Three weeks into September and we’re feeling it! Some of us (read: me) are already slipping back into familiar habits and procrastination. And sometimes it’s unavoidable. There are days when procrastination comes for us all. You wake up, thinking about a project at work or task you can no longer put off and feel a swell of dread fill your chest. You know you have to deal with it today but you start puttering around and somehow end up deep-cleaning your junk drawer instead of replying to emails, or watching an endless stream of TikToks rather than putting on your running shoes. The putting off of tasks is time-wasting and mindless but sometimes it just feels inevitable. Inevitable — and terrible!
So why do we do it? “It’s self-harm,” says Dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary. Steel explains in a NYT article that this harm and 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.
Clearly we aren’t lazy, we’ve organized 10 other things in that time. Psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois explain that procrastination isn’t about avoiding work; it’s about avoiding negative emotions. We procrastinate when a task stirs up feelings like anxiety, confusion or boredom. And although it makes us feel better today, we end up feeling worse — and falling behind — tomorrow.
So what can you do if you’re prone to procrastination? As with anything, especially actions that regulate your emotions, you can’t just stop and expect that to work. You might want to explore the deeper feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. Without learning how to regulate your emotions in other, less destructive ways, the temptation to procrastinate will once again rear its head.
Recognizing that procrastination is not an act of laziness but a tool for emotional regulation can be hugely helpful, says Pychyl. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on studying for an exam were able to procrastinate less for subsequent exams. Another study, from 2012, looked at the links between procrastination, stress and self-compassion. It found that lower levels of self-compassion (aka treating ourselves with kindness and understanding when we make mistakes) may explain some of the stress that procrastinators experience.
You can start to harness self-compassion by following guided meditations such as this one by Headspace or be aware of negative self-talk and actively make an effort to be more gentle with yourself.
Procrastination is part of life. Its impact can range from mildly irritating to life-changing but the main thing to remember is that it can't be countered by self-flagellation. By finding ways to forgive yourself in the moment and be kind to your future self, you can slowly chip away at the habit.