Do you procrastinate because you can't manage your emotions?

How to finally deal with this truly existential issue.

How to finally deal with this truly existential issue

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

I've never felt more acutely aware of my tendency toward procrastination than in researching and writing this article. 

My house has been cleaned, dirtied, and cleaned again at the expense of efficiency and deadlines. I booked appointments for the doctor, dentist, and hair stylist, strategized cottage sleeping arrangements, baked brownies, banana bread, and a crumble. I actually polished my silver. 

You might think writing about procrastination itself — shining a cold, hard, inescapable light on how it works — would help keep me on task. You'd be wrong. I can vouch for the research when I say that fixating on past procrastination only increases the likelihood that you'll keep doing it.

But probably not for the reasons you think. 

"Self-control doesn't predict goal success," says Timothy Pychyl, an Associate Professor and head of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University. He's referring to research by his colleague Marina Milyavska, but the underlying idea gets at the heart of our widespread misunderstanding that we procrastinate because we're weak-willed or bad at managing our time.

In fact, says Pychyl, what we're bad at, is managing our emotions. 

Pychyl's mood repair theory of procrastination proposes that we procrastinate to feel better. We avoid tasks because they're unpleasant for whatever reason — maybe they're boring or cause anxiety, resentment, or self-doubt — and we just don't want to deal with those negative emotions. 

"If we avoid the tasks, we avoid the emotions," says Pychyl, "and that's powerfully reinforcing."

Put in such simple terms, Pychyl's theory may seem self-evident. Of course we prioritize our short-term mood over our longer-term goals. After all, the idea of human nature as impulsive, pleasure-seeking and biased to the present moment is widely accepted.  

In psychology, the concept of "delay discounting" explains how some people prefer smaller more immediate rewards over larger ones they have to wait for. 

Your biology plays a role

And in the case of procrastination, the tendency to choose feeling good now despite knowing it might cost us later is backed up by recent findings which show that the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in decision-making and perceiving, learning, and regulating emotions, is bigger and works differently in procrastinators.

Researchers used fMRI brain scans to determine that people who hesitate or delay beginning a task also have weaker connections between their amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, or dACC. 

"The interplay between the amygdala and the dorsal ACC is quite important for successful emotion control and also for procrastination as a kind of emotion-control and self-control failure," said the study's lead author, Caroline Schlüter.

According to Schlüter, the amygdala evaluates whether a task or action (like writing your thesis or watching TV) is desirable or important. Then it shares this value assessment with the dACC where the decision to take action is made based on the most desirable option. 

A weaker connection between the amygdala and the dACC, like the one found in procrastinators, means the dACC has a harder time regulating or controlling the negative emotions coming from the amygdala. To avoid the onslaught of boredom, anxiety, or stress, we'll switch tasks. 

Schlüter and her colleagues suspect that part of the reason procrastinators (with their larger amygdalas) delay, is that they may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action and therefore tend to put things off. This is consistent with older research from Stanford, which finds that larger amygdalas are also correlated with higher levels of anxiety. 

The possibility that procrastination is not a failure of the will, but a product of biology is important not because it lets you off the hook for failing to get things done, but because letting yourself off the hook is an important step in reprogramming your behaviour away from habitual procrastination. 

Self-compassion helps us stop brooding over our past failures and thus reduces the negative feelings we have about ourselves. In so doing it decreases the likelihood of procrastination as a strategy to avoid those feelings. On a case by case basis, forgiving yourself for procrastinating today also makes it less likely you'll procrastinate on the same task tomorrow. 

Aligning your to-do list with your values

Another procrastination theory that may help shift your focus away from self-criticism comes from Pychyl's colleagues in Germany, Axel Grund and Stefan Fries, who approach procrastination from the point of view of motivation. They propose that procrastination isn't an irrational, self-defeating behaviour at all, but an indication that our responsibilities and goals are out of sync with our values. As such, the researchers conclude that procrastinators value enjoying their free time and their own personal well-being more than they value achievement. 

This theory also holds that we're more likely to get tasks done when they're self-directed rather than externally assigned. But, of course, as many procrastinators will attest, the opposite is often true. Being accountable to someone else increases the odds that you'll take care of business. 

So while Grund and Fries importantly draw attention to the role of value-alignment and agency on motivating us to follow through on our goals, Pychyl suggests that it ultimately leads back to task aversion and managing our emotions. Value misalignment causes negative emotions, and we procrastinate as a coping mechanism. 

"Procrastination is deeply an existential issue because the only non-renewable resource in your and my life is time, and we don't even know how much we're going to get," says Pychyl. "If you're wasting your time — and I'm not meaning in terms of being uber productive or making more money — but not living up to the goals that you want in life... then you're spinning your wheels, you're not getting on with life itself."

Then how do we get on with living when we feel restrained by procrastination?

Mindfulness, self-compassion and focus

One way is through mindfulness meditation. Not only does it increase self-compassion by encouraging us to be aware of our thought patterns and emotions, without being judgmental, but mindfulness also helps us develop the ability to re-focus our attention away from rumination or distraction to the next action we need to take.

Even more amazingly, a consistent meditation practice of just eight-weeks has been shown to shrink the amygdala and increase connections between parts of the brain responsible for concentration. 

"We have neuroplasticity and change is possible," says Pychyl. In other words, you are not a slave to your biology. 

Visualizing your future self

Counterproductively, our brains tend to think of our future selves as strangers, making it easier for us to ignore the long-term consequences of decisions made today. But there are ways to counteract this. Pychyl points to an experiment done by one of his students, Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon. She created a mental imagery practice geared at connecting students to their future selves by encouraging them to consider the perspective of that future-them. The exercise increased students' empathy for their future-selves and this, in turn, reduced procrastination. 

Similar techniques of future visualization are used in lots of domains, from executive coaching to sports psychology and can even help you save more for retirement

Setting intentions and removing temptations

Another useful strategy for fending off procrastination is setting an intention before temptation arises so that you don't have to make a decision in a moment of weakness. Tell yourself ahead of time that if the opportunity to socialize comes up while you're working, you'll turn it down, says Pychyl. That pre-commitment has been shown to help people deal with potential distractions. 

When it comes to digital distraction, tools like site blockers can help keep you off social media, specific websites, or the entire internet. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Of course for some people, procrastination and its resulting negative emotions have produced a cycle so strong that it requires outside assistance. Counselling and coaching strategies such as acceptance and commitment therapy, which encourages self-acceptance, acceptance of what is out of our control, and commitment to positive action, can help.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies are also common. These can help with reframing negative thoughts, increasing resilience, and managing emotions. In his workshops, Pychyl uses such strategies to help professionals unpack the biased thought patterns that convince them they'll want to do tomorrow what they put off today. 

"We believe that we're going to feel better by doing these behaviours, whether it be having an extra piece of cake, or eating too much, or spending money we don't have, or, in the case of procrastination, spending time we don't have," says Pychyl. 

"Once we can get past the fact that this isn't going to really make us feel better, then we're on the road to changing our behaviour."

Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.