Being more self-disciplined is the wrong approach, according to psychologists.
If you think procrastination means you are lazy, unmotivated, or lack self-discipline, you’re wrong. Putting off tasks has nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with your emotional state. Understanding this simple fact can help you procrastinate less.
Do you procrastinate? Of course you do. You’re human, so you put off unwanted or challenging tasks at least some of the time. And when you do, what happens next? You scold yourself. You ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me? I knew what I needed to do to meet that deadline. Why have I screwed up yet again?”
You may think the reason you procrastinate is that you have a flawed character or that you’re lazy or perhaps self-destructive. But, as The New York Times revealed in a fascinating new article, the real reason is none of those. It’s because the task you’re putting off makes you unhappy. And you’re trying to manage your own mood by avoiding something you know will bring you down. Which is a very reasonable thing to do.
As Tim Pychyl, psychology professor and a member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, puts it, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.”
If you think about it, you’ll likely realize from your own experience that procrastination comes from avoiding negative emotions, not laziness. I recently spent hours digging several large, spiky blackberry plants out of my front yard while procrastinating over making a phone call to schedule a mammogram appointment. The phone call, and even the exam itself, were much easier to complete than hoisting up spadefuls of earth, tugging on the sprawling roots with all my might, and getting pricked by thorns that went right through my leather gloves. It was my fear of cancer and my dislike of hospitals and X-ray machines that held me back from making the appointment, and clearly not laziness.
I’m betting that you’re the same, and the tasks that you put off aren’t necessarily effortful. They may be boring or distasteful, or you may resent having to do them. They may come with a risk of bad feelings, for example if you have to fire an employee or make a sales pitch knowing you’re likely to be turned down. Or they may be frightening, especially if the task at hand is challenging or something you’ve never done before and aren’t sure you can do well.
And even though self-discipline might help you get over your procrastination, the fact that you’ve procrastinated doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined. It means you’re overwhelmed by negative emotions and you’re coping with them the only way you know how–by pushing away the job that’s making you unhappy.
How to finally stop procrastinating (some of the time)
Now that you know that procrastination is about emotions rather than character flaws, how can you stop doing it?
First of all, don’t expect to stop procrastinating altogether. We’re all human, and all of us are susceptible to putting off negative tasks sometimes. Don’t think you can be the one exception to this rule.
Next, when you do find yourself procrastinating, don’t get angry at yourself, don’t engage in negative self-talk, and don’t obsess over all the bad that will happen because you didn’t get your task completed in time. Since the reason you’re procrastinating is that you’re overwhelmed with negative feelings, it should be obvious that making yourself feel even worse will only add to the problem. Instead, can you cut yourself some slack and forgive yourself for your procrastination? If you can, that alone will help. One study showed that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating once were able to procrastinate less the next time around.
Next, try to figure out why you’re procrastinating. Not by asking yourself, “What’s wrong with me?” but by being genuinely curious. The fact that you’re putting something off means that doing it would make you unhappy. Why is that?
Once you’ve answered that question, you may be able to find ways to make the job at hand less upsetting. If it’s tedious, perhaps you can make it more fun by listening to music or asking a friend to keep you company. If you’re feeling resentful because you think you shouldn’t have to do whatever it is, maybe you can find out about passing the task to someone else, or at least vent about your resentment to a friend. If the task is daunting and you’re afraid you won’t do it well–always a cause of procrastination for me–you can try a technique Pychyl recommends called “next action.” Instead of doing the task right now, just do the next thing you would do if you were doing it, even though you’re not. For example, if you’re stuck at the beginning of a writing project, just quickly write down a couple of sentences or a few points for a bare-bones outline. You can come back to it later when it’ll be easier because you’ve made a start. Or, having made a start, you just may want to keep going.
And don’t forget to reward yourself. It’s counterintuitive, but procrastination creates its own reward by sparing you the negative feelings that go with an unpleasant task. So counter that effect by giving yourself a little treat of some kind as compensation for, say, an hour of work. And don’t forget to take frequent short breaks, which, research shows, allow you to use your brain most efficiently. Do all that and you may find procrastination isn’t as big a problem as it used to be.