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How to Use Psychology to Solve the Procrastination Puzzle
Tips from the world of procrastination research
Procrastination — the thief of time — robs us of much more. Psychological science reveals that it undermines our performance, reduces well-being, harms work relationships, and correlates to poorer health, even coronary heart disease and hypertension.
With detrimental effects like these, it’s no wonder we seek to understand procrastination. My students and I have been researching procrastination for more than 20 years. It’s a fascinating aspect of human nature.
It’s clear to us that people can beat procrastination.
Effective strategies for change depend on an understanding of the problem itself, and there are many misconceptions about procrastination. For example, although we think about procrastination as “the thief of time,” it’s not a time management problem.
The Role of Emotions
Psychological research has revealed that procrastination is an emotion-management problem.
We cope with negative emotions that are associated with a task through avoidance, but this is a self-defeating coping strategy, because only your present self benefits.
Avoidance acts as short-term mood repair. It works in the short term but not in the long term. We may escape the task and its associated negative emotions — like anxiety, frustration, resentment, or boredom — but the task doesn’t go away.
Present Self vs. Future Self
Future self must face the task—and future self typically gets the added burden of time pressure, stress and, even the self-loathing associated with the earlier needless delay.
Why does present self undermine future self like this?
The research of Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, has shown us that we rely on the present to predict how we’re going to feel in the future.
Think about your grocery cart when you go shopping on a full stomach compared to when you’re hungry. We rely on our present state to predict the future.
When we procrastinate, we get relief from facing an aversive task now. That’s why we procrastinate.
If we’re off doing something more enjoyable, we may actually be feeling very good. So, when we think about tomorrow with this presentism bias, we’re just certain that “we’ll feel more like it tomorrow.” Future self, of course, is not convinced.
Future Self Is a Stranger
Research by Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business, reveals the gap between present and future self. When we process information about our present and future selves, the brain regions involved in processing information about our future self are the same as those used when we process information about a stranger.
We don’t think about future self like we do present self at all, so present self is more likely to make these short-term decisions that undermine future self.
These scientific findings are reflected in our everyday experiences with statements such as:
“I don’t feel like it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.”
Talk about paving the way to hell—at least our own personal hell—because research also tells us that guilt, even shame, are the most common emotions associated with procrastination.
No wonder our well-being goes down. Fuschia Sirois, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, has even explored how this self-blame is a key factor in how procrastination is related to negative health outcomes such as heart disease and hypertension.
Culpable and Irrational
Joel Anderson, an associate professor of philosophy at Utrecht University, has captured the experience of this guilt, shame, and self-blame in his succinct definition of procrastination as a “culpably unwarranted delay.” We feel culpable, and some of our latest research shows that others hold us culpable as well.
Finally, before we can turn to a discussion of strategies to defeat procrastination — before we can really embrace that hope of our new self — it’s important to understand that procrastination is only one form of delay. We all use delay in many ways.
We use delay very rationally as we set priorities and sequence things to optimize time and other resources. This purposeful delay is just one of six kinds of delay that research has identified.
Although it’s beyond the scope of this piece to delineate each, it’s not necessary either. The key point is that procrastination is a voluntary delay of an intended act despite the nagging awareness that we’ll pay for it later.
Again, we’re culpable, and procrastination doesn’t have an upside per se. It’s defined by a special kind of irrationality.
Other kinds of delay can be beneficial, even necessary. In research, we call these “sagacious delays” — meaning they show good judgement. Knowing the difference is key to reducing irrational delay in our lives.
Okay, if procrastination is about emotion regulation, short-term reward, and being ever so irrational as we undermine our future self, can we do something about it?
Defeat Procrastination? Absolutely
I’ll start with some of the most recent research in the area that addressed emotion regulation skills. Emotion-regulation skills include things like our ability to be aware of our emotions, label our emotions, tolerate and/or modify aversive emotions, and support ourselves through the experience of negative emotions.
Emotion regulation is part of better understanding ourselves and being resilient. Understanding ourselves better is part of why you’re reading this now, and the good news from research is that these adaptive emotion-regulation skills can be learned, and doing so decreases procrastination.
