More than a time management problem: Psychologists suggest that how regulating your emotions can help you boost productivity, and change the way you feel about your work.
You have a pile of case law to read before class tomorrow, but it suddenly feels urgently important to finally clean the 500 random files off of your desktop. After that, you notice that your closet could be a little neater too. For a second you feel accomplished and clutter-free, but then you turn back to your desk and see you still have hours of reading to do. You’ll get enough done to survive class tomorrow, you always do. Even if you have to sacrifice a good night’s rest...
We’ve all experienced procrastination. But anyone who has been there will know that rolling through cycles of chronic procrastination doesn’t feel great and often ends with you feeling more stressed than you were before. After you’re done, feelings of pride and accomplishment are likely diluted by feelings of regret that you didn’t start sooner. Even if you commit to yourself that it won’t happen next time, it does, and the cycle continues.
If you’re stuck in a pattern of procrastination, resolving to manage your time better or work harder likely won’t be enough to fix the problem. As it turns out, psychological research suggests that we actually procrastinate to avoid unpleasant feelings. So, when it comes to curbing procrastination, we should really be figuring out how to regulate our emotions.
According to the American Psychological Association, emotional regulation is simply “the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions.” Numerous studies lead by Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University, Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, and others have found that procrastination stems from an inability to regulate emotions in a healthy way.
“People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task,” explains Sirois.
This means you might opt to do something that will make you “feel better” in the short-term to avoid feelings like fear of failure, denial, self-doubt, or even boredom. In the end, you’ll still face the same emotions after you distract yourself, so procrastination actually just piles on more stress and makes it even more difficult to get started.
Beyond negative impacts on performance and productivity, chronic procrastination can also take a huge toll on long-term well-being, leading to feelings of anxiety, shame, and guilt. This can, in turn, lead to negative mood states that cause you to continue to procrastinate in the future, sometimes creating an unhealthy cycle of low mood states, anxiety, and underperformance.
If you are looking to procrastinate less, understanding how this behavior links to emotional regulation is key. Here are a few ways to start:
Silence your inner-critic
It sounds simple—we all know that self-doubt and poor self-image contribute to mood states that can lead to procrastination—but practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness can be key to handling stress, having healthier emotional regulation, and overcoming procrastinatory habits. In fact, one study found that students who procrastinated on an exam were less likely to push off studying and performed better on the next exam when they simply forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first one.
Not sure where to start? Try this exercise from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and other mindfulness-based interventions
A study by psychologists at the College of New Jersey reveals that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may also help improve healthier emotional regulation—making it a great long-term option for more chronic procrastinators. Findings of the study report, “Acceptance strategies could help improve students’ productivity by shifting their frame of mind away from their distress while energizing and motivating them to focus on meeting long term goals.” Essentially, ACT allows you to confront feelings prompting procrastination and gain awareness and control of how you respond to those emotions without self-judgment. By tying tasks to your own values, the process of ACT can then empower you to better commit to action with these goals in mind.
In can be as simple as taking the first step
In his recent book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, Dr. Pychyl shares advice for overcoming procrastination saying, “emotional regulation, to me, is the real story around procrastination because, to the extent that I can deal with my emotions, I can stay on task.” To overcome emotional hurdles and get started, Pychyl recommends focusing on the first step rather than the task as a whole. Once you get started, it is easier to keep going. “Once we start, our attributions of the task changes, he said. Based on other research, we know that our attributions about ourselves change too.”