To avoid procrastination: Acknowledge Emotions and Live Intentionally
Ihave a deadline for finishing an article tomorrow. I should be writing. Instead, I have spent the past hour going through social media posts by my friends. I also finished cleaning the kitchen, taking the dog out for a walk, and even made the dentist appointment that I was putting off. But as soon as I sit down to work on the article, my mind draws a blank — this is a relatively common experience of writers and anyone working on a project deadline. It’s not that I don’t want to write. I love writing, so why do I procrastinate?
Context Is Key
Procrastination is quite common. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves as chronic procrastinators. Procrastination has been described as a detrimental, harmless distraction, or sometimes even as being beneficial. Studies involving college students’ habits around procrastination have shown that context determines whether procrastination is helpful or harmful.
In one study, a group of students who self-identified themselves as “procrastinators” reported lower stress and better mood than their “non-procrastinators” counterparts early in the semester. However, towards the end of the semester, the dynamic shifted with the ‘procrastinator” group reporting higher levels of stress, lower mood, and overall higher levels of sickness. In comparing the overall academic performance of the two groups, the procrastinators also received lower grades on all assignments.
Whether helpful or harmful, procrastination often involves a self-defeating behavior pattern marked by potential short-term benefits and long-term negative costs. In other words, we procrastinate because some tasks affect our mood negatively, and we want to do something even distracting to feel better. When responding primarily to alleviate emotional discomfort, we are more likely to opt for short term impulsive actions.
Cognitive Biases and Energy Equation
How we feel influences decisions we make more than any of us would like to admit. When we are emotionally driven, we are more susceptible to cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a common type of error in thinking, often a result of our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. It can affect our decision making, behavioral responses, memory, and judgment.
So one can think of cognitive biases as “rules of thumb” that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed without much deliberation, but they are also prone to errors.
In the book, Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman proposes two “systems” in our minds that work together to help us make sense of the world. The first system or “System 1” is the fast system that is mostly unconscious and makes snap judgments based on our past experiences and is heavily influenced by our emotions.
The second system or “System 2” is the one that is more rational, conscious, and slow. Engaging “System 2” or effortful concentration can often compete with emotional, cognitive, and even physical tasks for energy pools.
In other words, “System 1” is efficient, but sloppy and “System 2” is deliberate but energy-intensive and requires us to respond with delaying gratification.
Kahneman further suggests that all forms of mental and physical work tap into a limited common energy reservoir. As a result, it is possible that when people are challenged by a demanding “System 2” intensive cognitive task and by “System 1” driven distraction, they are more likely to yield to the distraction, thereby more likely resulting in procrastination.
To avoid procrastination: Learn skills and Switch Modes
It’s not intuitive at first. Still, perhaps to overcome procrastination, we need first to address our emotional needs and automatic thoughts about the outcome of completing specific tasks. Consider what you might be telling yourself about the job that you are procrastinating. There might be cognitive biases affecting how you feel about the task and, therefore, affect your decision to delay getting started.
Learning skills: Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is about becoming mindful of our emotional reactions to situations that lead us to procrastinate.
Sometimes, emotion regulation is about learning the skills needed to increase or decrease the intensity of our emotions. An example of this is not wanting to think about the anxiety you feel over not being able to finish the writing task. If we learn to name and rate the intensity of emotions associated with a task, it can become easier to tame the emotion and overcome the barrier towards starting the task. The energy required to tame the anxiety emotion at 70% intensity feels overwhelming, but a 10% intensity can be overcome with some effort.
At other times, emotion regulation is about learning to change the type of emotion we feel. If you are procrastinating as you are worried about failing at finishing the task or doing the job poorly, you can learn to choose to change the narrative and perhaps even laugh it off instead of being embarrassed or letting the shame spiral bring you down.
Switch Modes: Moving from Emotion-Driven responses towards Emotion-Informed choices.
We live in a world full of hyper distraction from things that are constantly demanding our attention. This can often leave us emotionally feeling exhausted. It can also make us more likely to respond in an automatic mode.
It is also possible that the frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental works are not intrinsically pleasurable, and therefore, we learn to avoid them. This indeed corroborates the commonly experienced procrastination efforts by most people when engaging in an effortful task like writing under the pressure of a deadline.
So, for example, when we experience frustration, we can practice switching modes of responses. To resist reactive automatic mode (Emotion- driven response) that drives distraction and delay in getting started and promote intentional assertive mode (Emotion-informed response) that acknowledges emotional difficulty but chooses to get started anyway.
So, procrastination is quite common, and it might be good or bad for us, depending on the context. Our emotional states and automatic thoughts affect our brain’s ability to make intentional choices that require more energy and often necessitate delayed gratification.
We procrastinate in part because we are living in an emotional roller coaster world. Under energy resource constraints, we are driven by an automatic mode that prioritizes instant gratification.
A combination of cognitive biases and lack of awareness about emotion regulation skills and difficulty thereof can get in the way of us getting started on tasks. The better we get at becoming aware of our cognitive biases and practice skills to improve emotion regulation, the easier it gets to get started on tasks.
With a commitment to intention setting and becoming mindful, we can learn to move from Emotion-Driven response towards Emotion-Informed choices. In other words, the more effort we make in practicing to live intentionally, the more likely we are to dare I say — Avoid Procrastination!