Are you a habitual dawdler? Do you put off important tasks until the last minute? Maybe it’s how you feel – rather than how well organised you are – that’s behind your tendency to procrastinate, writes Sam Kemmis for Fast Company.
Latest psychological studies conclude that it’s more likely to be your mood rather than your lack of willpower or poor time management that stops you getting on with work you know must be completed.
Kemmis, himself a serial procrastinator, welcomed reports that tell him he isn’t simply “lazy, unmotivated or distracted”. Now he has examined their theories to try and pin down the actual issue and find potential solutions.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Kemmis points out that the act of procrastination is perfectly illogical. Getting tasks ticked off your to-do list is going to make your happier; delaying them is a recipe for stress.
Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, refers to procrastination as an “emotion-focused coping strategy to deal with negative emotions”.
In other words, we look at a task and imagine that it is going to make us feel bad in some way, then we avoid it so that we don’t have to face that threat to our emotions. Instead, we miss out on the feeling of achievement or success we could have if we completed the task.
“The key insight from the recent research is that ‘giving in to feel good’ isn’t about willpower or forcing yourself to do something you hate; it’s about managing your emotions so they don’t get hijacked by your inner critic,” says Kemmis.
WHY ARE WE AFRAID?
Our inner critic is very good at telling us how useless we are for putting things off and how guilty we should feel for procrastinating. Kemmis quotes a study which found that a self-critical mindset and having negative emotions about ourselves is likely to result in more, rather than less procrastination.
SO, HOW DO WE PROCRASTINATE LESS?
Kemmis says: “The research suggests that taking a softer, more compassionate view of our own behaviours may be the key to breaking out of this self-perpetuating spiral.”
Pychyl draws together ideas from different disciplines to help us change our attitude:
1) Feed the monkey. In Buddhist psychology the “monkey mind” is the unsettled one we all share and cannot control. Instead, we must “give the monkey something to do”.
2) Face the feelings. Emotions can’t be ignored. We must face the feeling that we don’t want to get our work done.
3) Take it one step at a time. All tasks are completed one action at a time. Keep looking at the next action rather than the scary mountain of work.
4) Get mindful. Practising mindfulness meditation has been shown to be very effective. In stressful situations it allows us to be calm and non-judgmental and to engage more with our work, without the stress escalating. “One small pilot study found very low procrastination scores among experienced meditators, suggesting that doing absolutely nothing might be the best way to get everything done,” adds Kemmis.
When procrastination strikes, acknowledging your emotions can kick it into touch and help you get your work done – without the stress and guilt of self-imposed delaying tactics.