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There are two trains of thought – One leads to procrastination and one leads to motivation. And somewhere in between, there is a junction called anxiety.
Let’s first look at the procrastination train of thought (at least that’s going somewhere, amirite?). People often think procrastination is about time management, laziness, or a weak will but that is not the best way to understand procrastination.
According to research, poor emotional regulation and a failure of self-regulation cause people to procrastinate. We procrastinate because some tasks put us in a lousy mood and we want to repair that mood to feel better.
Ok, time is not entirely irrelevant when it comes to procrastination. After all, there are deadlines. But, it really is more about emotion/mood repair mechanisms in the context of time – specifically, the near future. Roy Baumeister, an influential psychologist, says that procrastination is a “self-defeating behavior pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs.”
It’s not intuitive at first but to overcome procrastination, we need to address emotions and thoughts about the outcome of completing certain tasks.People procrastinate or avoid aversive tasks to improve their short-term mood at the cost of long-term goals. Click To Tweet
Let’s take a
small moderately detailed detour. What does science really say about procrastination?
For all practical purposes, we will define procrastination as the intentional and voluntary delay of an intended activity even if the delay creates negative consequences. And, we will label the ‘stuff’ done while procrastinating as aversion activities.
Disclaimer: Procrastination can be a symptom in many psychological & neurological disorders. This post doesn’t look at the root cause of those disorders. For that, please consult a therapist.
Why do people procrastinate?
In a 2016 paper published using the randomized control trial framework, researchers reported that the ability to deal with aversive emotions and modifying them reduced procrastination. The researchers extended their experiments to see if training people on emotional regulation reduced procrastination. Guess what?? It did!
But what exactly is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation describes a person’s ability to effectively manage, control, and deal with emotions, emotional experiences, and emotional thoughts. There are multiple mechanisms people use in their daily life to regulate emotions: Taking breaks, sleeping, talking with friends, binge-watching, smoking, self-harm, picking fights, sarcasm, talking with others, etc. Some emotion regulation strategies are healthy (like taking breaks) and some are unhealthy (like picking fights). Here is a detailed how-to guide on using evidence-based emotional regulation techniques.
For the sake of generalization, you can extend this concept to include a broad range of cognitive strategies such as modifying, adapting, utilizing, controlling, and resolving emotions. We can broadly call this emotional self-regulation.
Related: You might find this mental technique to reduce social anxiety and nervousness useful. It uses language to regulate emotions.
A paper based on experience sampling of undergraduate students (analyzing thoughts, emotions, behaviors, etc. with qualitative data) revealed that students procrastinate stressful and unpleasant tasks. When procrastinating, they engage in more pleasant behaviors. One important thing to note here is that any task can be considered stressful and unpleasant based on a few personal factors.
Basic tasks can be stressful and unpleasant when a person is depressed or suffers from anxiety disorders. Low self-worth, low self-esteem, low confidence can mediate this and make virtually anything unpleasant. In fact, there are self-sabotaging behaviors which manifest as procrastination. For example, a person demonstrating low self-worth and a sense of deserving unpleasant feelings could delay work and sabotage it to prove that feeling correct. Research on aspects of mental health such as depression, anxiety, and finer aspects like poor confidence in abilities, worrying, negative thinking, perfectionism, ADHD, etc. predict procrastination like behaviors. Some part of your procrastination may be due to mental health problems. Please seek professional help if you feel like you are suffering from mental health issues.
Mildly demanding tasks can become stressful if a person overthinks. One could overthink as a result of cognitive biases, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, anxiety, etc. and overcoming thinking errors might help in having a clearer mental picture.
Research shows that people, when upset, tend to act on existing impulses to make themselves feel better. However, when people believe that their bad mood is unchangeable, they do not engage in frivolous procrastination or act on other impulses to engage in other activities (which lead to procrastination, at times). This may happen because believing that one’s mood is unchangeable has a hidden assumption: Nothing can be done to make it better. So why do it?
