Updated: May 28
Author: Michael Scaletti
When I was in college, I sometimes had trouble completing assignments on time. While I was generally a good student, participating in discussions in class, doing well on tests, and completing some of my projects and assignments to a high level, occasionally I would just not get an assignment done. I’d end up going out with friends, or playing video games, or watching movies, instead of working on a project that I knew had a deadline right around the corner. This would leave me scrambling to pull an all-nighter, or just giving up entirely and not completing it at all.
The classic theory of procrastination, which guidance counselors around the world, including the ones that I would inevitably have to talk to in college, will happily tell you, is that procrastination has to do with time management. Clearly I didn’t have a complete understanding of the amount of time my assignment was going to take, and so didn’t schedule an adequate amount of time to complete it. The only problem was, this was NEVER true for me. I knew I was setting myself up for failure, but I went out for drinks or played another couple of hours of video games anyway.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one. Increasingly psychologists are learning that the root causes of procrastination have to do with managing your emotional state rather than managing your time. Whatever task we are putting off makes us feel bad in some way, whether because it’s boring, stressful, or for some other reason, and so rather than working on it we turn to activities we think will make us feel good. In my case that is often video games or social interaction.
The exciting key there is that this fresh perspective also opens up fresh ways to address procrastination which could help you curb your bad habits and improve your approach to work.
One of the first studies to drive this emotion forward understanding of procrastination was done in the early 2000s. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio asked people to read sad stories then gave them the opportunity to prepare for an intelligence test. They found that people were far more likely to procrastinate by utilizing available puzzle books or video games after reading the stories than they were when they hadn’t read them. However, when told that their mood had been frozen (IE could not be improved) by “mood freezing candles” the subjects didn’t bother to procrastinate, and instead got to studying.
From this the researchers concluded that people procrastinated out of a desire to change their mood, a theory that has come to be known as the “Emotional Regulation Theory of Procrastination”. The theory goes like this. It’s not that I’m going out for drinks because I don’t know how long my project will take me. I’m perfectly aware that I should be working on it. I’m doing so to avoid the discomfort and/or boredom that I expect to come from working on it in favor of the short term positive feelings going out will bring.
Further research done on procrastination has shown another aspect of this. Research has shown that people feel guilty after procrastinating, making them feel worse, which means that procrastination is a misguided form of emotional regulation. While the process of procrastination can bring short term relief, in the long run it only makes you feel worse, which can lead to further procrastination. It’s a vicious cycle.
All of this leads us to what might be the most effective ways to improve procrastination habits. Obviously, better scheduling is not the answer here. Instead, we need to find better emotional regulation techniques. One particularly applicable approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’, an off-shoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It centers on “psychological flexibility”, which means being able to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, staying in the present moment in spite of them, and prioritizing choices and actions that help you get closer to what you most value in life.
ACT trains people to increase their psychological flexibility via mindfulness, as well as increasing their committed action by finding creative ways to pursue their goals. While it is an involved and guided process, there is one key tip you can put into action right now. The next time you are struggling to focus on a project ask yourself “What is the first simple step that if I would take if I were to start on this project right now”. Doing this will help take your mind off of your emotional state and instead focus it on an easily achievable action. This, in turn, will help you get started on the task at hand, and studies show that once you take your first step you are far more likely to complete your project.
Thanks for reading! Do you have any tips or tricks for how you avoid procrastination? We’d love to hear them!