Why You Procrastinate

(It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)

Let’s face it; most people are guilty of focusing on the wrong tasks from time to time. However, if you’re someone that frequently chooses to organize their bookcase or manage their iTunes account rather than complete important assignments, finding the root of your procrastination is an essential step on the road to self-improvement.

The natural inkling is to associate procrastination with being lazy. In reality, though, there’s a difference between spending hours on the PlayStation and putting productive obstacles like tidying the home between yourself and the jobs that truly matter. Completing the ‘wrong’ jobs can’t be considered lazy, but it can still be very damaging, which is why understanding the reasons behind your procrastination is crucial.

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Procrastination isn’t laziness; it’s self-harm

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin verb procrastinate, which means to put off until tomorrow, as well as the Greek word akrasia, which means doing something against logic. Even from an etymological perspective, then, procrastination isn’t a sign of laziness but rather a psychological form of self-harm.

This feeling is echoed by Dr. Piers Steel, author of ‘Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done’ and professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary.

Procrastination can be defined as an irrational behavior, but is also one that is underpinned by a sense of self-awareness. People know that they are avoiding important tasks during the procrastination process and are fully aware that it is the wrong thing to do. However, they feel powerless and unable to stop the sensation.

Psychology experts state that the illogical and irrational aspects of continuing with a decision that will clearly bring negative consequences shows that chronic procrastination stems from negative feelings towards the task at hand – and, crucially, the inability to overcome and navigate those moods.

It is subsequently possible to link procrastination with bad moods and negativity towards the task. Ultimately, though, there are many other contributing factors.

Procrastination is a problem attributed to emotions

Dr. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University, states that “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem”. That’s because procrastination is used as a coping mechanism when confronted by testing emotions such as anxiety, boredom, frustration, insecurity or self-doubt.

When you procrastinate, you are ultimately focusing on the immediate goal of beating the bad emotional feelings rather than thinking about the longer-term results of those actions. A study by Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois, conducted in 2013, surmised that procrastination is the manifestation of treating “the immediate urgency of managing negative moods” rather than getting on with the task.

The root of those bad moods towards any given task can usually be attributed to one of two causes. Firstly, it’s possible that there is something unpleasant about the assignment – such as needing to handle dirty materials or complete a long and tedious work task. Alternatively, though, procrastination may be borne from personal feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. For example, you may be putting off an essay or report because you’re consciously worried about your perceived lack of talent or ability.

In either case, procrastination only serves to delay the inevitable. The harsh reality is that those negative moods will still exist when you eventually come to complete the tasks. If anything, the stress and anxiety will be even worse, especially if you’re working to a deadline. Furthermore, the Dr. Sirois studies (among others) elude to “procrastinatory cognitions”, which are the thoughts of self-doubt that are experienced during procrastination, as cranking up the stress even before you take on the task.

Unfortunately, the immediate nature of the short-term relief experienced during procrastination makes it very difficult to break the cycle of procrastination. This momentary boost tricks the brain into thinking it has been rewarded for taking this route, which will subconsciously encourage you to repeat the behavioral pattern. This is one of the main reasons that procrastination becomes a chronic problem that can potentially last a lifetime.

Procrastination isn’t only problematic for productivity and time management. It can bring a host of negative results to a person’s physical and mental health due to stress and psychological distress. This can also bring anxiety, depression, chronic physical conditions, cardiovascular problems, and an ongoing low level of life satisfaction. Given the difficulties associated to breaking the procrastination cycle, those damaging outcomes may continue to cause serious problems for a very long time, especially if a cure for procrastination isn’t found.

The behavioral cycle that’s aimed to make us feel good, but only makes us feel worse

We procrastinate because it helps us temporarily avoid the negative moods connected to the tasks we’re trying to ignore. The irony of it all, however, is that you’ll end up feeling even worse than you did before. Likewise, the experiences caused by one episode of procrastination can exacerbate the fears of the task in question should you ever need to repeat it. So, if you keep putting off this year’s tax returns, the bad moods will feel even worse next year.

The idea of favoring the immediate needs is a behavioral pattern known as ‘present bias’ that is a result of our evolution. From the dawn of mankind to the modern era, we’ve naturally been hard-wired to follow this present bias. Psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield explains that humans “needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now” due to our basic survival instincts. While we no longer ace the dangers of our ancestors, the mind is programmed to prioritize the immediate future.

Dr Hershfield additionally suggests that procrastination feels neurological like passing the problems and negative feelings onto someone else because we don’t tend to consider our future beings as being ourselves. Instead, we disassociate ourselves from the future version, mentally tricking ourselves into thinking it is an entirely new person.

