Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem

A recent article by Charlotte Lieberman in the New York Times argues that procrastination has nothing to do with self-control. Rather, procrastination stems from a difficulty with emotional control!

Procrastination is the habitual or intentional delay of starting or finishing a task despite knowing that doing well will have negative consequences. We know that avoiding the task is a bad idea, and we do it anyway!

In reading this article, I’m struck by how it applies to therapy. So often patients put off entering treatment for weeks, months, and sometimes years. They know that delaying doing so is hurting them. But they continue to do so.

So too, patients who are beginning therapy are aware that they want their life to be different in some profound ways. As we explore their will to engage in treatment, it becomes apparent that they are not yet willing to do the hard work that enacting those steps would require. Maybe they are engaging in treatment because their partner thinks that they should. Maybe they are hoping that if they just show up, that will be enough. As a patient articulated recently, “I know what I want, but I just want it to happen. I don’t want to have to work to make it happen!” We both burst out laughing because it was such an honest comment. And then we sobered instantly, because her procrastination was having other, more dire consequences in her life.

I can so understand wanting change to happen that way. I’ve desperately wanted it to happen that way too! And intellectually, of course, we know that it doesn’t. But that doesn’t stop the fantasy from being a profound one! We can all relate to wanting to get the assignment done, the difficult conversation out of the way, and then avoiding them entirely.

Why do people procrastinate?

In the article, Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, is quoted as saying that “people engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” We procrastinate as a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by tasks. We procrastinate as a way of avoiding the boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, and self-doubt that doing the task requires.

Procrastination is about being “more focused on the immediate urgency of managing negative moods” than on getting a task completed. This can be the case if the task is in and of itself unpleasant. It is particularly true when something about the task results stirs up deeper feelings, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety, or other insecurities.

Unfortunately, avoiding the task doesn’t help us manage those feelings. They are still waiting for us whenever we come back to the task, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem, and self-blame.

In the short-term, avoiding the task works really well. This is what makes the cycle especially vicious. We put off a task to avoid negative feelings, but then end up feeling even worse.

Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones. On a neural level, we perceive our future self more like a stranger than as an actual part of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side–are somebody else’s problems.

To make things worse, we’re even less able to make thoughtful, future-oriented decision in the midst of stress. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala–the “threat detector” part of the brain–perceives that task as a genuine threat, in this case to our self-esteem or well-being. Intellectually we recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for ourselves in the future. But our brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the immediate threat in the present.

That’s why “productivity hacks” focusing on the question of how to get more work done that doesn’t address the root cause of procrastination are likely to be ineffective.

Avoiding procrastination has to do with managing emotions in a new way. This means we have to find a better reward than avoidance–one that relieves our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future self.

What are some ways to start undoing the process of procrastinating?

Ms. Lieberman suggests some healthier ways to manage the feelings that typically trigger procrastination. These include

Cultivate curiosity. When you’re feeling tempted to procrastinate, bring your attention to the sensation arising in your body. What feelings are eliciting the temptation? Where do you feel them in your body? What do they remind you of? What happens to the thought of procrastination as you observe it? Does it intensify? Stay the same? Dissipate? Cause other emotions to arise? How are the sensations in your body shifting as you continue to rest your awareness on thjem?

Consider the next action. This can help calm your nerves. You can consider the next action as a mere possibility. “What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it, even though I’m not.”

I was particularly struck by these suggestions, as they are similar to the types of interventions I often make with my patients. When we get curious about our emotions, when we are able to watch them with a sort of interest in them, we can begin to listen to the information that they are trying to provide. When we listen to them, also, ironically, they become less overwhelming. When they are given our gentle attention, emotions can become tolerable. They can even become our friends.