in the future. Monitor your thoughts carefully. Vigilantly guard against longing for "a cold beer on a hot day," "the taste of just one cigarette," "another night out in a topless bar with the boys," etc. Don't be seduced again. Remember the bad consequences of your old habit and the good aspects of you new lifestyle.

Chiauzzi (1989) identified several specific trouble spots that lead addicts back into abusing. Be especially careful if you have any of these personality traits: (a) compulsiveness --perfectionistic, unemotional, over-controlled--because they come unglued when they backslide, (b) dependency--indecisive, clinging--because they go back to drugs when others abandon them, (c) passive-aggressiveness --resistive, procrastinating, blaming--because they drive others away and then can't handle their own anger, (d) self-centeredness --egotistical, pushy--because they don't admit their problems, and (e) rebelliousness --impulsive, antisocial--because they resent anyone offering help.

A third pitfall, according to Chiauzzi, is that 30% of relapsers believe all they have to do is abstain or attend AA. They disregard gaining self-awareness, self-help skills, intimacy, advancement at work, a philosophy of life, etc. They also forget to avoid bars, physical problems, loss of sleep, etc. Constant awareness of all these warning signs helps avoid relapse.

 Self-help groups, like AA or Weight Loss groups or Assertiveness Training groups, help you stay on track. Ask friends to help: steer me away from temptations, challenge my over-confidence, support my new behaviors and interests, be sure I can say "no" clearly, come quickly to my rescue when I falter, and remember maintenance is forever.

 Practice coping with the unavoidable high-risk situations. Think about what you could say and do when faced with the temptation. Get advice and watch others. Role play with friends the situation repeatedly until you are sure you can handle it (chapter 13). Learn a set of self-instructions that will guide you through the dangerous period (chapter 11).

Prepare in advance for a lapse (to avoid a relapse). Attempt to limit the loss of control and reduce the feeling that you are a hopeless total failure. Instead, if you slip, just admit that you have made a mistake. (a) Make an agreement to limit the slip (to one smoke, one dessert, one hour of TV, one drink) and/or call a helper when you have lost control. (b) Prepare and carry a "reminder card " that says something like this, "Slips do occur. They make us feel guilty, that's normal. But don't let these feelings of failure snowball right now into feelings of hopeless despair so that you continue to (smoke, eat, drink, procrastinate). One slip doesn't make a total failure. Stay calm. Learn from this experience. Learn your weaknesses and how to overcome them. Remember why you are abstaining. Recommit yourself. At this time, do this: get out of the situation (leave the bar, go back to studying, throw away the remaining cigarettes, cake, drugs, etc.). If necessary call a friend at number ____. Exercise or atone for a wrong or do something good. You'll feel better." (c) Later, practice handling the high-risk situation with a supportive friend. And, when alone, imagine handling similar situations well.

 Any addicted person needs to reorganize his/her life. The needs driving the compulsion can be meet in better ways. The habit-breaker needs more satisfaction out of life, probably requiring a balance of some immediate pleasures and long-term, meaningful goals.

Smokers typically make 3, 4 or more attempts to stop before succeeding. Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross (1992) found that relapsers don't necessarily go back to "square one," sometimes they learn from their mistakes, think of a better approach, and build up their courage to try again. Try hard to avoid relapsing but if you do, don't give up.


Nate Azrin and Greg Nunn (1977) offer Habit Control in a Day. It is a clinically tested method for stopping nail-biting, hair-pulling, tics, stuttering, thumb sucking, and other nervous habits. They obtained 90% reduction in the habit the first day and 95% reduction within the first week and 99% within a month (assuming you keep working on the problem as prescribed).

 The method is simple: learn to substitute an acceptable but incompatible action in place of the bad habit. To do this you must observe the bad habit in minute detail. The substitute behavior should (1) interfere with the habit but not with other normal activities, (2) be unnoticeable by others but something you are very aware of, and (3) be a response you can easily do for 3 minutes or so.

 Examples of behaviors useful in opposing bad habits are: grasping an object, like a pencil, or lightly clenching your fist. Either could be substituted for nail biting or hair pulling. Likewise, filing your nails or brushing your hair would also be incompatible with nail biting or hair pulling. Also, isometric contraction of muscles opposing the ticking muscles is another example. Consciously breathing in and out slowly and evenly is inconsistent with coughing or clearing your throat; drinking water is incompatible with the same habits.

 Next, practice the new response 5-10 minutes every day for at least a week. In addition, mentally rehearse how and when you can use the new response. Once mastered, the new response must be used for three minutes every time (a) you catch yourself doing the old habit, (b) you feel the urge to do the old habit, (c) you enter a situation where the old habit frequently occurred, and (d) you realize you are doing another habit that often precedes the bad habit. Examples of the latter would be face touching that almost always precedes nail biting or hair pulling, touching the finger nail before biting it, and feeling your face before picking it. More careful self-observation is needed to discover the situations, activities, and people in (c), and the associated habits in (d).

 Azrin and Dunn's procedures also include relaxing in the habit-producing situations, daily practice of replacing the old habit with the new response in the four circumstances described above, asking friends for feedback, showing off your improvements (especially in situations you have been avoiding), and, of course, keeping daily records of progress.



