By Christian Jarrett
Address the real reasons you procrastinate and you’re more likely to start achieving your goals.
Like many writers, I’m a supreme expert at procrastination. When I ought to be working on an assignment, with the clock ticking towards my deadline, I’ll sit there watching pointless political interviews or boxing highlights on YouTube (cat videos aren’t my thing). At its worst I can almost begin to feel a little crazy – you need to be working, I say to myself, so what on Earth are you doing?
According to traditional thinking – still espoused by university counselling centres around the world, I, along with my fellow procrastinators, have a time management problem. By this view, I haven’t fully appreciated how long my assignment is going to take and I’m not paying enough attention to how much time I’m currently wasting on ‘cyberloafing’. With better scheduling and a better grip on time, so the logic goes, I will stop procrastinating and get on with my work.
Increasingly, however, psychologists are realising this is wrong. Experts like Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada and his collaborator Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield in the UK have proposed that procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time. The task we’re putting off is making us feel bad – perhaps it’s boring, too difficult or we’re worried about failing – and to make ourselves feel better in the moment, we start doing something else, like watching videos.
Chronic procrastination is linked with mental and physical health costs, from depression and anxiety to cardiovascular disease (Credit: Alamy)
This fresh perspective on procrastination is beginning to open up exciting new approaches to reducing the habit; it could even help you improve your own approach to work.
Short-term mood lifters
Low mood only increases procrastination if enjoyable activities are available as a distraction, and only if people believe they can change their moods.
The emotional regulation theory of procrastination makes intuitive sense. In my case, it’s not that I don’t realise how long my assignment will take (I know I need to be working on it right now) or that I haven’t scheduled enough time for my YouTube viewing – in fact, I don’t really even want to watch those videos, I’m just drawn to them as a way of avoiding the discomfort of knuckling down to work. In the psychologists’ jargon, I’m procrastinating to achieve a short-term positive ‘hedonic shift’, at the cost of my longer-term goals.
Procrastination – while effectively distracting in the short-term – can lead to guilt, which ultimately compounds the initial stress
It’s perhaps little wonder that being inclined to procrastinate on a regular, long-term basis – is associated with a host of adverse mental and physical health consequences, including anxiety and depression, poor health such as colds and flu, and even more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease.
Researchers say procrastinating helps us feel better when certain tasks fill us with negative emotions – if they are too difficult or boring, say(Credit: Getty Images)
Procrastination has these adverse consequences through two routes – first, it’s stressful to keep putting off important tasks and failing to fulfil your goals, and second, the procrastination often involves delaying important health behaviours, such as taking up exercise or visiting the doctor. “Over time high stress and poor health behaviours are well known to have a synergistic and cumulative effect on health that can increase risk for a number of serious and chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer,” she says.
All of this means that overcoming procrastination could have a major positive impact on your life.
‘Just get started’
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.
Research shows that once the first step is made towards a task, following through becomes easier
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.”