How often do you put off work by engaging in activities like watching YouTube videos or binging Netflix shows?
Although procrastination has gradually become a problem so common we might even dare to call it a zeitgeist phenomenon, it still remains largely unstudied.
Usually, when experts, or even people in general, address the problem of procrastination, they talk about habits, productivity, organization, and time management.
Not many people dare to talk about the underlying cause of procrastination: difficult emotions.
If we want our productivity and time management strategies to really work and make sense, we need to understand why we need them, and what exact issues are we addressing with them.
What Is Procrastination?
Procrastination is a common and pervasive problem that occurs in a variety of life domains when people need to engage in tasks that are seen as aversive or unpleasant. Work, for instance, ends up being delayed with the full awareness that the delay will come at a cost.
The first procrastination experience for most of us was probably math homework, and while it’s perfectly understandable how that happened, it also happens that we delay completing the pleasant tasks too.
After the initial hype we hold on to for the first couple of months, we gradually begin to procrastinate on work projects, although we claim we love our job. We delay going out on a date with a person we like, sometimes until it’s too late, or exiting a toxic partnership, even though it’s been devastating us for years.
Today we know that procrastination isn’t about being lazy or incompetent. It’s about much more deeply rooted emotional issues.
The neurotic procrastinator (or perfectionist) is so overly concerned with other people’s not-yet-experienced judgment that they can’t even begin working on a task. The perfectionist ideals the neurotic procrastinator holds on to are so demanding and punishing, that engaging in work seems like jumping in a pool full of alligators.
In this scenario, procrastination isn’t about delaying work itself, but the negative emotions that might occur along with a task such as anxiety, boredom, or confusion.
There are, however, productive perfectionists, as well. They usually beat themselves up with their own high standards, but in the end, they might manage to accept themselves and their procrastination as humane and use some productive strategies to start over and get the work done.
Emotion Management in Dealing with Procrastination
The main reason why we procrastinate is fear. Fear of other people’s judgment, commitment, abandonment, rejection.
When we procrastinate, our mind is usually “foggy” and we don’t think about these underlying fears - they remain somewhere in the subconscious territory of our psychological apparatus.
The first step to emotion management would be to wake these ideas up and bring them to consciousness.
Why am I scrolling through cat videos now? Yes, they bring me instant joy and mood improvement, but I know I will regret it tomorrow. What is the real reason behind my actions?
Gaining insights into our emotional world is half of the job. The rest are nuances.
Specific action can make sense only when it’s preceded by dialogue and a deep understanding of our emotional condition.
One way of putting an end to procrastination is to use the awareness and knowledge you’ve gained about how you feel to evolve from a neurotic procrastinator to a productive procrastinator.
As described above, that means focusing on your own quality work standards (no matter how high they are) instead of thinking what others would say, accompanied by self-compassion, necessary for accepting yourself as a person who sometimes procrastinates and giving yourself a shot at this task.
The other options you have are rather practical.
Although being a morning person has numerous benefits for health, focus, and productivity as a general rule, perhaps you need to bend this rule a bit in the service of your own good.
Even if a person knows they’re the most alert and focused early in the morning, in the procrastinator’s case, this actually means most focused on their anxiety and/or the objects of their procrastination (other activities used as an excuse to delay working on a task).
If you delay your main task for when you’re less alert, more relaxed, and a bit more tired, it’s possible that you’ll “care less” and just get things done.
You can use your mornings to get other, less stressful tasks completed.
If you have a clear plan and a rational reason why you’re delaying your work, that’s not procrastinating, it’s a plan.
Furthermore, if you spend time with people who also procrastinate, it’s more likely you’ll do it too. But the good news is that it works the other way around as well. You’re more likely to actually engage in work if people around you do it too.
Also, how many times have you delayed a menial, seemingly meaningless task, that you need to do alone? And what happens if someone depends on the results you deliver?
No matter how boring the task, when we know we’re a part of something bigger, and that someone depends on us to finish it, we tend to commit more.
Procrastination isn’t an illness we can put an end to by drinking medication, avoiding unhealthy food, or exercising regularly.
It’s an emotional issue that needs resolution by using logic, reason, and emotional investment.
The modern world doesn’t really assist us on this journey with all the easily accessible distractors everywhere we look.
However, change is possible, we just need to embrace it along with the fact that we’re only humans, with all our strengths and flaws, existing in a complex world. Sometimes all we need is to give ourselves a break.