Procrastination effects everyone. You should be doing one thing, but you’re putting it off by doing something else. Procrastination is highly personal. When we know we’re procrastinating, we can’t blame anyone or anything other than ourselves. Why aren’t I don’t what I should be doing? Because I’m not. Because I don’t feel like it.
A seemingly obvious reason we procrastinate is because we lack motivation. Again, that reasoning is highly personal. Who is responsible for your motivation? You are. Who is to blame when you’re not motivated? You are. There are some exceptions, like when we blame illness for our lack of motivation. And sometimes it’s completely valid to blame illness. But if we keep digging and push for a more specific reason we are procrastinating, the answer might have more to do with emotion than motivation.
Are Your Emotions Making You Procrastinate?
One of the going theories about procrastination is that we do it as an emotional coping mechanism. Researchers in psychology, behavioral sciences, and related fields (Timothy Pychyl, Dan Ariely, Katherine Milkman, and others) believe we procrastinate when doing what we “should” do is hard, unpleasant, or uncomfortable in the moment. So instead of facing those negative emotions now, we instead do something that we “want” to do.
Here’s how Pychyl put it in an article on procrastination for Psychology Today:
When we face some tasks, we have a negative emotional reaction. These can be transient emotions, even preconscious—meaning that we’re not really aware of these feelings at a conscious level—but we do react to them. We cope by avoiding the task that we perceive is causing these negative emotions or is, at the very least, associated with these negative emotions. This avoidant coping response is procrastination.
Shoulds and Wants
The problem is that the long-term gains of doing the “should” behavior has much higher payout than the “want” behavior. One example that’s commonly cited is going to the gym. I should exercise regularly, and I should go to the gym right now. But exercise is hard. Putting on gym clothes and going to the gym takes time. And instead of facing those things that are hard and take time, I can instead make myself feel good by watching TV or eating cookies. Even though in the long term, going to the gym and exercising regularly will bring greater gains than eating cookies now, the decision about which behavior to do is driven by the immediate emotions that I’ll experience. Why would I choose to be uncomfortable now when I can be happy now? Human psychology tends to think in the immediate time frame.
The gym example is a useful one, but it doesn’t get to the heart of productivity, which is what I like to analyze. So let’s look at a productivity example.
Let’s say I should be working on my book, which is a goal that will make me happy when I achieve it. It could also advance my career and perhaps even bring financial gain. But working on my book is hard. Plus, working on my book is scary. What if what I write is terrible? What if my ideas are dumb? If I work on my book, I have to face the emotion of fear.
I can procrastinate by doing a task that is not at all scary and has its own reward, such as working on a short article that has already been accepted and will pay me $400. I don’t have to work on this article now. I’ve set aside time to focus on my book today. But the article is a sure thing and the book is not. Even though the potential reward of the book are much higher, there’s more at risk.
Work About Work
Let me give an example that’s common for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers put off doing a “should” task in favor of cleaning out emails. Dealing with email has the allusion of being productive work, even if it isn’t really. Many workers procrastinate by tricking themselves into feeling productive (a good emotion) by doing busy work, like processing email, even if there is much more important work to do. Because it feels productive, it doesn’t feel like procrastination.
A lot of “work about work” is a form of masked procrastination. Work about work is tasks that we usually need to do but which have low productivity value. Other examples of work about work are meetings and filing paperwork. They are important tasks to get done at some point, but they aren’t the hard work. They aren’t the meat and potatoes.
What Can You Do?
Identifying emotional coping is a huge step to curbing procrastination. Sometimes a simple pep talk with yourself can cure it. Maybe my writing will be terrible, but I’ll never know unless I do it. And anywhere, there’s this thing called revision that I can do later.
Milkman (2013) came up with a solution called temptation bundling, in which you allow yourself to do or get something you want whenever you do your should behavior. She and her colleagues carried out a study in which participants who went to the gym got to listen to audiobooks while they were there. The participants could choose the books; the Harry Potter books were among the most popular ones people chose, which is to say the audiobooks were for pleasure, not for serious study. The idea, and it was proven to work in her study, was that people would associate the thing they wanted (the audiobook) with going to the gym. So now they had an immediate and positive emotion associated with going to the gym, even thought the real payoff of going to the gym (keeping fit and healthy) was farther away and didn’t have any immediate positive emotional payoff.
So that’s one option. Figure out something positive that you like that you can have or do while you’re doing the should behavior. It can’t be a reward after. It has to be something you get in the same moment. Maybe you really enjoy fragrant candles and let yourself light them only while working on a certain project. Or maybe you procrastinate calling back clients, and you really like pedicures. The pedicure chair could become a fine place to return client calls.
When it comes to work about work, save those tasks for when your brain is fried. You can file paperwork at the end of a long week on a Friday afternoon (maybe while sipping your favorite specialty coffee concoction), but that’s not a good time to get hard tasks done. Schedule your hard tasks for when your brainpower and will are high, and save the busywork for when they’re low.
Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2013) Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, Articles in Advance, pp. 1-17, INFORMS.
Image by Lynn Friedman, CC.