What are other signs of procrastination besides waiting until the last minute to do something? Try these on for size: being reluctant to take risks or try something new, staying at home or in the same old job, getting sick when faced with an unpleasant job, avoiding confrontations or decisions, blaming others or the situation ("it's boring") for your unhappiness or to avoid doing something, making big plans but never carrying them out, and/or having such a busy social-recreational calendar that it is hard to get important work done.


 Procrastination is a strange phenomenon. Its purpose seems to be to make our life more pleasant but instead it almost always adds stress, disorganization, and frequently failure. Ellis and Knaus (1977) and Burka and Yuen (1983) describe the process: (1) You want to achieve some outcome, usually something you and others value and respect--"I've got to start." (2) You delay, briefly thinking of real and imagined advantages of starting to change later--"I'll do it tomorrow when I don't have much to do." (3) You delay more, becoming self-critical--"I should have started sooner"--and/or self-excusing--"I really couldn't have left the party early last night, my best friends were there." You may hide or pretend to be busy; you may even lie about having other obligations. (4) You delay still more, until finally the task has to be done, usually hastily--"Just get it done any old way"--or you just don't have time--"I can't do this!" (5) You berate yourself--"There is something wrong with me"--and swear never to procrastinate again and/or you discount the importance of the task--"It doesn't matter." (6) You repeat the process almost immediately on other important tasks, as if it were an addiction or compulsion.

 The wisest course of action, most of the time, would be to simply do the unpleasant task as soon as practical, while we have enough time to do the job right and get it over with, not prolonging our agony. But we put it off. Why? There are many possible reasons: (1) we feel good about setting goals and declaring that we are going to change or succeed "sometime," (2) by procrastinating we shorten the time we actually have to work on the task, and (3) much of the time we avoid the unpleasant task altogether. Research has shown that 70% of New Year's resolutions are abandoned by February 1.

Discipline is... 1. Do what has to be done; 2. When it has to be done; 3. As well as it can be done; and 4. Do it that way every time.  -Bobby Knight

Actually, procrastination is an attempt to cope with our emotional reactions. What are these emotions? Fear of failure or success is the most likely emotion (this includes panic when we set impossible goals). Anger is another possible emotion (this includes rebellion against control). Dislike of the work that needs to be done is another. Obviously, depression can slow us down (and failing due to procrastination can depress us). Seeking pleasure is another disruptive motive. So the task for the procrastinator becomes (1) correctly identifying your form(s) of procrastination and (2) finding a solution for your specific emotional reaction. Not an easy job.

It may help to think in terms of two fundamental kinds of procrastinators: one tense and the other relaxed. The tense type often feels both an intense pressure to succeed and a fear of failure; the relaxed type often feels negatively toward his/her work and blows it off--forgets it--by playing (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984). John, described early in this chapter, is the relaxed type; he neglected his school work but not his socializing. This denial-based type of procrastinator avoids as much stress as possible by dismissing his/her work or disregarding more challenging tasks and concentrating on "having fun" or some other distracting activity; if their defense mechanisms work effectively, they actually have what seems like "a happy life" for the moment. More about this type later.

 The tense-afraid type of procrastinator is described by Fiore (1989) as feeling overwhelmed by pressures, unrealistic about time, uncertain about goals, dissatisfied with accomplishments, indecisive, blaming of others or circumstances for his/her failures, lacking in confidence and, sometimes, perfectionistic. Thus, the underlying fears are of failing, lacking ability, being imperfect, and falling short of overly demanding goals. This type thinks his/her worth is determined by what he/she does, which reflects his/her level of ability. He/she is afraid of being judged and found wanting. Thus, this kind of procrastinator will get over-stressed and over-worked until he/she escapes the pressure temporarily by trying to relax but any enjoyment gives rise to guilt and more apprehension.


Procrastination is the fear of success... Because success is heavy, it carries a responsibility with it, it is much easier to procrastinate and live on the "someday I'll" philosophy. -Denis Waitley

The tense-afraid type of procrastinator comes in five forms, as described by Burka and Yuen (1984) and Ellis and Knaus (1977):

 The fear of successful achievement in school leading to underachievement has already been described in great detail in the last section on motivation. (1) Such a student may avoid trying in school for fear of doing well...and then being expected to continue to achieve, be responsible, leave home or friends, and be mature. That is so scary that they hide their ambition, act like they don't care, and may really want to do poorly. (2) Likewise, other students may avoid being successful for fear they will lose friends or become a threat to others. It is commonly thought that "men don't like women who are too smart...or can beat them in tennis." Some conservative people may also be uncomfortable if a woman were successful in a masculine role--executive, pilot, priest--or if a man were successful in a feminine role--nurse, hair stylist, homemaker. (3) Others refuse to give up procrastinating and refuse to strive for success for fear of becoming a workaholic...or of becoming arrogant, competitive, demanding, or boring and isolated socially. They may feel that work is endless, that it will never be done. (4) A few procrastinators may fear success because they'd feel guilty, as though they didn't deserve it...or "I'd be an entirely different person, I'd have to admit I'm capable, I'd lose my identity."

