Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time?
Like many writers, I’m a supreme expert at procrastination. When I ought to be working on an assignment, with the clock ticking towards my deadline, I’ll sit there watching pointless political interviews or boxing highlights on YouTube (cat videos aren’t my thing).
According to traditional thinking – still espoused by university counselling centers around the world, such as the University of Manchester in the UK and the University of Rochester in the US – I, along with my fellow procrastinators, have a time management problem. By this view, I haven’t fully appreciated how long my assignment is going to take and I’m not paying enough attention to how much time I’m currently wasting on ‘cyberloafing’. With better scheduling and a better grip on time, so the logic goes, I will stop procrastinating and get on with my work.
Increasingly, however, psychologists are realizing this is wrong. Experts like Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada and his collaborator Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield in the UK have proposed that procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time. The task we’re putting off is making us feel bad – perhaps it’s boring, too difficult or we’re worried about failing – and to make ourselves feel better in the moment, we start doing something else, like watching videos.
This fresh perspective on procrastination is beginning to open up exciting new approaches to reducing the habit. “Self-change of any of sort is not a simple thing, and it typically follows the old adage of two steps forward and one step back,” says Pychyl. “All of this said, I am confident that anyone can learn to stop procrastinating.”
Short-term mood lifters
One of the first investigations to inspire the emotional view of procrastination was published in the early 2000s by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. They first prompted people to feel bad (by asking them to read sad stories) and showed that this increased their inclination to procrastinate by doing puzzles or playing video games instead of preparing for the intelligence test they knew was coming. Subsequent studies by the same team showed low mood only increases procrastination if enjoyable activities are available as a distraction.
The emotional regulation theory of procrastination makes intuitive sense. In my case, it’s not that I don’t realize how long my assignment will take (I know I need to be working on it right now) or that I haven’t scheduled enough time for my YouTube viewing – in fact, I don’t really even want to watch those videos, I’m just drawn to them as a way of avoiding the discomfort of knuckling down to work. In the psychologists’ jargon, I’m procrastinating to achieve a short-term positive ‘hedonic shift’, at the cost of my longer-term goals.
The emotional regulation view of procrastination also helps explain some strange modern phenomena, like the fad for watching online cat videos which have attracted billions of views on YouTube. A survey of thousands of people by Jessica Myrick at the Media School at Indiana University confirmed procrastination as a common motive for viewing the cat videos and that watching them led to a boost in positive mood.
Myrick’s research also highlighted another emotional aspect to procrastination. Many of those surveyed felt guilty after watching the cat videos. This speaks to how procrastination is a misguided emotional regulation strategy. While it might bring short-term relief, it only stores up problems for later. In my own case, by delaying my work I just end up feeling even more stressed, not to mention the gathering clouds of guilt and frustration.
It’s perhaps little wonder that research by Fuschia Sirois has shown chronic procrastination – that is, being inclined to procrastinate on a regular, long-term basis – is associated with a host of adverse mental and physical health consequences, including anxiety and depression, poor health such as colds and flu, and even more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease.
Sirois believes procrastination has these adverse consequences through two routes – first, it’s stressful to keep putting off important tasks and failing to fulfil your goals, and second, the procrastination often involves delaying important health behaviors, such as taking up exercise or visiting the doctor.
All of this means that overcoming procrastination could have a major positive impact on your life. Sirois says her research suggests that “decreasing a tendency to chronically procrastinate by one point [on a five-point procrastination scale] would also potentially mean that your risk for having poor heart health would reduce by 63%”.
‘Just get started’
On a positive note, if procrastination is an emotional regulation issue, this offers important clues for how to address it most effectively. An approach based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’, an off-shoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seems especially apt. ACT teaches the benefits of ‘psychological flexibility’ – that is, being able to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, staying in the present moment in spite of them, and prioritizing choices and actions that help you get closer to what you most value in life.
Relevant here is cutting edge research that’s shown students who procrastinate more tend to score higher on psychological inflexibility. That is, they’re dominated by their psychological reactions, like frustration and worry, at the expense of their life values; high scorers agree with statements like ‘I’m afraid of my feelings’ and ‘My painful experiences and memories make it difficult for me to live a life that I would value’. Those who procrastinate more also score lower on ‘committed action’, which describes how much a person persists with actions and behaviors in pursuit of their goals. Low scorers tend to agree with statements like ‘If I feel distressed or discouraged, I let my commitments slide’.
The next time you’re tempted to procrastinate, “make your focus as simple as ‘What’s the next action – a simple next step – I would take on this task if I were to get started on it now?’”. Doing this, Pychyl says, takes your mind off your feelings and onto easily achievable action. “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.”
Dr Christian Jarrettis a senior editor at Aeon magazine. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2021.