The Psychology of Procrastination

Procrastination. A condition of the mind that somehow renders you unable to start that paper, or finish that book. Are you stressed that you haven’t started? Or have you not started because you’re stressed? This issue isn’t unheard of for anyone, but yet it is one of those issues that we lament but do little else about. 

But why do we need to take this matter in stride? While it’s easy to dismiss procrastination as a lack of willpower, delving into its intricacies reveals an interplay of emotions, habits and cognitive processes. 

So read on, learn more about your own psyche, and how to beat it at its own game.

Behind the Mind’s Curtain

If you must pick only one thing from this article, let it be this: procrastination is not about productivity, but emotions.  Dr Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology, notes in the New York Times, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem”. 

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.”

Accordingly, focusing on how to get more work done and pushing past your roadblocks (I’m looking at you, Pomodoro timers.) does not really address the root cause of procrastination. We only engage in this irrational, and never-ending cycle of what’s essentially self-defeating, because of the incapability to manage our emotions regarding a task. 

People procrastinate because of the idea that delaying that action will help them feel better in the short term, despite knowing that their stress levels in the future will be higher because of it. Psychologist Hal Hershfield notes that in the brain, the future self looks like another person, resulting in a version of the self that you don’t feel all that invested in.

Since that’s the case, you will live much more for today than tomorrow. 

Fear and Anxiety

At its heart, procrastination stems from a fear of failure or perfectionism. The task we’re finding ways around is making us feel bad and impacting us negatively in some way— and to make ourselves feel better we’d do just about anything else.

If you feel like you’re not good enough at something, you may try to put it off until the day you feel competent. But more often than not, waiting around for inspiration to strike is less effective than getting started and building up as you go. 

The more anxiety is induced about a task, the more likely we’ll put it off till later to induce that temporary stress relief.  It’s not that you don’t know about your deadlines, or that you have no other time for rearranging your bookshelf alphabetically. You’re just doing that to avoid the discomfort of getting those tasks done.

But, to no one’s surprise, procrastination is a terrible way to regulate emotions. While procrastinating, you’ll feel guilty for avoiding your tasks and you’ll just end up feeling more stressed and frustrated. Having chronic procrastination will compound these effects, resulting in an array of mental and physical consequences.

Finding Momentum

If you were to climb Mount Everest, it wouldn’t be very wise to look at the peak and drop your plans. Always look at the next step, the next checkpoint, and you’ll be at the summit in due time. 

Likewise, if you have a problem with procrastination:

  1. Just get started.
    Stop saying that you’re planning or waiting for the stars to align. Just start working for a brief period of time, and the next steps will flow naturally. 
  2. Break it down.
    If it feels like too much, take this as a way to coax your brain into getting things done. Make a step-by-step framework that lets you clearly see what’s been done so far and what’s yet to be completed, to replace the stress with satisfaction as you tick the boxes. 
  3. Clear the clutter.
    Sometimes getting overwhelmed or distracted can be managed by utilising organisational strategies. List, prioritize and schedule your tasks to have a clear timeframe that won’t confuse you. Close your browser tabs and put away your phone. Turn off notifications too, glancing at the pop-ups doesn’t count. 

As mentioned before, the most important takeaway is that procrastination doesn’t equate to you being lazy, it’s a response caused by poorly managed negative emotions. Try to introduce positive thoughts, maybe in the form of rewards or finding the light at the end of the tunnel you’re avoiding. 

Procrastination, if left unregulated, may have impacts in your personal and professional lives. So, if you are affected, don’t be critical of yourself. Instead, identify the underlying causes and issues and work on them.





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