As I type the beginnings of this article, there’s a neglected pile of dishes leering at me from my kitchen and a refrigerator whose bowels have been emptied long ago with no promise of being replenished in the foreseeable future. I’ve busied myself with my school-work and my extracurricular obligations and almost anything else to avoid having to confront it.
Now the angry face in my wares may be the product of an overactive imagination, but the pattern here speaks to a very real problem for many students like myself. Namely, procrastination. That willingness to delay the important despite a rational understanding of its costs in the long run.
A cursory glance of the search results for “how to stop procrastinating” reveals illuminating answers like “Get Organized” or “Set Goals and Deadlines.”
There’s nothing flawed with this advice other than the fact that it construes the complicated and emotionally driven process of procrastination as something that can be remediated solely with vague directions on organizational and time management skills. Even a lowly part-time procrastinator like myself could discern that this popular wisdom was insufficient in explaining the motivations behind a chronic pattern of procrastination.
It can be tempting to believe that procrastination is something that happens to you as a result of an insupportable external pressure. However, interpretation not only is a spit in the face of human agency, but runs contrary to the growing belief that the answer lies in our ability to regulate our moods.
In fact, research has attested that there are often deeper and individual factors at work producing this behaviour, this dreaded eater of days, which may be tied to a self-defeating outlook on life and a low-opinion of oneself.
Why do we procrastinate? An emotional explanation:
To address the question of how we can stop procrastinating, it helps to understand why. There are a number of factors at work behind the behaviour but some of the most pertinent ones that I encountered in my investigation of the topic were a need for protection, perfectionism, and an inability to resist the power of “the now.”
Firstly, research has shown a relationship between persons who procrastinate a lot and a tendency to engage in self-handicapping behaviours. These are actions in which the individual intentionally undermines their own ability to perform optimally under trying circumstances to protect their sense of self-competence. Procrastination may even be a particular species of self-handicapping actions taken to preserve the individual from a negative judgement emerging from failure in your self-relevant goals. In essence, it is a more digestible belief that you failed because you put something off, and thus lacked effort rather than ability. Accordingly, some people may procrastinate to deliberately create a reality where the ghastly shadow of failure that is undeniably their fault never has a light shone upon it.
Some studies have examined the role of perfectionism and its potential relationship to procrastination. Of note to the student context, it examined how perfectionism affected a group of participants’ tendencies to procrastinate on homework within the context of a brief-self help intervention. Those that displayed strongly negative aspects of perfectionism such as feeling overwhelming dread at the idea of failure and restriction of their activities to control success, set and completed fewer of the planned activities designed to improve their mood.
Yet more research has tied procrastination to an inability to regulate one’s short-term mood so as to maximise future gain. That is to say, the seductiveness of indulging in a particular feeling in the moment holds too much sway in our decision making, so much so that we are willing to off-load our burdens to our future selves to savour the present. This is important to note in contrast to the previous findings that frame procrastination as a type of escape.
Some evidence asserts that for some people who procrastinate regularly, it may be just a battle with an increased salience of positive experiences in their mind versus neutral or negative ones.
In other words, you know what you want to do, and it's not to wash those darn wares.
Now that we have a passable understanding of procrastination and its complexity, how does one go about fixing it?
What’s love got to do with it? Self-compassion and empathy for our future selves:
There is a consistent pattern shown through the different studies presented and their explanations for the motivation behind the sluggishness people demonstrate towards the things they know they should do. That tendency I would argue is a lack of demonstrated regard for themselves and a strong foundation of belief in their own capacity. The prospect of inadequacy often inspires so much anxiety in many as they have learnt to associate their self worth as people as being contingent on their performance in a certain sphere. When presented with a threat to ascribed value, i.e., being distracted by wares when you should be studying so that you can do well in school, which is crucial to your continued self-respect, it becomes of principal importance to eliminate it.
Similarly, if you feel that watching that show, or talking to that person, or cleaning your room a million times is so attractive that it grabs your attention instead of starting that important task, it might be worth evaluating why that task itself is so unappealing to you.
What am I bringing into this situation, in the realm of unconsciously or conscious beliefs about myself and the world, that makes this so unbearable?
This is not my private suspicion. A growing area of investigation in research with experts suggesting that people who are kind and understanding to themselves in instances of pain and failure may engage in less procrastination and use healthy emotion regulation strategies to regulate their moods. In particular there is some tentative evidence implying that self-compassion within stressful situations can directly influence the tendency to procrastinate.
The underlying logic present here is consistent with the argument attested to by other studies that a disposition toward procrastination may be tied to a characteristic pattern of negative self-talk that produces stress and rumination on the stressor without any constructive action.
In the effort to preserve or re-establish a positive mood, people may strive to devote time to other things they like versus an aversive situation. These procrastinatory thoughts sound something like “I’ll get to it once I stop feeling X” or “I need to deal with X before I can…”
It’s all well and good to take time and space to allow a particular feeling to subside before you can focus, but another battle entirely when the hours slip between the cracks in your awareness and suddenly it's one o’clock in the morning.
Since that’s no good, here is a game plan for managing procrastination revolving around the pillars of self-compassion.
The three tenets of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. The first of these stands in contrast to self-judgement, where instead of attacking yourself for being distracted, you accept that it is merely the truth about your situation at the moment and not something worth demonizing yourself about. Secondly, the notion of common humanity is based on the perspective that it helps to see your struggle to focus as something that is universally experienced and not the consequences of your personal inadequacies. All humans at sometime struggle to make the proper strivings towards their goals.
Too often the internal critic in our mind can bellow at us so loudly about our own short-comings that the only thing we can hope to do in order to reduce the volume is turn our attention elsewhere, which provides fertile ground for strong habits of procrastination in the face of discomfort to grow.
However, whether you are running from touching wet food in the sink, making that important call or email, or doing that assignment in that subject you hate, it helps to remind yourself you aren’t alone and you aren’t a terrible person for feeling the need to flee.
Finally, mindfulness refers to the cultivation of a non-judgemental state of awareness of all our thoughts and perceptions. One of the dangerous elements of procrastination is that it frequently manifests as a lack of intentional and measured consideration of our thoughts and feelings in the current moment. If there is something you know you could and should be doing, but you feel an internal resistance towards doing it, you can only take note of that feeling if you slow down to observe it.
Perhaps that feeling is something to act on in the future, perhaps not. As it stands, “the now” is calling you to be present.
In this way, taking a few moments to centre your mind on your breathing and turn inward when you’re feeling the urge to procrastinate may be a worthwhile way of subverting the desire in the long-term.
The semester is drawing to a close and now that things are finally beginning to slow down, the parts of our minds that have held back a tide of exhaustion may be beginning to grow weary. Given the insanity that seems to have been prevailing in the world for the last two years and finals looming, procrastination may seem a sane means of regaining some control.