Not only are you feeling the stress of having to complete this project, you’re also engaged in a pretty healthy dose of negative self-talk: Why am I not more disciplined? I don’t know how to manage my time. I’m not organized. My colleagues would not have waited until the last minute to do this.
We’ve all put ourselves in this position before — but why do we do it? Is it because we have an innate character flaw or because we need to be more disciplined? Or is there something else behind this that causes us to constantly avoid certain projects or tasks in our workday?
And, most importantly, what can we do about it?
THE SCIENCE: WHAT’S REALLY BEHIND THE AVOIDANCE?
Let’s start with the science. At its core, procrastination is not about an inability to manage our time, a character flaw or our lack of discipline. It’s about emotion management.
We engage in procrastination when we are unable to manage negative moods we experience in connection with a task. We use procrastination to cope with things like anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt and a range of other emotions that we experience in connection with the workday situations we encounter.
“There is always an emotion behind our actions or, in the case of procrastination, our inaction,” says Kendra Brodin, MSW, JD, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EsquireWell, an executive coaching and consulting firm focused on the legal industry. “We may be afraid of making mistakes or not completing a task to a certain standard. We may be nervous about having a hard conversation because we know it might be emotionally challenging for us or someone else.”
At the heart of procrastination is what scientists call “present bias.” In a 2013 study, Timothy Pychyl, PhD, and Fuschia Sirois, PhD, found that present bias can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.” In other words, procrastination is about being more focused on “the immediate urgency of managing negative moods” than taking on the task, says Sirois.
“We use procrastination to cope with things like anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt and a range of other emotions that we experience in connection with the workday situations we encounter.”
Here’s an example: Imagine you’ve been tasked with writing an important proposal. Your boss has indicated that a lot is riding on this project. Sitting at your desk, you begin to think: Do I know how to do this? What if I let my boss down? I’ve never written a proposal like this before. What will the repercussions be if I’m not able to deliver?
At the moment you start to experience these emotions, procrastinating offers you a release valve. It provides you with a way to access the relief of not having to deal with the emotions that stem from the project or a future outcome you are anticipating — things like self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity.
By procrastinating, you avoid the sting of not feeling smart enough, wondering whether you’re actually going to do it right, or reliving the reaction your boss had the last time you did not meet her expectations.
Procrastination also provides you with a very powerful reward — the feeling of ease and calm that comes with not having to confront your emotions.
Even if you know it’s not in your best interest to delay getting started, your desire to avoid these kinds of emotions trumps any negative consequences that you know might result from kicking the can down the road. The potency of the reward, in the present moment, is just too powerful.
In short, procrastination is not about an innate character flaw, a lack of discipline or an inability to manage your time. Our tendency to engage in avoidance is, rather, deeply rooted in our emotions.
STRATEGIES: WHAT CAN WE DO TO CHANGE OUR BEHAVIORS?
If our inability to manage our emotions is at the heart of our avoidance, then learning how to manage our emotions in a new way is the key to overcoming our tendency to procrastinate.
Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, says that in order to rewire ourselves, we have to give our brains what he calls the BBO — the Bigger Better Offer.
“Procrastination also provides you with a very powerful reward — the feeling of ease and calm that comes with not having to confront your emotions.”
Specifically, we have to provide our brains with a reward that is bigger and better than the reward we get from engaging in avoidance (i.e., “I don’t have to deal with this now!”). The reward must also be one that isn’t detrimental to a future situation in the way that procrastination can be.
Here are three concepts you might consider if you’re looking to work on your tendency to procrastinate.
CONCEPT #1: PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION AND LETTING GO
Self-compassion involves learning how to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding despite our perceived shortcomings. Practicing self-compassion and letting go helps get to the heart of the emotional change you want to experience.
Let’s go back to our original example. Imagine you’ve just received a new project — something you’ve never worked on before. Your boss is really counting on you to get it right.
If you feel yourself procrastinating (“All I want to do is run away!”), engage in this four-step process:
1. Acknowledge the emotion. Slow down and take some deep breaths. Acknowledge that you are in a moment where you’ve identified yourself procrastinating. Do not beat up on yourself (“Here I go again!”). Instead, keep it light (“Nice try — I caught you doing it again but it’s OK.”).
“My clients have the best luck beating procrastination when they take a hard, honest look at why they are procrastinating in the first place and acknowledging that emotion,” says Brodin. “Trying to ignore a task doesn't make it go away — it just causes angst and anxiety while it is delayed.”
2. Practice letting go of that emotion gently. Give yourself some grace for trying to procrastinate. Remind yourself that you understand why your mind wants to procrastinate — it’s just trying to protect you.
3. Identify a positive outcome that will come from engaging in the task. Try to reframe the way you’re thinking about this situation. Also remember that just because the negative emotion is the one that’s most present doesn’t mean it’s the only one behind this experience.
We can have a whole range of emotions associated with a particular task that can actually be helpful for us — for example, excitement around taking on something new, the feeling of proving to yourself you can do it, or the satisfaction you’ll feel when you receive praise for a job well done.
4. Envision a future positive outcome. Specifically envision completing the task on time, receiving positive feedback, or a scenario in which the project not only turns out OK but better than you think.
CONCEPT #2: MAKE THE THINGS THAT ASSIST IN YOUR PROCRASTINATION HARDER TO ACCESS
Another approach is to change your environment or day-to-day circumstances. In other words, make the things that assist you in procrastinating harder to access.
This includes things like deleting distracting apps from your phone, creating a distraction-free work environment by turning off email notifications or other media, or keeping food and drink out of your immediate reach.
By adding a layer or several layers between you and your distractions, you make the reward that comes from procrastination harder to experience and therefore less tempting.
CONCEPT #3: USE RESOURCES THAT ALLOW YOU TO BETTER IDENTIFY AND PROCESS YOUR EMOTIONS
Practices like meditation, therapy or other tools that help us get in touch with and identify our emotions — and process them in a healthy way — also help us change our experience, including the emotional pull that’s the root cause of our procrastination.
Take advantage of wellness programs, mindfulness practices or other resources offered by your employer or that you can access on your own time. While they might not be styled as a resource that helps you procrastinate less, each of these options is a healthy contributor to tackling the issue.
One final note: Because procrastination is deeply rooted in our emotions, addressing and dealing with procrastination can stir up powerful feelings. If you do decide that you want to take a deep dive into these emotions, consider engaging the help of a qualified professional who can assist you in navigating these issues.