Procrastinating with your Phone? Here’s why & how to stop it.

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Most of us procrastinate, and more often than not, we choose our phones over important pending work. Why do we do that? Why do we typically seek out our phones when we start procrastinating? What exactly pushes us to use the phone and what exactly pulls us deep into it?

This common problem has 2 layers. The first layer is procrastination and the second layer is the motivation to spend time on your phone. Fortunately, there is abundant research on how these 2 layers work; and because of that, there are solutions. This article assumes that a lot of work, studying, learning, skill development, and productive activities require regular phone use.

Graphical summary:

procrastinatory phone use explanation

Phones and Procrastination have a deep relationship

Research does show[1] that using the mobile phone while procrastinating is a common occurrence among students. Increased procrastination increases problematic phone use such as compulsive Instagram scrolling and addiction. Another line of studies[2] argues that using the phone for entertainment is an excellent way to wind down and recover depleted mental resources. People who frequently use social media and digital media say they use their phones because[3] they are delaying some other important work. In an intervention study for average Facebook users and social online gamers, reducing the frequency[4] of use improved life satisfaction and decreased procrastination.

There are 2 types of media use in the context of procrastination[5] recreational phone use & procrastinatory phone use. Recreational use is linked to improved well-being, replenishing mental and physical resources, relaxation, and increased overall energy. Procrastinatory use, on the other hand, is just another way to avoid doing the intended work. That often creates additional guilt. Both recreational and procrastinatory phone use provide stress relief, pleasure, instant gratification, and satisfaction. However, recreational use improves well-being and procrastinatory use irrationally delays important work further, creates guilt, and risks negative consequences from a failure to complete work.

Some people deliberately delay their work to improve their productivity – that’s active procrastination, and research shows it is associated with higher creativity and productivity. In fact, taking breaks to look at cute things improves our concentration and makes us more careful. For this post, we’ll only look into passive procrastination – delaying important pending work when you know you shouldn’t, often characterized by an inability to complete or begin intentionally delayed work.

From a procrastination point of view, phones are a distraction from the negative emotions of procrastination. From a self-control point of view, phones are an object[6] of our desire – an object we are emotionally drawn to for pleasure, satisfaction, and relief from displeasure. Procrastinatory phone use is usually the problematic aspect, not recreational use. In fact, frequent aimless phone use can be a symptom of procrastination.

Procrastination pushes us to recover and repair our mood – something our phones can do very well. AND phones pull us toward them due to our emotional attachment to them because of their ability to satisfy social needs, and offer entertainment. We’ll discuss this push & pull mechanism.

Procrastinating with your Phone? Procrastination Pushes us to mentally recover using the phone, and the phone Pulls us because of social deficits, rewarding experiences, and the need for recovery. Click To Tweet

Layer 1: Procrastination Pushes us to mentally recover using the phone

Procrastination is about emotional regulation, not discipline and time management, or even laziness. Sometimes, procrastination is a symptom of mental health issues; but let us simplify and stick to the idea that procrastination is about emotional regulation regardless of mental health issues.

Emotional self-regulation is how you manage and deal with a variety of emotions and behaviors. It’s a practical skill about how emotions are used, modified, and put into behavior. When some activities induce anxiety, worry, or a negative mood, we procrastinate to improve our short-term mood but fail to complete the pending work – a classic case of emotional dysregulation.

When people procrastinate, they avoid or delay a specific activity because they want to cope with negative feelings/thoughts about the nature and/or the outcome of that task. It could be that the work material is not personally relevant or simply not interesting enough. That creates negative feelings like doing something you don’t like which undermines your personal vision. The work may even disagree with your personal beliefs and attitudes, further demotivating you to work.

Procrastinating study-type tasks is often linked to a fear of failure and feeling dumb. Procrastinating work is often associated with a dislike toward work and lack of work satisfaction, or even negative expectations like poor evaluations. To avoid those feelings, people procrastinate and engage in an “aversion” activity. This aversion activity could be anything. But, it often gives instant gratification. In this case, the aversion activity is phone use.

Ultimately, you procrastinate to cope with hidden anxieties about a task and improve your short-term mood at the cost of long-term goals. Dealing with those anxieties and mood-killers is a good start.

How can you solve this phone procrastination issue? Well, one method is to learn emotional regulation techniques and de-fuse negative thoughts in general. The other one is to focus on phone-related issues – We’ll get to that in the next section. For detailed solutions on how to stop procrastinating and its psychological theory, look here. I highly recommend reading the last section of that article first.

