By Lisa T. Wood
I felt a zing of accomplishment while folding the freshly washed towels. But the satisfaction was short lived. I knew the truth: the sudden interest in laundry was really a sham, a mere distraction to justify avoiding something else. I had been lured from the time-sensitive project waiting on my desk. Thanks to procrastination, laundry was done but the project was collecting cobwebs.
A sneaky and persistent companion, procrastination can derail tasks big and small. Even the most driven, productive people can succumb to its faulty logic and tempting offers of postponed responsibilities. Worse yet, with its trademark characteristics of delay, distract and avoid, procrastination can turn life’s dreams into missed opportunities by subordinating our days to its fickle whims. But applying a new understanding of its inner workings can help us break free.
Emotions and Procrastination
Procrastination is intentionally delaying doing something until a later time because you don’t want to do it. But looking deeper can loosen procrastination’s grip. Often we procrastinate because it feels better in the moment to avoid the thing that needs to be done. According to researcher Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, procrastination is an attempt to replace the perceived negative emotion of starting the task we should be doing with another task instead that immediately boosts our mood.
It turns out that the desire for mood boost, or “mood repair” can trip us up when we make choices that take us further away from what needs to be done. For example, checking social media sites for a half hour may boost mood in the moment. However we can feel worse later facing the consequences of our choice when the responsibilities remain untouched. To bust out of this emotional yo-yo try two techniques to keep procrastination from taking hold.
Ask “Why” to Get Started
First, ask a question: why do I have negative emotions about getting to that project? Answering honestly will uncover many potential reasons why you don’t want to jump in. Learning more can reveal clues for how to start. For example, feeling unprepared, uninformed, or overwhelmed? Maybe you’re out of your comfort zone, are fearful of being judged or feel vulnerable about the results. Or, being emotionally committed to something makes it tough to get it going because you’re putting yourself “out there” in new ways. Maybe it’s just a long, tedious thing to slog through and you dread it.
In each situation answers provide a roadmap forward. Feeling unprepared? List what would make you feel prepared and then go about helping yourself—or getting support from others—to get ready. Overwhelmed? Are there other smaller, less critical tasks you can get done sooner to clear the way, emotionally and otherwise, for this one? If you’re afraid of being judged, do you clearly know what the desired outcome is so you can set yourself up for success?
Understanding the negative emotions behind procrastination can shrink fears or concerns that once felt like huge barriers, bringing them down to a manageable size. A friend of mine put off a medical test for months due to fears she developed hearing others talk about their experiences. Finally she met with her doctor and learned the procedure had completely changed for the better. She bravely booked an appointment the next week and received two reasons to celebrate—an excellent outcome from the test and relief from the ongoing worry suffered at the hand of procrastination.
“To-Be” Versus “To-Do” Lists
Another way to gain clarity about procrastination is to change how you think about your personal or professional “to-do” list. First, look at the list. Try not to judge how well you’re ticking items off; just kindly review it. Now instead of thinking in terms of doing, think about being. Imagine converting the list into a “to-be” list. You do things in life like walk the dog, go grocery shopping or study for a test because you are trying to be someone in each scenario.
And who are you trying to be? Perhaps a caring pet lover, a loving and responsible adult, and a prepared student. Being each of these means the dog is happy and healthy, your family is nourished with good food through the day and acing the test gets you closer to the new career with increased pay. This new perspective triggers a series of emotional connections, proving to be a motivating procrastination-buster.
Looking at life as a set of disconnected tasks is just not that inspiring. Without inspiration it’s easy to succumb to the taunts of procrastination. Understanding the purpose behind each to-do shows you in a loving way that what you’re up to really matters. And if you discover some things you’re doing that don’t matter to you enough, give yourself permission to strike them from the list once and for all.
Take Charge to Energize Life
Earlier this year in an article by Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal cited research by Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, Chicago, and others, showing that 20% of adults claim to be chronic procrastinators. The rate among college students may be as high as 70% according to other studies. The existence of procrastination can predict lower salaries and a higher likelihood of unemployment, reported by a recent study of 22,053 people co-authored by Dr. Ferrari.
The same study concluded that procrastination is also predictive of longer-term challenges such as neglecting preventive health care and not saving for retirement. When it comes to health, well-being, personal and professional satisfaction, it is wise to keep procrastination in check.
Want to live a life energized by meaning, empowerment and well-being? Develop awareness about how procrastination shows up for you and then get ready to dust off some projects. The next time the laundry beckons you’ll have some understanding of your motivation to fold towels…unless of course, you decide to think about it tomorrow. Find Lisa T. Wood at www.lisatwood.com