How many times have you sat down to write an essay and been taken by a sudden urge to check your emails? Or written a list of people to contact about work opportunities and then disappeared down a rabbit hole scrolling through social media? Or perhaps you need to book some important medical appointments but instead you resort to completing household tasks that could easily wait another day.

You are not alone! These are examples from my own life, and I have recently had similar conversations with a number of clients. All of us label it “procrastination” and then proceed to beat ourselves up for the lack of discipline and motivation.

So let’s explore the term “procrastination”. As we know, it is when we delay completing tasks despite the potential negative consequences. The word comes from the Latin “pro” meaning “forward” and “crastinus” meaning “of tomorrow” so literally it means putting things off until tomorrow.

So I have been doing some research about Procrastination and it seems that the traditional way of thinking about this issue is now outdated. In the past, it has been framed as a time management problem, perhaps linked to laziness and a lack of discipline. Simply block out time to get things done and your problem is solved. No, it isn’t that simple. It’s actually about our capacity to regulate our emotions.

I am so grateful Charlotte Lieberman whose article in the New York Times led me to explore some extraordinary research that led me in a new direction.

She quotes, Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, as saying, “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

Procrastination: A means of Escape

But recent research has found that procrastination is deeply rooted in emotional regulation. In fact, it is now widely recognised as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

When faced with a task that triggers negative emotions such as fear of failure, self-doubt, or perfectionism, some of us opt for postponement as a means to temporarily escape those distressing feelings.

Then we set up a cycle of reward where the task avoidance is rewarded by something pleasurable, thus increasing the likelihood of continuing to resort to the more enjoyable alternative.

But, it doesn’t end there. The more we avoid the tasks that we know we must do, like the assignment or the medical appointments or our daily exercise, the worse we feel. This then becomes a vicious cycle that leads to chronic procrastination, increased stress and anxiety.

Emotional Regulation and Procrastination

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our emotions effectively. When we or our clients lack these skills, we may struggle to confront our negative feelings head-on, leading to avoidance behaviours.

For instance, say we feel anxious about an upcoming exam so to gain emotional regulation, we may sit down and watch a funny television program on Netflix. How often have you found that watching television, creates a sense of calm, until you realise that time is running out to cram for the exam.

So maybe Netflix and social media aren’t good long-term solutions. If we are trying to find a new way to manage our procrastination, what are some more effective ways to regulate these overwhelming emotions.

So how can you effectively manage your procrastination?

  1. Cultivate Emotional Awareness: First step is to identify and acknowledge our emotions without judgment. Falling behind with assignments, avoiding difficult conversations increase our anxiety. This activates our threat detector. But it is also a signal, a potent opportunity turn the light inwards and examine what emotions are driving our behaviour.  Slowly down, connecting with the breath and recognising our emotions is an important first step. Consider the possibility we are responding to a fear of rejection, fear of failure or of not being good enough. Naming our emotions and bringing them into conscious awareness is a wonderful first step.
  2. Identify and examine our negative beliefs: Underneath these emotions, are often negative thoughts and beliefs. Procrastination is often fuelled by negative beliefs and irrational thoughts, such as “I must be perfect” or “I’ll never get it done.” Sometimes these have grown from our childhood or past experience. Exploring the evidence or remembering past experiences when you were successful, can create a more balanced perspective.
  3. Develop Coping Strategies: Learning to surf the urge to procrastinate is a technique that has been used by people managing cravings and addictions. Practising awareness, relaxation, breathing techniques and mindfulness, can help us stay grounded when faced with challenging tasks.
  4. Become Curious: Pay attention to your emotions when you find yourself avoiding a task. Where do you feel it the sensation in your body? Does the sensation have a colour, a texture or shape? Draw the sensation. Ask the sensation what message does it have for you? When you think about procrastination does the feeling intensify or dissipate?
  5. Write a list: When we think about all that we must achieve it can seem so overwhelming. It is important to identify what is urgent and necessary and what is simply creating unnecessary pressure and stress. I work with the clients to identify ways to set achievable and manageable goals, celebrating progress along the way.
  6. Just do the next small step: Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa recommends you simply consider the next small step. Rather than break the whole project into smaller chunks, just do one thing. When the task seems huge and overwhelming, I encourage clients to set a timer and only work for 5 minutes on the task. Be strict on the first day after 5 minutes, decide if you want to set the timer for another 5 minutes. Frequently, just getting started can make such a difference to completion. It is a simple trick to reduce the overwhelm and increase productivity.
  7. Foster Self-Compassion: Learning forgiveness and acceptance of setbacks will improve client’s capacity to progress. if we model kindness and encourage clients treat themselves with the same kindness they would offer a friend, the results can be significant.

Reframing procrastination as a manifestation of underlying emotional regulation issues, can help clients to gain a sense of empowerment and build healthier coping mechanisms.

Removing self-blame and judgement, will help us all to tackle procrastination at its root cause.

If you would like some help working through your procrastination in a gentle and supportive way, reach out. Discounted sessions available for students.

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