To start with, use the technique shown below.

Baddley’s technique for tolerating negative emotions that cause procrastination

  1. First, you bring negative emotions into awareness, don’t suppress them
  2. Instruct yourself to tolerate the emotions
  3. Address the context of these emotions – does it involve low self-esteem, does it involve other people, does it involve a fear of failure, etc?
  4. Tell yourself you are resilient and strong and those emotions do not control you

Because we procrastinate due to negative thoughts associated with the work, we feel the need to recover from those. Our phone is an ideal[7] recovery strategy because of the entertainment and social needs it can satisfy. It’s also the most accessible and versatile option – games, social connections, dating apps, photos, social media, memes, DMs, etc. It doesn’t just replenish our resources to regain mental energy, it replenishes our cognitive resources too – the things we need to think and act. Students & professionals can get tired and use the phone to recover from a tiring day. This recovery is what enables people to think efficiently. Breaks and entertainment are necessary for mental up-keep. Phones offer a detachment from mentally demanding work and that detachment is necessary for recovery.

Layer 2: Phone usage Pulls us because of social deficits, rewarding experiences, and the need for recovery

This layer makes it more complicated. If your phone usage is an aversion activity, you’ll be motivated automatically. One part of the motivation is to recover from exhaustion and fatigue caused by other activities – typically work, studies, and disliked social gatherings. The other part is the additional motivation we have – social needs, FOMO, checking out things people share, comparing yourself with others to feel bad about it, etc. Not all social media behavior is healthy and not all is unhealthy. However, all types of activities can pull us to social media use – it may have something to do with affirming low self-esteem, needing to feel good about yourself by seeking validation, going on an ego trip, or even combating loneliness. Going online could be a way to assure ourselves of what we have or what we don’t have. Core beliefs like “I don’t have much to look forward to” need some coping mechanism. One such mechanism is to go online and affirm yourself of what you have. Like participating in some gaming community.

When we have a deficit in one area, we look to compensate for it in some other area. That's one reason why we use phones to compensate for unmet needs. Click To Tweet

Heavy phone usage is often associated with coping with social deficiencies like lack of intimacy, loneliness, social warmth, etc. To cope with those issues, your phone provides a safe “digital security blanket.” It provides enough passive & distant access to social elements like friends, personal lives, photos, memes, games (engagement), etc. which reduce feelings of insecurity and loneliness but also increase negative feelings that emerge from social comparison. Research shows[8] that actual and virtual social support is linked to internet addiction via depression. That means – Lacking social support promotes (or worsens) depression and that depression might explain why you are addicted to the phone.

If you have social deficiencies, phone usage gets a second reinforcer – second-degree procrastination. You see, if your social health and requirement for personal intimacy health is not adequately satisfied (in your opinion), your phone is an aversion activity for procrastination activities that improve social/intimacy health. So instead of satisfying social needs directly, we tend to choose a diluted version like social media profiles to feel like we are doing something about those needs. Doing so isn’t inherently harmful or bad, it’s just another easier and efficient way to manage those needs. It’s when the cost of it is well-being and productivity that we realize it’s harmful. There is often some associated guilt as well.

So phone usage represents a double-whammy – The “original procrastination” related to your studies and work tasks, and the secondary “motivation + procrastination” related to your social needs.

3-pronged approach to reduce procrastinating with your phone

  1. Overcome negative thoughts associated with the outcome of work – how passing makes you feel, fear of failure, career, social standing, quality of time spent, whether it aligns with your personal interests, etc. Use Baddley’s technique to tolerate those emotions and start taking baby steps to complete pending work.
  2. Work on improving your social health and satisfying your intimacy needs or the need for human contact. This is harder than it sounds for many people so take your time and do it. Establish a base-line and improve it. Once social and intimacy needs are met, your phone will function more as a tool and less as an emotional crutch. Along with this, make a conscious effort to restrict phone use.
  3. Improve self-esteem and self-worth by affirming yourself of things you can do. Low self-esteem is notorious for worsening productivity because it comes with negative beliefs about your capacity to do a good job and manage your work-load. If you believe you can’t do something without trying, you’ll probably fail because of reduced motivation and an inability to try enough. Affirm useful beliefs like I can get my work done eventually, I just have to start” and change beliefs like “There is no point starting now if I can do it later.”

With these 3 prongs, you’ll see an improvement on all fronts – studies, work, personal life, social life, and your emotions/thoughts.

Tips on how to battle phone addiction/dependency so you procrastinate lesser

I’ve written a more exhaustive article on Phone Addiction; you might want to read that article too.