Negative repetitive thoughts which are related to procrastination are often present in this complex cluster of perceived anxiety. They even have a special name – procrastinatory cognitions. These are direct destructive thoughts about procrastination and metacognitions such as worrying about procrastination itself. Researchers have reported that procrastinatory cognitions are not compatible with healthy emotional self-regulation and mediate the link between procrastination and the negative affect cluster: anxiety, stress & negative emotions.
Meta-cognition (thoughts about thoughts) related to procrastination, depression, and cognitive attentional syndrome (negative thought patterns, worrying, rumination, coping tricks which backfire) independently predict unintentional procrastination.Procrastination is not a time management problem. It is an emotion regulation problem – we delay activities which might make us feel not-so-good. Click To Tweet
The process of procrastination
There is a neat process which describes procrastination (and no, it’s not the oversold habit loop). It is based on what researchers call the CAPS construct. CAPS stands for Cognitive-Affective Personality System. Here is the model; it’s pretty self-explanatory.
The CAPS construct has 5 key factors which are involved in procrastination
- Encodings (cognitive representations of information)
- Competency & Self-regulation planning
- Goals & Values
- Expectancies & Beliefs
- Affect (emotions, mood)
This process is quite holistic because it looks at a person’s traits, attitude, skill, personality, values, self-knowledge, environment, rewards, time pressure, etc.
In short, we often procrastinate because of perceived anxiety, stress, and poor emotional regulation about the completion of a task. If you are procrastinating reading study material, it’s probably related to some perceived anxiety based on the outcome of studying. Perhaps, if you start studying, you’ll realize you don’t know anything. Or maybe you’ll feel that you are not smart enough to even begin addressing the study material.
Perceived anxieties make us feel ‘not so good.’
The feeling that you get about the outcome of doing a task is the core cause of procrastination. It could be a belief about yourself, it could be based on previous experiences, or it could be an amplified version of something small. You’d know best.
After the perceived anxiety/negative thought kills our buzz, we end up doing an aversion activity like going out with friends or watching YouTube or Netflix. The aversion activity is a mechanism to avoid or delay the anxiety and repair the short-term negative mood. Think about it. Most of us end up doing something more pleasurable because the procrastinated task spoiled our mood in the first place. Btw, even boredom can be a powerful negative emotion.
This, of course, is a very simplistic picture. Motivation complicates things.
The opposing force of motivation
Let’s now look at the motivation train of thought. The fact that there are consequences for procrastinating is a source of anxiety and stress in itself. This could motivate you to not procrastinate in the first place. But that doesn’t always happen. The motivation could stay in the background or it could even push you toward your goal. However, the anxiety remains until it is dealt with.
Once the anxiety builds up, it hits you in many forms: suddenly-one-night-I-got-the-mental-strength-to-get-up-and-do-it is one form in which it hits you.
But here is the thing, the brain CAN handle and maintain 2 conflicting thoughts and mental sets at the same. It’s called cognitive dissonance and research shows that the dissonance has broad applications for guiding behavior and gaining psychological comfort. Cognitive dissonance leads to psychological discomfort and that might amplify the double whammy… which… I will talk about in a few seconds.
Cognitive dissonance isn’t a sob story. It can facilitate effective behaviors and actions. Just to highlight the complex nature of motivation… The discomfort arising from dissonance might drive you to take some action because in most cases, the conflict needs to be resolved for you to feel better. While it might not be that obvious (I hope many disagree), feeling better is something humans like.
Remember I said that there is a junction called anxiety? If you are at that junction, you’ll receive a double whammy attack from anxiety – one from your motivation, and one from your procrastination.
At this junction, you can experience anxiety from both trains of thought and it bleeds into your mental space. This could get a lot worse because anxiety is notorious as a bed-time feeder. To make matters even worse, if you have a habit of ruminating stressful thoughts about work, productivity, ambitions, etc. before bedtime, it could worsen your sleep. Nighttime negative repetitive thinking is a huge problem in itself.
