Procrastination, we’ve all done it, and most of us don’t like the results. Studies show that individuals who procrastinate feel less stress in the short term but soon see a spike in anxiety and depression in the long term. If procrastination isn’t helping us, then why do so many of us do it?
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Research supports the notion that procrastination is really about self-regulation. Procrastinators know what it is that they need to do but, for some reason, cannot bring themselves to do it. Studies on procrastination found that individuals only procrastinated preparing for a task when they were led to feel stressed or anxious about the task. This finding suggests that individuals engage in procrastination as a way to manage anxiety about a specific task.
Types of Procrastinators
While the evidence is pretty clear that procrastination is an attempt at emotional regulation, chronic procrastinators tend to fall into 3 types, each of which procrastinates to regulate different emotional experiences:
Decisional procrastinators put off making decisions for fear of being responsible for the outcome or for the experiences of others.
Arousal procrastinators put off a task until the last minute for that rush that comes along with a quickly approaching deadline.
Avoider procrastinators, being extremely concerned with what others think of them, put off a task for fear of failure, judgement, or success.
How To Conquer Procrastination
The first step is to recognise when you are procrastinating. This can be tricky because procrastination takes many different forms. You might be procrastinating if you find yourself focusing on tasks that are of little or no importance rather than the necessary ones. Procrastination also looks like going to get a snack, making a coffee, stopping to do laundry, or checking social media right after starting a high-priority task. You might also be procrastinating if you wait for motivation or the right mood or mindset to strike before starting an important task.
To conquer procrastination, you need a strategy.
Feeling guilty and beating yourself up for procrastinating only leads to more anxiety which, you guessed it, means further procrastination. So, forgive yourself for procrastinating the last time and start fresh. An essential part of forgiveness is acknowledging why you procrastinated in the first place from a place of compassion. You don’t procrastinate because you are lazy, stupid, or flawed. You procrastinate to avoid the discomfort that comes with doing the task. This might look like saying out loud, “I forgive myself for getting overwhelmed and giving myself a break,” or “procrastination doesn’t make me a bad person; it shows me where I need more support regulating”.
Own your Power
It can be difficult to do things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable when we feel we have no choice. Notice how you frame tasks in your inner dialogue. Do you tell yourself that you have to get this thing done? That you need to finish by a certain date? Notice what happens to anxiety if you own your power and acknowledge the agency you have in these tasks. Sure, there might be a due date on the assignment, but not completing it on time is not life-threatening – you don’t actually need to do it. Switch the language you use to think about tasks to emphasize your choice. “The deadline is in 3 days, so I could work on it for an hour today to get a head start, or I could relax tonight and spend more time on it tomorrow”, “I could complete this assignment, or I could take the loss and be okay with getting a C in the course instead of a B”. When it feels like we must do something, the only power we have is to rebel and not do the thing. So acknowledge that you do have a choice here – the choices are not consequence-free but nothing in life is; you get to choose the consequence you want.
Connect with a purpose for these tasks that makes your choice to do them meaningful. For example, you might have to start a report for work. One way to look at this task is as a chore that you have to do for your boss. You might reframe this thought by reflecting on why this job is important to you. Is this job a stepping stone to the career you want? Does this job afford you tropical vacations? Does it help you save for retirement and college for your kids? Create opportunities to learn new skills and challenge yourself? Remind yourself why you applied for this job, signed up for this course, or why it is important to book the appointment. Zoom out a little and see where this piece fits in your life.
Don’t wait for Motivation – Create it
Motivation is temporary and fleeting and decades of research tell us that, most often, motivation is a result of action – not the other way around. Give yourself permission to only work on the task for 5 minutes, set a timer, and when the timer goes off, assess how you feel. If you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, give yourself permission to take a break. Most likely, you will actually feel more motivated and want to continue. This strategy is called Behavioural Activation and is an evidence-based approach to address low motivation.
Awareness & Regulation
Pay attention to how you are feeling as you think about, start, and work on a task. Is your heart racing? Are you feeling angry or inadequate? Notice if you feel the urge to get up and do something else or if you start berating or criticizing your work or abilities. These are all signs that you might need to regulate & support yourself. Instead of trying to push through, hit pause and experiment with different regulating strategies. Feeling angry or anxious? Stand up, shake it out or bounce up and down. Feeling inadequate or incompetent? Sway back and forth, rock, or give yourself a self-hug. Take deep breaths and feel your ribcage expand with each inhale, exhale audibly through your mouth, stand up while you work, get yourself a fidget toy, or find a mantra or affirmation that you actually believe. One of my favourites is “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly” which is paraphrased from G.K. Chesterton, or Glennon Doyle’s “I can do hard things”. The point is that you need to support yourself through these moments, not punish or give up on yourself.