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Procrastination is an emotional problem

If you stop treating procrastination like a time-management issue, it becomes easier to manage.

Procrastination is an emotional problem
[Photo: Flickr user Samuel John]

I told myself I’d start writing at 10 a.m. and crank out a few sections of this article before lunch. It’s now 1:40 p.m.–and I’m finally getting started. What happened?

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In the commonly held view of procrastination, I failed to appropriately manage my time. Or maybe I was just lazy, unmotivated, distracted, or all of the above. But new research on the psychology of procrastination suggests something different. Maybe the problem lies not with my willpower, but with my emotions.

“Procrastination is not a time-management problem, it’s an emotion-management problem,” says Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and blogger at Psychology Today, who spoke to me about the mounting evidence connecting procrastination to mood.

For many of us, bringing emotions into the brass-tacks issue of work and productivity may seem counterintuitive—or even trifling. But more and more studies point to mood and emotion regulation as the main culprit in procrastination. In this article, I explore these studies and reveal some data-driven techniques anyone can use to help overcome their own procrastination-inclined habits.

(I finally wrote the introduction! Can I eat lunch now?)

What procrastination is (and isn’t)

“Procrastination is a voluntary delay of an intended act despite the knowledge that this delay may harm us,” Pychyl explains in his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. That is, procrastination is by definition an irrational behavior because it runs counter to our own idea of what will make us happy.

Think about it: You know that tackling your to-do list will make you happier, less stressed, and more content, but you (all too often) don’t do it. Trying to think or plan your way through the problem won’t do any good because it’s irrational. It’s an emotional problem.

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Specifically, procrastination is an “emotion-focused coping strategy to deal with negative emotions,” Pychyl explains. It goes something like this:

  • We sit down to do a task.
  • We project into the future about what the task will feel like.
  • We predict that the task will not feel good (e.g., will stress us out, make us feel bad, etc.).
  • Our emotional coping strategy kicks in to keep us away from this bad feeling.
  • We avoid the task.

This emotional avoidance technique that our brain–often subconsciously–employs is similar to that which underlies many types of anxiety. People with anxiety often do everything they can to avoid the perceived external threat and, in turn, shut off access to both good and bad feelings, often leading to depression. By procrastinating, we’re avoiding a task with the assumption that the task won’t feel good, and that means we’re missing out on any feelings of, for example, accomplishment or success. This connection between procrastination and depression has been around at least since the ’90s, and the experimental evidence has poured in ever since.

Another study, coauthored by Dr. Pychyl, found links between procrastination and negative emotions like frustration and resentment. And that makes it even more difficult to cope with the potential negative emotions we predict our task will create. So, instead of feeling even worse, we opt for something that makes us feel good.

“Giving in to feel good” is the term given to this phenomenon in one paper cited by many procrastination researchers. And it means seeking short-term good feelings at the cost of long-term satisfaction–something we’re known to do as early as toddlerhood.

The key insight from the recent research is that “giving in to feel good” isn’t about willpower or forcing yourself to do something you hate; it’s about managing your emotions so they don’t get hijacked by your inner critic.

The fear of procrastination: your inner critic

One study attempted to tease apart the relationship between procrastination and emotion. Researchers measured 214 undergraduates on procrastination scores as well as various measures of depression, mindfulness, rumination, and self-compassion. It found significant positive correlations between procrastination and rumination, and negative correlations between procrastination and both mindfulness and self-compassion.

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Let’s start with the relationship between self-compassion and procrastination because it’s both counterintuitive and revealing. What’s the first thing you do when you catch yourself indulging in a particularly egregious spell of procrastination? Do you tell yourself, “What’s wrong with you? Pull yourself together and get your work done!” That lack of self-compassion might be exactly what’s causing your procrastination in the first place, according to the research.

Or maybe you don’t beat yourself up. Maybe you just hang your head and feel guilty for the work you’ve put off. But feeling guilty is no better. Guilt can be one type of “ruminative thinking,” which also exacerbates procrastination. That is, we get caught up in our own narrative about how bad we feel for putting off our work, which feeds on itself and drains our ability to get the work done.