Stress and anxiety also trick the brain’s natural threat detectors – known as the amygdala – to views the task as a genuine threat to our well-being. This makes it very difficult to make logical choices during those stressful moments – even when you’re fully aware that the decision is a bad one in the long run, avoiding procrastination is virtually impossible.

Essentially, then, we can’t just tell ourselves to stop procrastinating and get on with the work. Instead, it’s imperative that you treat the root of those behavioral habits.

Finding the root of procrastination

Procrastination is borne from emotions rather than productivity, which is why you cannot solve procrastination with a time management App or attempts to embrace greater levels of self-control. Nonetheless, appreciating the fact that you’ll need to treat your emotions is merely the first step en route. 

Dr. Judson Brewer of Brown University’s Mindfulness Center believes that the perceived psychological rewards are at the heart of everything, stating that if “we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do”. This is why it’s very difficult to break the procrastination cycle until we find a bigger, better odder (otherwise known as B.B.O).

Procrastination can become almost addictive if you do not find a better reward than avoidance. However, finding a solution that provides a greater short-term reward than procrastination while also satisfying the need for longer term satisfaction will break the cycle. The list of substitutes is endless, which is why each of us needs to find the individual solutions best suited to our needs.

Following an intensive study in 2010, researches found that self-forgiveness is a crucial factor as those that do this will “move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts” while those that dwell on the issue will be far more likely to fall into the habit of procrastination again.

Similarly, self-compassion and the ability to utilize self-awareness and understanding to learn and grow from failures is crucial. In one of several studies, Dt. Sirois found that people who are guilty of procrastination often suffer from low self-compassion levels, which also leads to heightened stress levels. The study suggested that self-compassion serves as “a buffer” to protect us from the negative moods associated to the tasks we keep putting off. Meanwhile, separate research suggests that self-compassion aids motivation and personal growth.

Psychological distress is one of the chief contributing factors behind our procrastination, but self-compassion reduces this type of stress. It also boosts self-worth feelings and encourages feelings of optimism along with other positives that can drive you on. As such, this type of internal acceptance (rather than continued regret and negativity) can be hugely significant in the bid to overcome those problems. 

When the task you’re putting off is one surrounded by negative aspects, try focusing on one of the positives. Even if there’s just one thing you enjoy about the task, it can keep you motivated. For example, doing a deep clean of the bathroom might seem like a nightmare come true but at least you’ll be burning some calories. If there’s nothing to keep you motivated regarding the task itself, turning the attention to positive outcomes can be equally useful.

Additional steps to managing the negative feelings that are currently triggering procrastination habits

There are several additional paths that can lead to broken patterns of procrastination. Focusing on the next action is a particularly good option. Rather than simply breaking the task into several manageable stages, you can focus on the immediate action. According to Dr. Pychyl , this provides a “layer of self-deception”. It is a step that helps you forget about the negative moods attributed to future steps within the assignment while also encourage you to respect the brain’s natural desire to focus on a “present bias”.

One way to follow this pattern is to think about the next step of the task as a possibility. Ask yourself what you would do next were you to complete the task as if you have an option. In most cases, simply organizing your thoughts in this way will encourage you to take action. Dr. Pychcyl explains that this is a case of motivation following action.

Responding to your body’s feelings during moments where you are tempted to put an activity off can be useful too. Realizing which feelings are tempting you into procrastination and how your body reacts to them when you think about procrastination is key. Try to remember the feelings that occur after you ignore the tasks you’re supposed to complete too, and you should see noticeable changes. 

Using those emotional memories and experiences can be very useful indeed, particularly when finding ways to make temptation inconvenient. You can take this one step further by adding inconvenience to the activities that you often turn to during moments of procrastination. If you find that social media is a culprit, delete the Apps so that you actively need to visit the site and add your login credentials each time. This gives you time to actively think about whether this is the right solution at this time. Getting off of the procrastination cycle is far easier than trying to break it once it has started.

In addition to making you consider the actions, it removes the immediate reward of procrastination, which will reduce the temptation. Conversely, you should try to make the positive tasks you wish to follow seem more convenient. This could manifest in something as simple as getting ingredients out of the freezer before you go to work so that you’ll almost feel forced into cooking the healthy meal. Or it could mean setting your internet home page to your company log sheets so that you don’t even need to navigate to this facility.

Everyone is capable of falling into the pitfalls of procrastination. By identifying those issues and responding in the right manner, finally breaking free of those habits becomes possible.

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