 A second version of the anxiety-based procrastinator is afraid of failing. (1) Of course, if we are self-critical and feel inferior, we will avoid doing many things, especially competitive activities. Not trying is a form of failure but not as painful as actually trying and failing. (2) If you have set very high or impossible goals--like a perfectionist, you are likely to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps that is why, strange as it seems, perfectionistic procrastinators often have low confidence in their ability. By procrastinating, such a person avoids, for the moment, the dreaded expected failure (and guarantees doing poorly in the long run). (3) If you dread finding out just how able you are (and having others find out too!), it might seem wiser to put off putting yourself to the test than to run the risk of trying one's best and only being average. This is especially crucial if you believe a person is more worthwhile and lovable if he/she is real smart or talented. Procrastination, in this special case, may enable us to believe we are superior in ability (while another part of us fears being inferior), regardless of our performance. So, as you can see, procrastination may strengthen a person's feelings of inferiority or superiority.


Better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.-Abraham Lincoln

 The Rational-Emotive therapists (see method #3 in chapter 14; Ellis & Knaus, 1977) claim that the self-critical and perfectionistic type of procrastinator has these kinds of irrational beliefs: "I must always be on time and do well." "Others must like and approve of me." "I'm a no-good! How could a no-good do anything well?" Of course, one can't always be perfect, so such a person will fail, leading to thinking things are awful, feeling pessimistic, and expecting that work will be hard, no fun, boring--something to avoid. Such a person needs to build his/her self-esteem (see chapter 14).

 A third form of anxiety-based procrastinator needs to feel in control and/or to resist control by someone else ("You can't make me do it."). Ellis and Knaus refer to this type as the "angry defiant procrastinator." Such a person holds the irrational beliefs that "everyone must treat me kindly and do what I want them to do, and, if not, I have a right to get mad and hate them (including refusing to do what parents, teachers, and bosses want me to do)." Naturally, everyone is asked to do things they don't want to do; some accept that reality, others don't.

 To determine if control and anger are factors in your procrastination, ask yourself: "Is anyone bothered or inconvenienced by my taking my time or my being late?" "Do I often question and/or rebel against rules?" "Do I frequently feel like telling someone to get off my back"? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be in a battle for control! Passive-aggressiveness is a very powerful expression of resentment (see chapter 8). Being your own person, doing your own thing, etc., may seem to prove you are powerful and independent, but what if you spend a life-time slavishly proving you are "free" (rather than doing what would be best for you)? Such people often say, "Gosh, if I changed, I'd have to start being on time, following rules, getting into a routine...that would mean they won. Besides, it would be boring and too easy." If anger is part of your problem, look over chapter 7.

 The fourth and fifth forms of anxiety-based procrastination are designed to keep someone you need close to you or to keep a frightening relationship at a distance. Overcoming procrastination and becoming more independent, successful, decisive, and confident might remove one from a dependent relationship (see chapter 8) as well as propel one into an intimate relationship. Ask yourself, "Am I lonely and uncomfortable if I'm not with someone?" "Do I seek lots of advice and still hesitate to make a decision on my own?" Or: "Am I hesitating to get more deeply involved with someone by being indecisive or by not doing well?" If interpersonal concerns underlie your procrastinating, see chapters 8, 9 and 10.

 More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the "crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on way too many tasks. These authors focus more on family characteristics and personality traits. If you see a description here that fits you, read about it. Another book that helps you assess your personal style of procrastination is Roberts (1995).

Now back to the relaxed, pleasure seeking procrastinator. This personality seems, at first, to be less complicated, but careful observation of their thoughts and emotions suggests differently. Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found this type to be much more common among college students than the tense-afraid type. Ellis and Knaus (1977) call this the easily-frustrated, self-indulgent procrastinator. As suggested by Maslow, these procrastinators may be addicted to people or preoccupied with meeting their more basic emotional needs, e.g. for attention and approval by peers, love, or self-esteem. For some students these other needs make studying almost impossible.

 In addition to emotional needs, the relaxed procrastinator's thoughts may push him/her away from his work or studies. For instance, their basic belief system may center around thinking that "my long-range goals require too much hard unpleasant work." To such a person the gain is not worth the pain, especially since the necessary work is seen by them as so distasteful or boring or stupid that they just can't do it. A quick-starter, on the other hand, knows he/she can handle the drudgery. This relaxed procrastinator gets to the point of saying very irrational things to him/herself, such as: "I have to have something going on--I can't stand being bored" or "I must feel like studying before I can get started" or "I hate taking tests so much, I can't enjoy anything about studying" or "I hate math and I can't stand the teacher" or "If I don't like to do something, I shouldn't have to do it" or "Since teachers make me do things I hate to do, I hate them" or "Since I hate teachers and school, I won't do any more than I have to do--and I'll look for shortcuts, including cheating, whenever I can" or "Studying is so terrible and useless, it makes sense not to do it." So, they procrastinate by finding something fun to do and, then, rationalize their behavior.