Latalia White, AMFT

The New York Times recently spoke to a number of psychologists about procrastination. Summarized below are their findings.

Procrastination: we’re all familiar with it, but we do we understand it? Most people think of procrastination as a failure in time management skills; some even equate it with laziness. The reality is that procrastination is misunderstood, as it is neither of those things, and can ultimately be conquered after getting in touch with your emotions.

What does procrastination mean?

The Latin and Greek roots of the word break it down into two elements: putting off and doing against our better judgment. The procrastination cycle is so hard to break and makes us feel so bad because we are highly aware while procrastinating that we are avoiding something that needs to be done. In other words, procrastination is a way of ignoring our long-term needs to fulfill short-term needs: we know we will eventually suffer for putting something off, but for now, we choose to make ourselves content in the moment.

Why do we procrastinate?

Why do we ignore our long-term needs for our short-term ones, even though we know there will be negative consequences? What is most important to understand about procrastination (and is perhaps least understood by most people) is that the root of procrastination is an inability to regulate our emotions when faced with a task we don’t want to do. Negative emotions pop up when faced with unpleasant tasks, and if we don’t know how to deal with those emotions in a healthy way, we tend to ignore the task at hand because our top priority becomes trying to rid ourselves of our negative emotions.

We also have our human ancestors to thank for prioritizing short-term needs over long-term needs: this is how we survived in our earlier stages as a species. Even though the life of modern man is quite different from that of early man, our brains still process information in some of the same ways, even viewing future versions of ourselves as different from who we are today. We also have our amygdalas to thank for procrastination – this part of the brain will perceive tasks that make us feel anxious as threats to us, so procrastination becomes a way to protect ourselves.

Why is it so hard to break the procrastination cycle?

The worst part about this process? When we avoid doing something because of the negative emotions surrounding it, our procrastination reinforces the negative feelings, which leads to more procrastination. We also have what researchers call “procrastinatory cognitions” – our thoughts about procrastination make it worse next time. Anyone who has ever had to work on a project or paper for school is likely familiar with this – you doubt your ability to finish your work competently, so you procrastinate, and then the next time you have to write a paper, the problem is a little worse because you recall what happened last time and how badly you felt.

How good it feels in the short term to give in to those short-term needs and put off the task at hand also works against us – the relief you feel serves as a reward for your procrastination. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to break the cycle – it’s actively working against your best interests by tricking you into believing it’s good to put something off, when in reality you’re setting yourself up for failure in the long term.

What can we do to stop procrastinating?

Some keys to working on procrastination include coming up with internal solutions instead of ones that rely upon external circumstances as well as not confusing your follow-up action with another form of procrastination. You’ll need to be able to offer yourself forgiveness and compassion to do this, because these abilities allow you to move through your emotions without feeling tied down to your past actions and invite understanding of what you’ve done.

To come up with an internal solution, you’ll need to figure out how to create better rewards for yourself than the short-term goodness you feel when you procrastinate. Part of this process is training yourself to not recognize avoidance as a reward, though it may feel that way in the short term, and to envision positive feelings you’ll experience after completing your task. Additionally, you should figure out every possible way to remove barriers to completing your task to make procrastination inconvenient. Another way to help yourself succeed in not procrastinating is to only focus on the next action you can, because trying to envision the whole path forward invites negative emotions. Instead, just take it one step at a time.

Most importantly, because procrastination equals mismanaging negative emotions, it is crucial you learn strategies to help you regulate your emotions. Learn how to sit with them and explore them. Mindfulness techniques are a great way to help with this, and therapy is a great place to help learn these strategies. Specifically, a therapist familiar with dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is perfectly suited to this kind of work.

The information contained within this blog was summarized from the following article:
Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). Why you procrastinate (it has nothing to do with self-control). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com