Test Your Emotion-Regulation Skills
Think about last week, and rate the following items from 0 (never) to 6 (always):A. I was clear about what emotions I was experiencing.B. I was aware of why I felt the way I felt.C. I accepted my emotions.D. I felt I could cope with my intense negative feelings.E. I was able to influence my negative feelings.Do you see the pattern in these items? Awareness, understanding, acceptance/tolerance, coping ability, and the ability to modify emotional experience are all emotion regulation skills.Although this is only a sample of items used in the research and not psychometrically valid, low scores on this scale indicate that your emotion regulation skills are lacking. Like any skill, however, these can be learned and enhanced.
Interestingly, in this research, the skills of emotional resilience and modification were shown to decrease procrastination—and these skills were learned online, which has the promise of flexible personal development. Is there an app for that? Stay tuned.
With the emotion-regulation foundation firmly set, let’s explore other strategies to defeat procrastination. Psychologists have a lot to say about how we make our intentions.
Strong Intentions, Weak Intentions, and the Road To…
Some intentions are simply too vague and ill-defined to have any motivational strength. In fact, philosopher Sarah Stroud of McGill University has called them “anemic intentions.”
A key strategy to defeating procrastination is setting more effective intentions. What do these look like?
Implementation intentions is the concept to employ. Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University, and his colleagues have done a great deal of research demonstrating that very specific intentions in the form of “when…then” make a big difference to our success. They help us implement our intentions, as the name implies.
The key thing here is that when we make an implementation intention, we’re putting the cue for action into the environment. So, for example, when you finish reading this piece, what are you going to do next?
An effective implementation intention might be, “When I finish this reading, then I will make a list of the projects on which I’ve been procrastinating in order to better understand the emotions that each evoke.” The intention is clear, concrete, and actionable. The research shows we’re more likely to act when we make intentions like this.
Action. That’s where our focus needs to be. What’s the next action?
From my own early research using experience-sampling techniques to get at the lived experience of procrastination, I know that once we begin a task, no matter how dreaded, our perceptions of the task change. This research revealed that we don’t appraise the task as quite so stressful or difficult once we get started.
Starting is everything, so my personal mantra based on this research has been “just get started.”
More recently, I began to incorporate the wisdom of productivity guru David Allen, with his focus on action, and I basically say to myself, “What’s the next action?”
What a big difference this makes to getting started. Keep the action concrete and the threshold for engagement low. Social psychologists have shown that even a little progress fuels our well-being and creates an upward spiral of well-being and motivation in our lives.
Psychological science has lots to teach us about procrastination. At times, it seems to defeat us. And, certainly, some of us are more vulnerable to this needless delay in our lives.
There is a perfect storm of personality that puts us at risk. Research has revealed that low conscientiousness, along with high levels of worry, impulsivity, and perfectionistic concerns are all related to higher procrastination.
However, personality is not destiny! There is more hope than despair in the scientific messages. No matter what hand we get dealt from the “personality deck,” change is always possible and real.
It’s a matter of recognizing the potential vulnerability and being strategic. Let that better self who thrives at some parts of the day pre-commit the weaker self to action. And don’t depend on the brute force of will. Inevitably, willpower alone will fail you.
Extend Your Will
Yes, you can increase your available willpower by building a volitional scaffold. You need to learn to use the context around you—place and people—to help.
The environment can help or hinder. When distractions are just a click away, for example, you’re on the procrastination superhighway. Preempt that which tempts! (Yes, this may mean shutting off social media, your phone, and the many other things that will “only take a minute.”)
Finally, we have learned an unexpected but important lesson. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion is crucial. In one of our studies, we found that those who self-forgave for procrastinating procrastinated less in the future.
When I was initially confused by this finding, my research colleague explained that without forgiveness, the motivation is to avoid. This is true when the transgression is against another or ourselves. Without forgiveness, we’re motivated to avoid.
When we are forgiven—or when we manage to forgive ourselves, as in the case of procrastination—we’re more willing to get up and try again. Within this compassion for self, hope springs eternal in our process of becoming the selves we strive for.
This is a positive psychology at its best. Psychological science is helping us better understand the procrastination puzzle and offers new hope for truly defeating this needless self-defeating delay.