“We know we’re culpable for our own self-defeated actions, and that brings us down,” Pychyl remarks.

Another study found that procrastination is “associated significantly with negative automatic thoughts in general as well as automatic thoughts reflecting the need to be perfect.” In both studies, this highly self-critical mind-set created and perpetuated the problem of procrastination.

This flies in the face of how many of us think about productivity. When we’re putting off work, we tell ourselves we’re being “lazy” and that we need to “suck it up” to power through the task at hand. But the research suggests that taking a softer, more compassionate view of our own behaviors may be the key to breaking out of this self-perpetuating spiral.

So how do we do that?

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Overcoming procrastination

Knowing that procrastination is an emotional regulation problem rather than a time-management problem is a good start. But that doesn’t tell us what steps can be taken to improve our behavior.

To do this, Pychyl brings together ideas from three disparate fields of study.

The first, which comes from Buddhist psychology, is the idea of the “monkey mind” that we all share. “The monkey mind never stops and you can’t make it stop,” Pychyl says. “Instead, you’ve got to give the monkey something to do.”

The second idea, which comes from more traditional psychology, is that our emotions can’t be pushed aside or ignored. So when we have a strong aversion to getting our work done, we can’t ignore this feeling.

The third part comes from David Allen, the founder of the Getting Things Done™ method, which is the idea that we don’t do projects when we work; we do actions. In other words, the mountain of work that we picture ourselves wading through is really just a set of smaller, discrete actions that have to be taken one at a time. We put our pants on one leg at a time and write our articles one word at a time.

Pychyl ties these threads together with one simple mantra:

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“What’s the next action?”

Mindfulness and procrastination

“Willpower” is a slippery concept. Some researchers believe it doesn’t really exist. Some believe it exists but in finite supply. Others take a middle path.

“I do think it has a role,” Pychyl says. “But it’s a smaller role than we think.”

Instead, he recommends cultivating another mental skill: mindfulness. The skills developed in mindfulness meditation, such as concentration, non-judgment, and equanimity, align perfectly with the research showing the vital role of emotional regulation in reducing procrastination and improving productivity.

A recent brain-scan study found reduced activity in the amygdala, an area that controls stress response, among a group that was trained in mindfulness meditation compared to two control groups. The amygdala is the region that can “hijack” our emotional response to a perceived threat, whether that threat is a mountain lion or a Slack notification sound.

One small pilot study found very low procrastination scores among experienced meditators, suggesting that doing absolutely nothing might be the best way to get everything done.

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So mindfulness meditation can help us remain calm and nonjudgmental in the face of work stress, which makes us more able to engage with the tasks, which makes us less stressed–a positive feedback loop.

Here we are. I’ve almost finished writing this article, and it’s only 11:58 p.m. In my book, that’s a victory, even if more of the day was spent avoiding work than doing it.

I caught myself experiencing “ruminative thoughts” and an unmistakable lack of self-compassion a few times throughout the day, and I did my best to let these feelings go (as I’ve been instructed in mindfulness meditations) rather than get caught in cycles of negative thinking.

Doing this helped me get back to my work, just as Pychyl and other procrastination researchers would predict. But it had another impact that might not show up in their data: I enjoyed my day more. Even in those times I knew I was procrastinating, I gave myself a break and felt less bad about myself than I would have normally. Anecdotal evidence, but worth sharing, I think.

Treating procrastination as an emotional and mood regulation problem might be the best way to move past it and get your work accomplished. But it can also improve your quality of life more generally. Next time you’re faced with a project that’s causing so much stress it feels like your amygdala is stabbing icicles into your eyeballs, try taking a deep breath. Let go of whatever self-judgment you’re adding to the mix, and ask yourself, “What’s the next task?”

Not only might you get more work done–you might even enjoy it.

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A version of this article originally appeared on Zapier and is reprinted with permission. 

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