1. Schedule a time for unmonitored phone use: Grant yourself as much time as you want later as long as you can first demonstrate some output. Random notifications and random experiences are potent in pulling you to check your phone precisely because they are random. Unpredictable notifications and call-to-actions are hard to anticipate, so the brain maximizes their potential reward (feeling great) by constantly creating the urge to pick up the phone and check. Schedule an hour to commit to your phone or make it a rule to check it every 45 minutes. That way, the rewards will be hard to anticipate, but they will occur at a known time, and your brain will find it easier to adjust than completely abandoning your phone.

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2. Interrupt your habitual routine: Habits are hard to break because neurons in your brain fire in a certain way. Once an action is repeated enough, associated neurons become efficient in firing and directing behavior – your procrastinatory phone use. Higher the repetitions, the more stable those neurons get. These neural circuits fire in a predictable way, and they fire automatically with almost no external push. You may have little to no awareness about the start of habitual actions. However, breaking a habit means changing how associated neurons behave, and the only way to do that is to ensure a change in the neural circuit. You can do that by changing 3 things:

  • The context in which the habit occurs
  • Interrupting the trigger that kick-starts the habit
  • The verbal narrative about that habit

For example – If you have a habit of staring at your phone right after writing an email, change the context by doing a physical stretch. Interrupt the trigger by clicking send and then switching off your phone immediately. And change the narrative by telling yourself something like “The email was not the end of my work, I can start another task and then go on Instagram.” Even if this just delays your phone use by a few minutes, it’s progress.

3. Introspect about your expectations: Continuous short-interval phone checking may have a lot to do with what you are expecting out of phone usage. It would help to introspect and ask yourself what you expect – is it a rewarding experience? is it a social interaction? are you waiting for some to approach you? are you wishing for some exciting change?

4. Replace your first phone routine: Another way is to replace your first habitual phone routine with something else like a notepad and a pen where you list 10 important things to do in the day. If to-do stuff is too bland for you, replace it with 5 affirmations – things you want to tell yourself to feel good. This is ideal if you spend time on your phone before you begin your task or shortly after preparing for work.

5. Delete apps Or switch off your phone: Delete apps if there is something particular that triggers usage. You could also keep your phone away. You could turn off notifications if deleting is too much. If this makes you very uncomfortable, phone usage is most likely linked to shortcomings in your social and personal life. Your needs may be unmet and you may be feeling powerless in desirable social situations.

6. Categorize your phone activities and assign a time per activity: Break down your smartphone activity into categories and dedicate 2-5 minutes to each category, 1+ hour after waking up, and 1+ hour before sleeping. This will help you disconnect the link between sleep onset and waking. In between, you can choose to do a filler activity that is gratifying (serving your brain’s reward system in a healthier way). Once you get good at this, learn to only do the single most important thing on the phone and postpone every other activity to your unmonitored phone-use slot.

7. Figure out & work on your social needs: Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube could be fulfilling a social deficit you have in real life. If you have to use your phone for socializing, maximize the quality of interactions, even if you consider sending memes as “quality” communication. The goal is to feel satisfied with your social needs. You could increase the amount of your meaningful social interactions as you reduce the less meaningful ones. Social media use and mental health have a complex relationship; you might want to learn more about that here. Social support is a defense against addiction.

8. Manage your need for distractions and stimulation: You might need passive sensory stimulation like background noise, TV shows, meme REELationships. You could give your brain a better, richer replacement like learning a new skill, socializing, healthy gaming, sports, exercise, dating, grooming, cooking, reading, etc. so you feel stimulated enough. If you must use your phone and you need that additional distraction (there are many who need extra sensory stimulation), change the type of activity you do on your phone. Perhaps a background game of chess or sudoku can provide that stimulation. That’ll ensure you get your stimulation/distraction, and it doesn’t become a counterproductive habit.

Key takeaway:

We procrastinate because of negative emotions and use our phones to recover from a negative mood. We then continue using our phone to satisfy or compensate for unmet social needs. That is why we procrastinate with our phone and forget about pending work, studies, and obligations. To reduce it, replenish social deficits like loneliness & lack of warmth; overcome mental insecurities about abilities, expectations, and personal beliefs, and battle procrastination head-on by tolerating the negative mood.

P.S. This post is a stand-alone extension of a short answer I wrote on Quora for a relatable problem students face – “I end up procrastinating and spending my entire day using my phone when I have to study. I am really scared for myself. I seriously need help. What can I do?”

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