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June 23, 2023

Tackling Procrastination – at the Root

Simon Bell


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I suppose I first realized that I had a major problem with procrastination when my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. With her agreement, I assumed responsibility for her finances. Oh boy. What a mess. Long story short, she hadn't been able to organize her affairs for quite a while. And now they were my responsibility.

I took one look at the heap of bills and unanswered correspondence, rolled my sleeves up, and... found something else to do. Anything else. All the time. It was only when court summonses started rolling in that I finally started making panic-stricken phone calls. My stress levels went through the roof. Everything seemed out of control.

Searching for the Causes of Procrastination

It shouldn't have been that way. A normal person, I told myself, would make lists, set priorities, and actually do something. Not me. What was wrong with me?

I've always tended to ride deadlines. Been afraid of committing to action. I'm probably even writing this blog much closer to the copy date than most of my co-workers would. Down the years, I've had a few tries at improving matters. I've written action plans and endless to-do lists. And though this enforced self-discipline has had some effect, the underlying problem doesn't go away.

So what is wrong with me?

The Problem With Emotion

In the past, I’ve fielded plenty of opinions. They usually focus on personal organization, and specifically time management. So is that the answer? Set enough goals and deadlines, tick off enough achievements, and everything will be OK?

Maybe not. Because research suggests that the root cause of procrastination may not be as simple as poor time management. It's about poor emotional management.

Procrastination as a Coping Mechanism

Professor Fuschia Sirois and Dr Tim Pychyl are leading researchers in the field of procrastination. In their 2013 research paper, they suggest that individuals often resort to procrastination as a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions associated with stress, anxiety, fear of failure, or even boredom.

By postponing tasks or avoiding them altogether, people temporarily relieve these distressing emotions. This short-term relief, however, comes at the cost of increased stress and anxiety as deadlines loom.

One of the worst things about procrastination is that, most of the time, we're aware we're doing it. This self-awareness reinforces our sense of shame and promotes self-blame. And that reinforces the negative emotions that led to procrastination in the first place. It's a vicious circle.

We Don't All Procrastinate Alike

At this point, it's important to note that not everyone experiences procrastination in the same way. OK, so almost everyone does it from time to time. But for some people it's a serious problem. And the causes aren't always the same.

People with ADHD, for example, have an increased tendency to procrastinate. But research suggests that this is more to do with the difficulty they experience in paying attention than with emotional problems.

If you're managing someone who struggles with procrastination, or if you're prone to it yourself, it's worth bearing all possible causes in mind.

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How to Tackle the Root Cause of Procrastination

So, what can we do about all this? If it's a problem with managing our emotions, then we need to start by acknowledging that. Here are a few ideas about coping with the emotional roots of procrastination:

  • Recognize and acknowledge your emotions. Think about the emotions that arise when you're faced with a task. Take a moment to reflect on the feelings of anxiety, fear or self-doubt that influence your decision to procrastinate. By acknowledging these emotions, you can begin to develop healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Be kind to your future self. Research shows that our brains aren't good at thinking about our future states. We literally see "future us" as different people. So spend time making that future self less of a stranger. How will they feel if you don't get that project finished, or skip your gym session? Likely not great. So be kinder to them, and visualize how actually getting things done will benefit you down the line.
  • Reframe negative thoughts. Negative thoughts and self-doubt often contribute to procrastination. Challenge these thoughts by replacing them with more positive and realistic beliefs. Remind yourself that progress, not perfection, is the goal and that even small steps toward completing a task are valuable.
  • Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself when faced with setbacks or difficulties. Recognize that everyone encounters obstacles and that mistakes are a part of the learning process. Practice self-compassion by forgiving yourself for past procrastination and focusing on the positive action you can take now.
  • Regulate your emotions. Use effective emotion-regulation strategies such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, or journaling. These techniques can help you to navigate negative emotions more skillfully, reducing the urge to procrastinate.

Establishing Good Practice to Beat Procrastination

OK, so you procrastinate because you don't handle negative emotions well, not because you're a lousy time manager. But there are a few techniques that can help with the practical side of beating procrastination. For example:

  • Set realistic goals. Vague goals can be demotivating and increase the likelihood of procrastination. Set clear and achievable goals that outline what you need to do and when. Decide what your future self would want to see, and develop a clear plan of action to make that happen.
  • Break tasks into manageable chunks. Overwhelming tasks can be paralyzing, and lead you into the cycle of procrastination. Break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This approach not only makes the task less intimidating but also provides a sense of accomplishment as you complete each step.
  • Plan specific actions to overcome obstacles. For example, if you need to work on a challenging project, you could establish a specific time and place for working on it. This approach helps you to create a concrete plan that reduces ambiguity and makes it easier to start.
  • Enlist the support of others. Make yourself accountable to co-workers to enhance motivation and commitment. Sharing progress, setbacks and deadlines with a trusted individual or group can provide both support and extra accountability.

So will all this lead you (and me) to be better at getting things done? Only time will tell. I do believe that my future self would like to be a bit less stressed by my current self's inaction. Believing that is a start.

So it’s back to the piles of paper and the urgent phone calls. But at least I've got an idea of how to get through it, and what to focus on. And that helps. A lot.

To help you learn more about tackling procrastination, Mind Tools members have a range of resources to choose from, including:

How to Stop Procrastinating

Are You a Procrastinator?

Overcoming Procrastination Video

Emotional Intelligence

Blog author, Simon Bell.

About the Author

Simon has been researching, writing and editing non-fiction for over 30 years. In that time he's worked on educational courses, scientific journals, and mass-market trade books about everything from popular psychology to buying houses in Bulgaria. In the past 20 years he's specialized in simplifying complex subjects, and helping readers to learn new skills. Away from work he listens to good music, watches bad football, and is fascinated by medieval history.

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