An idle mind before sleeping is a hotspot for this anxiety junction to get overwhelming. It kills your sleep, makes you tired, and gives you zero clarity on how to continue the journey toward successful procrastination or successful avoidance of procrastination.
Wait… did I say ‘toward successful procrastination’?
Yes, because, we don’t often just procrastinate. The story would be simple if we just delayed tasks; the anxiety would be relatively less intense. We procrastinate and are conflicted by the polar opposite drive to complete the procrastinated task – via intrinsic motivation, rewards, validation, acknowledgment, happiness, satisfaction, pride, honor, and glory. Chronic procrastinators know this all too well.Procrastination + Motivation = Conflict + Action Click To Tweet
So what do these insights tell us about overcoming or, at least, reducing procrastination? Can we really do anything about it?
Fortunately, there is good news. The research is vast and consistent enough to give us actionable tips to overcome procrastination. Here are some solutions based on the recommendations proposed by researchers. I’ve repackaged some insights for practical use.
10 Scientific solutions for overcoming procrastination
1. Address the perceived anxiety about the completion of a task. You know it’s there but it might not be in awareness. So you might have to dig and address your feelings first. Journaling has shown promise in helping people understand why they procrastinate and facilitate a change in behavior. In the meanwhile, you can use these techniques to manage negative thoughts. Combine this anxiety-exploration with a breakdown of tasks. If going to the gym is something which causes anxiety, begin by assessing that anxiety for the smallest steps you need to take – wearing gym shoes, carrying a sweat-napkin, etc. Take one tiny step at a time because the tinier the step feels, the smaller the emotions around it become.
2. It might help if you can bring the avoided/procrastinated task closer to you and distance the aversion activities you are habituated with. You can do this by assigning more value/meaning to the avoided task and trivialize the aversion activity. If that’s not enough, modify your environment to have easier access to completing your tasks. For example, if you procrastinate paying bills in spite of having money, make sure you are logged into paying portals and the process of paying is easy. Behaviors like not remembering a password or account details are unnecessary hindrances. The construal level theory of psychological distance predicts (and research verifies) that thinking about a task in more concrete terms and bringing it closer to yourself in time (now vs. future) can decrease the chances of procrastination. Abstract & vague goals/rewards won’t always work, make them real and tangible. That’ll allow your brain to accept the goals and rewards more readily.
3. Before sleeping, relaxing (via stretching, yoga, breathing exercise, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.) can help your brain reboot. After rebooting, you can plan and strategize how you’ll go about the task the next morning. Once you have assured yourself that the anxiety was not needed and you gain the confidence in beginning the task (however, challenging), procrastination will stop destroying your sleep. Readying yourself to sleep properly is a separate but related activity you’ll need to employ. This must go hand in hand with addressing the perceived anxiety and gaining emotional clarity. This might help you to sleep better.
4. If possible, walk yourself through the task and ready your mind. You can make a To-Do List, a roadmap, a Not-To-Do list, etc. There are many other factors like your environment, skill, resources, functional fixedness, etc. which determine how productive you are. Here is an exhaustive guide on improving productivity. While you do these activities, let your emotions surface/re-surface. It’s important for you to be aware of your emotions. The goal of planning, here, is not to organize work. It is to address the emotions associated with the tasks. Mentally going over activities can allow some additional introspection which can give you some personal insight into your own mood and emotional thoughts.
5. A popular reason for procrastination is Test Anxiety – Anxiety about giving an exam, its outcome, the burden of preparation, etc. New research shows that a method called Inquiry-based stress reduction can help people reduce their test anxiety and overcome procrastination. You may have also heard of this from Byron Katies “The Work.” Inquiry-based stress reduction (IBSR) involves 3 steps:
- Analyze procrastinatory cognitions (I not able to study effectively) at 5 levels – emotions (stress, anxiety, bad mood), effects (procrastination, getting crabby), causes (bad experiences, family pressure), short-term benefits (improved mood, hanging out with friends, gaming, YouTube), and dysfunctions (bad grades, failing, losing a job).
