PROCRASTINATION
it’s is not about laziness, but a way of coping
with challenging emotions and negative moods
Text by Charlotte Lieberman

If you’ve ever put off an important task by, say, alphabetizing your spice drawer, you know it wouldn’t be fair to describe yourself as lazy. After all, alphabetizing requires focus and effort — and hey, maybe you even went the extra mile to wipe down each bottle before putting it back. And it’s not like you’re hanging out with friends or watching Netflix. You’re cleaning — something your parents would be proud of. This isn’t laziness or bad time management. This is procrastination.

Above: People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.

Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare, meaning “to put off until tomorrow.” But it’s more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia, meaning doing something against our better judgment.” “It’s self-harm,” said Dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary and the author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.

That self-awareness is a key part of why procrastinating makes us feel so rotten. When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea. And yet, we do it anyway. It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences. People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.

Put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on the immediate urgency of managing negative moods than getting on with the task. The particular nature of our aversion depends on the given task or situation. It may be due to something inherently unpleasant about the task itself: having to clean a dirty bathroom or organizing a long, boring spreadsheet for your boss. But it might also result from deeper feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. Staring at a blank document, you might be thinking, I’m not smart enough to write this. Even if I am, what will people think of it? Writing is so hard. What if I do a bad job?

All of this can lead us to think that putting the document aside and cleaning that spice drawer instead is a pretty good idea.

But, of course, this only compounds the negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame. 

WAYS TO MANAGE FEELINGS THAT TRIGGER PROCRASTINATION  

Consider the next action: This is different than the age-old advice to break up a task you’re tempted to avoid into bite-sized chunks. Focusing only on the “next action” helps calm our nerves. Don’t wait to be in the mood to do a certain task. Motivation follows action. Get started, and you’ll find your motivation follows.

Make your temptations more inconvenient: It’s still easier to change our circumstances than ourselves. We can take what we know about procrastination and use it to your advantage by placing obstacles between ourselves and our temptations to induce a certain degree of frustration or anxiety. If you compulsively check social media, delete those apps from your phone. By doing this, you’re adding friction to the procrastination cycle and making the reward value of your temptation less immediate.

On the other side of the coin, make the things we want to do as easy as possible for ourselves. If you want to go to the gym after work, but have a tendency to make excuses and bail, commit to form a workout partner. In short, remove every roadblock. 

Still, procrastination is deeply existential, as it raises questions about individual agency and how we want to spend our time as opposed to how we actually do. But it’s also a reminder of our commonality — we’re all vulnerable to painful feelings, and most of us just want to be happy with the choices we make. Now go finish up alphabetizing that spice drawer before it becomes your next procrastination albatross.