Procrastination isn’t laziness

I have always had this habit of putting off my work until the very last minute. On some level, the time crunch forces me to solidify my thoughts and is beneficial. But, for the most part, I am just delaying a task that needs to be completed and running the risk of putting people in a difficult position. Growing up I would beat myself up over my tendency to procrastinate and I would berate myself for my laziness. So often you see articles about how by being more organized you can procrastinate less, have more plans for success, and turn off your notifications, essentially-you just need to double down.

Earlier this week I needed to work on a project that is honestly taking me too long to do, the direction of it has changed several times and I have been struggling to put in the work. I opened my email on Tuesday to find two separate emails from people I follow addressing procrastination. I am not sure that serendipitous is the correct word, but it was fortunate happening upon the emails. One of the emails was from Adam Grant, someone that I am sure most people have heard of. Adam is a psychologist and author; he is currently a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania specializing in organizational psychology. I first came across Adam and his work through Susan Cain who wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Over the last handful of years I have come to appreciate his knowledge and insight into people and how we relate to work and different habits that we implement, etc.

His most recent email newsletter bore the subject line “The real reason you procrastinate.” Which, since in that moment it was exactly what I was doing, intrigued me. And, one of the first lines in the email, not to be dramatic, leapt out at me. It was one of those not necessarily “aha!” moments but one of those, “ohhh, yes I see” moments. “Procrastination isn’t caused by laziness. We don’t postpone tasks to avoid work. We do it to avoid negative emotions that a task stirs up– like anxiety, frustration, confusion, and boredom. I wasn’t procrastinating my project because I am lazy (not that that doesn’t happen) but, because I was struggling to accomplish the task which was creating a lot of frustration and disappointment on my part. He cites this New York Times article where Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield says “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa. And it’s as though a light bulb has gone off in my mind- this is one more tool to store in my tool box to “hack my brain.”

“Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” said psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. So the goal becomes, finding a way to better reward my brain, a way that is sustainable. I have found, for me, that I need to reframe situations. For example, when I want to sleep in and skip going to the Y, I have to remind myself that if I don’t get up my body will hurt and I will end up being sleepier for the rest of the day. That five minute period where waking up before the sun is so difficult is actually far easier than being in pain all morning and falling asleep at my desk later in the day. One suggestion that this article shares is to consider the next action, breaking it down into bite-sized chunks. Right now, I will open up the document that I am working on for the project and I will work on it for half an hour, then I will reward myself with a walk outside and checking a fun blog.

The other email that I referenced above is from Colin Wright an author, entrepreneur, and full-time traveler. He is a fascinating individual that I found years ago through The Minimalists. This article that he linked to, is very similar and uses much of the same research to convey that procrastination is an emotion regulation problem and not a time-management problem. I found this snippet from the article to be amusing and so accurate: The emotional regulation view of procrastination also helps explain some strange modern phenomena, like the fad for watching online cat videos which have attracted billions of views on YouTube. A survey of thousands of people by Jessica Myrick at the Media School at Indiana University confirmed procrastination as a common motive for viewing the cat videos and that watching them led to a boost in positive mood. It’s not that people hadn’t adequately scheduled time for watching the videos; often they were only watching the clips to make themselves feel better when they should be doing something else less fun. (Jarrett) And this right here is an excellent solution: On a positive note, if procrastination is an emotional regulation issue, this offers important clues for how to address it most effectively. An approach based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’, an off-shoot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, seems especially apt. ACT teaches the benefits of ‘psychological flexibility’ – that is, being able to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, staying in the present moment in spite of them, and prioritising choices and actions that help you get closer to what you most value in life….. The next time you’re tempted to procrastinate, “make your focus as simple as ‘What’s the next action – a simple next step – I would take on this task if I were to get started on it now?’”. Doing this, he says, takes your mind off your feelings and onto easily achievable action. “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.” (Jarrett)    

I am a huge fan of notes and quotes, I have journals and 3×5 cards and post-it notes galore. So my first step to “hack” my brain to make choices that need to be made instead of delaying “procrastinating” was to write down this question in more than one place that I regularly work at. Perhaps it will be a helpful question for you as well. The question is this: Am I procrastinating to achieve a short-term positive ‘hedonic shift,’ at the cost of my longer-term goals?