Updated: Dec 18, 2021
How to Understand and Tackle Procrastintion
Procrastination is something we all do at times. Have you ever sat down to complete an important task and then find that your distracted thinking of a different task? Or perhaps you suddenly realize that the dog needs to be fed, emails need to be read, or that you need to check your phone.
It’s the smaller tasks that replace the bigger tasks. Bigger tasks require more time and commitment and place us at risk of failing, feeling emotionally bruised and looking foolish. Tasks like looking for a new job, confronting something that weights us down, or pursuing a long term goal.
This is where we develop our creative reasons as to why now, today, just isn’t the right time. Too stressed. Too busy. Too uncertain. Too risky. Too inexperienced. Too young. Too old. Too disruptive. Sometimes these reasons are valid, but more often than not they are simply excuses to avoid the task at hand, and avoid the emotional discomfort that’s inherent in task demands.
Why We Really Procrastinate
The truth is that procrastination is more about our emotions and time, than a tendency for laziness or just being bad at deadlines. It’s about our temporal (role of time in a process) understanding of the self and the intra-personal (e.g. attitudes, self-esteem) temporal processes involved in goal pursuit. This perspective is crucial to understanding procrastination, as the consequences of procrastination are typically experienced by our future self.
Mood Repair and Regulation
Research has demonstrated that task characteristics, such as the timing of task rewards or the perceived difficulty, can lead to procrastination. We also delay on task when we lack self-discipline and/or are very impulsive, and we are more likely to delay on tasks which we find emotionally unpleasant in some way, and for which the task reward is temporally delayed (Rebetez et al., 2018).
Form this self-regulation perspective, self-regulatory failure relates to the power of short-term mood repair over long-term goal pursuits. For example, task rewards are associated with being in the future and task characteristics are often found to be boring, tedious, stressful or difficult, resulting in negative emotions or moods in relation to the task, and the subsequent lack of motivation to engage in the task at hand. Studies have shown that unpleasant emotional states tend to cause self-regulation to breakdown (Baumister et al., 2007)
However, some people have a great deal of self-discipline and the necessary self-control to engage in the task despite the lack of immediate rewards and negative mood that the task illicits.
Therefore, procrastination is the self-regulatory failure of not utilising self-control, which is necessary for the task engagement, and this self-regulatory failure at self-control is the result of focusing on mood regulation and feelings in the short-term.
Time Orientation: Present Self & Future Self
The key to understanding procrastination as a form of self-regulation failure is to place it in a temporal context. The present (now) self benefits from immediate mood repair, which in the case of procrastination involves task delays, but the present self often fails to see the consequences to the future self.
The focus on short-term mood repair, over long-term goals, represents a primary goal of the present self over the needs of the future self. Studies have found that procrastination is not associated with a future time perspective, but rather, a present hedonistic and present -fatalistic time orientation (Jackson et al., 2003). Present hedonistic people live in the moment, seeking pleasure, sensation, novelty and avoiding discomfort. Whereas, ‘Present Fatalistic’ people feel that decisions are irrelevant because predetermined fate plays a role, e.g. “Why bother, this always happens to me”.
Other studies have also found a negative association between procrastination and mindfulness, an adaptive form of present -focused time -orientation, and that those low in mindfulness explained the negative mood state (Ferrari & Diaz-Morales, 2007). Mindfulness has been identified as an important quality for self-regulation, as it reduces stress and allows non-judgmental awareness of discrepancies between current and desired future states that increase persistence on challenging tasks (Evans et al., 2009).
In summary, when we experience a bad mood, we want to feel better, but feeling better involves indulging in things that we usually use self-control to resist (e.g. buying things we can’t afford, eating sweet foods). In terms of procrastination, the perceived difficult tasks lead to anxiety and worry, and tasks avoidance is a strategy to avoid negative mood states.
Procrastination is a coping strategy for negative emotions.
Ultimately, when we focus on feeling better now, we fail to override our impulse to avoid the task, and ‘give in to the feel good’. So, what can we do about it?
How to Overcome Habitual Procrastination
Based on the research, it’s evident that there are two main ways of dealing with procrastination:
Make the task at hand feel less uncomfortable.
Convince our present selves to care about the future self
3 Simple Tips You Need to Know to Reduce Your Procrastination
1. Make getting started ridiculously easy – avoid the Fog of Uncertainty
You may have a doable task, but that task actually involves multiple different tasks which are all packed together, and now you feel anxious at the task at hand and overwhelmed, and just want to avoid it altogether. Often starting a task is the biggest hurdle.
Instead, break the task down to its smaller more manageable components. Other tasks that don’t have multiple task can still be split into smaller segments. This reduces the threshold of getting started to quite low, rather than overwhelming. When we do what we intend to do we get a real mood boost, as these things are important to us.
In knowing this, getting started may feel uncomfortable but it also feels much better once the task is done. Compare the mood boost of having finished something, with the stress, disappointment and self-frustration of the procrastination consequences. Research has shown that progress, even in small doses, can be a huge factor in motivating us to keep going.
2. Change Your Attitude - from External to Internal Motivation.
If you think of your current task as something that you have to get done, then you will experience external motivation to complete the task at hand. This is because you perceive the task as something that is expected of you from others. The motivation behind getting it done is extrinsic (external). This type of motivation can be draining and exhausting at times.
Instead, use your own intrinsic (internal) motivation as this does not cost us. We still have to put the effort in to get the work done, but unlike external motivation, it won’t feel draining and exhausting. Research has shown that internal motivation reduces procrastination.
Reframe the way you think about the task, as something you want to get done. This helps to adjust your motivation from external to internal. When we think and care about getting something done for our own sake, rather than as a deadline or expectation, we much more easily find the effort required to get started.
3. Imagine Your Future
Research has shown that thinking about your future self can reduce procrastination (Blouin-Hudon & Pychyl, 2016). The study compared two group of students, a control group listened to mindfulness tapes on their own a couple of times a week for several weeks (mindfulness condition), and the intervention group did the same, but listened to guided meditation (mental imagery condition). The guided meditation tape got the intervention group to imagine the end of the semester and what they may be doing.
The findings revealed that participants in both groups had an increase in future self-continuity, and that participants who showed an increase in future self-continuity also reported fewer procrastination incidents.
In summary, both mindfulness meditation and visualisation promote a connection with your future self, and that this connection is effective in reducing procrastination.
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