EHP FYI

Newsletter from Employee Health Promotions

July Edition 2021

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Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)

If you’ve ever put off an important task by, say, alphabetizing your spice drawer, you know it wouldn’t be fair to describe yourself as lazy.


After all, alphabetizing requires focus and effort — and hey, maybe you even went the extra mile to wipe down each bottle before putting it back. And it’s not like you’re hanging out with friends or watching Netflix. You’re cleaning — something your parents would be proud of! This isn’t laziness or bad time management. This is procrastination.


If procrastination isn’t about laziness, then what is it about?


Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment.


“It’s self-harm,” said Dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary and the author of “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.


That self-awareness is a key part of why procrastinating makes us feel so rotten. When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea. And yet, we do it anyway.


“This is why we say that procrastination is essentially irrational,” said Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. “It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.”


She added: “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”


Wait. We procrastinate because of bad moods?

In short: yes.


Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.


“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.


In fact, there’s an entire body of research dedicated to the ruminative, self-blaming thoughts many of us tend to have in the wake of procrastination, which are known as “procrastinatory cognitions.” The thoughts we have about procrastination typically exacerbate our distress and stress, which contribute to further procrastination, Dr. Sirois said.


But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — “you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,” Dr. Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.


Over time, chronic procrastination has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, general psychological distress and low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic illness and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.


But I thought we procrastinate to feel better?


If it seems ironic that we procrastinate to avoid negative feelings, but end up feeling even worse, that’s because it is. And once again, we have evolution to thank.


Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.


“We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now,” said psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management.


Dr. Hershfield’s research has shown that, on a neural level, we perceive our “future selves” more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off — and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side — are somebody else’s problem.


To make things worse, we’re even less able to make thoughtful, future-oriented decisions in the midst of stress. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala — the “threat detector” part of the brain — perceives that task as a genuine threat, in this case to our self-esteem or well-being. Even if we intellectually recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for ourselves in the future, our brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present. Researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”


Unfortunately, we can’t just tell ourselves to stop procrastinating. And despite the prevalence of “productivity hacks,” focusing on the question of how to get more work done doesn’t address the root cause of procrastination.


What are some other, healthier ways to manage the feelings that typically trigger procrastination?


Cultivate curiosity: If you’re feeling tempted to procrastinate, bring your attention to the sensations arising in your mind and body. What feelings are eliciting your temptation? Where do you feel them in your body? What do they remind you of? What happens to the thought of procrastinating as you observe it? Does it intensify? Dissipate? Cause other emotions to arise? How are the sensations in your body shifting as you continue to rest your awareness on them?


Consider the next action: This is different than the age-old advice to break up a task you’re tempted to avoid into bite-sized chunks. According to Dr. Pychyl, focusing only on the “next action” helps calm our nerves, and it allows for what Dr. Pychyl called “a layer of self-deception.” At the start of a given task, you can consider the next action as a mere possibility, as if you were method acting: “What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it, even though I’m not?” Maybe you would open your email. Or perhaps you would put the date at the top of your document. Don’t wait to be in the mood to do a certain task. “Motivation follows action. Get started, and you’ll find your motivation follows,” Dr. Pychyl said.


Make your temptations more inconvenient: It’s still easier to change our circumstances than ourselves, said Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits.” According to Ms. Rubin, we can take what we know about procrastination and “use it to our advantage” by placing obstacles between ourselves and our temptations to induce a certain degree of frustration or anxiety. If you compulsively check social media, delete those apps from your phone or “give yourself a really complicated password with not just five digits, but 12,” Ms. Rubin said. By doing this, you’re adding friction to the procrastination cycle and making the reward value of your temptation less immediate.


On the other side of the coin, Ms. Rubin also suggested that we make the things we want to do as easy as possible for ourselves. If you want to go to the gym before work but you’re not a morning person, sleep in your exercise clothes. “Try to remove every, every, every roadblock,” Ms. Rubin said.


Still, procrastination is deeply existential, as it raises questions about individual agency and how we want to spend our time as opposed to how we actually do. But it’s also a reminder of our commonality — we’re all vulnerable to painful feelings, and most of us just want to be happy with the choices we make.


Now go finish up alphabetizing that spice drawer before it becomes your next procrastination albatross.


Take from an article by Charlotte Lieberman, published in The New York Times, June 23, 2021, where you may read the article in its entirety.

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