Procrastination is more about emotions than time management

Procrastination is a constant struggle.

I struggled with procrastination as a student. I think most students do. Learning not to procrastinate is very difficult. Negative emotions associated with the consequences of procrastination should teach us not to procrastinate. Unfortunately, the same negative emotions are what inspire us to put off the task at hand.

The Atlantic had a nice summary of the emotional causes of procrastination. In the article, Derek Thompson referred to a familiar phenomenon he called the procrastination doom cycle. Prof. Ferrari told Psychological Science that procrastination is primarily an emotional phenomenon. It happens when “we delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and we assume that our mood will change in the near future.”

I relate strongly to this cycle. It is easy to think that the tasks that will allow us to complete our goals will be easier when we are in a more goal-minded mood. Of course, it’s much more common to be in a overwhelmed mood than a goal-minded mood, particularly when there are many tasks to complete. When I feel overwhelmed, I am most likely to procrastinate.

Unfortunately, the list of interventions for the doom cycle is somewhat short. If the problem were time management then it would be comparatively simple to reorder the priority list or invent a better scheduling system. If the problem is the emotional, then it is less obvious how to correct it. Having compassion for oneself and forgiving oneself for mistakes or poor performance may be a good step toward a better mood (which helps productivity since a bad mood is what is getting in the way in the first place).

I have found that adding pleasurable stimulus to the task that I am procrastinating has helped me avoid procrastinating further. For instance, I turn on an audiobook while I clean my work bench or do repetitive pipetting. That doesn’t work for grant-writing or journal reading.

LifeHealthPro recommends treating emotionally averse tasks as games or challenges. Thinking of tasks as obligations with high performance expectations is probably part of the problem. Marjorie Dudley recommends setting a 10 minute challenge. That is, work on a necessary task right now, but only for 10 minutes. Set a timer. It feels easier to start if you know you will stop in 10 minutes. Then, after 10 minutes, if you don’t feel like stopping, don’t stop. Keep on going. If you feel like stopping, stop and go onto something else.

This is a lot like the Pomodoro technique, which I have written about before. In that technique, you set out to work for 25 minutes. Then there is an enforced break after that. The idea is to have 5 min of complete down time in which to start to feel bored. Once you start to feel bored, going back to the task is easier. In my experience, this works really well for staying productive, but not so well for starting a task.