- Explore and imagine a reality where the context is changed and the mind is not distorted by procrastinatory cognitions. This makes it easier for people to change their perspective and adopt new ways of thinking.
- Seek evidence to validate thoughts that are the exact opposite of your procrastinatory cognitions. For example, you can find evidence for how you’ve studied well in the past, how you’ve scored well before, proof that you have understood simple elements of your study material, short quizzes, etc.
6. Depending on the severity of your procrastination and anxiety, you might need to put in some additional effort to cultivate new habits. Here is a pro-productivity anti-procrastination habit routine you can use if you are a chronic procrastinator and want to cultivate new healthy habits.
7. Use the emotional self-regulation strategy recommended in Berking and Whitley’s book which verifiably decreases procrastination:
- Choose the task you procrastinate.
- Bring aversive and negative emotions & thoughts associated with the task into awareness.
- Instruct yourself to tolerate those negative emotions – boredom, fear of failure, fear of judgment, feelings of incompetence, etc.
- Address those emotions by regulating your emotions in a structured manner. Begin with allowing those emotions to exist. Do not suppress them. Then tell yourself that you are strong, tough, and resilient. Finally, ascribe more emotional meaning to the task and emotionally commit to that task.
8. Being mindful can do some damage control for regular procrastinators by improving their wellbeing and health over and above reducing their tendency to procrastinate. Mindfulness might help with emotional regulation or it might even reduce the impact of stress due to procrastination. Mindfulness, in its many forms, promotes self-regulation via cognitive, behavioral, and emotional pathways.
9. Forgive yourself for the times you’ve procrastinated a specific task in the past and suffered through guilt, stress, and anxiety. According to a paper which gives us this incredibly easy strategy, self-forgiveness reduces negative emotions about oneself, and that reduces the likelihood of procrastinating the same activity again. So if you procrastinate a medical appointment once, forgive yourself for delaying it. The second time might not occur. Self-forgiveness can also be expanded into self-compassion which helps with self-regulation by countering the depletion of mental resources to cope with stress.
10. Use the popular Pomodoro Technique to gain control over your tasks and relieve the pressure from some associated anxiety. The Pomodoro Technique is a structured time management technique which allows users to break tasks into 20-25 minute chunks. This changes the concept of time from ‘how much time is needed’ to ‘what I can accomplish in 20 minutes’. This cognitive change facilitates control and possibly, increases motivation. Although popular, not much research has gone into exploring the effectiveness of this technique on stopping procrastination. However, a preliminary report shows that there is some value in using it. Follow the next steps to implement the Pomodoro technique:
- Pick a timer (or an app), Set it to 20 or 25 minutes
- Spend 20-25 minutes on a task
- Once the timer rings, stop.
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 1)
- Return to another 20-25 minutes on a series of tasks
- Take a break of 5 minutes (cycle 2)
- After 4 cycles, take a longer break
Baby steps, right? Hope these insights help you reduce procrastination, procrastinatory cognitions, gain emotional clarity, and learn a ridiculously valuable life skill called emotion regulation!
Remember – You can overcome procrastination by regulating your emotions about your work.
P.S. There are many ways in which procrastination sustains itself as a habit. For example, feeling the success of completing a task, in spite of putting it off until the 11th hour, can be interpreted as a reward. You could get conditioned to this reward and feel nothing was lost to procrastination. Or, the satisfaction of completion is overwhelming and you like it. These feelings can have a strong biological component via classical and operant conditioning. The brain may associate the increasing tension of procrastination with success, if you are successful. That association underlies a habit or a rigid tendency.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Soon after researchers publish new insights, I update these articles with their findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.