How thriving can stop procrastination

I listened to a terrific podcast recently by Dr Christian Jarrett. He interviewed two world experts in the psychology of procrastination - Professor Tim Pychyl at Carleton University and Dr Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield.

“All procrastination is delay but not all delay is procrastination.”

Procrastination is irrational delay. There is something you need to do, or want to do, and the best time to do it is now … but you don’t. Examples might be the report you have to finish, the blog you want to write, or the new healthy-eating regime you want to start. The time to act arrives but you shift the date in your diary (again).

Why do we do that?

One key point in the podcast that resonated with me is that procrastination is not a time management issue but an emotional management issue.

Many people would consider procrastinating as a time management issue - “I’ve got so many competing priorities, I have to delay some of them. I just don’t have enough time.” But according to Professor Tim Pychyl, that’s not correct. Procrastinating is an emotional management issue. As a Thrive Consultant, this got me very interested.

When we procrastinate, our tendency is to beat ourselves up about it. Each time we delay the planned activity, our self-talk is probably self-critical. Procrastination feels like a character flaw that no amount of brain rewiring will change. The problem is that every time we beat ourselves up about pressing the delay button on our activity, we make things much worse.

Professor Tim Pychyl argues that procrastination is not a moral failing but rather a coping mechanism for painful feelings. It’s a psychological avoidance of tasks we fear for some reason. In The Thrive Programme, we discuss how our fears stem from our beliefs.

We know that positive, resilient and thriving people have strong psychological foundations. These foundations are the beliefs they hold about themselves - their self-efficacy, self-confidence, and social confidence. So if we’re procrastinating due to a fear, it may be we hold a belief such as:

  • I couldn’t cope if I failed this task
  • I have no willpower
  • I can’t do this task - I don’t have the skills
  • I’m a procrastinator - it’s just me

When we avoid or delay the activity, we might feel temporary relief. And that feels good … temporarily. The activity itself is likely to be something that we believe is a bit stressful, challenging, or boring. Whatever negative emotions we feel we’re avoiding, we’re only avoiding them temporarily.

Why am I procrastinating?

Ask yourself this question next time you delay. Probe yourself. What belief is driving this avoidance? Our beliefs aren’t fact and they can be changed. If you believe “it’s just me … I’ve always been a procrastinator” then that’s okay if you want to hold onto that belief. But is it helpful to you?

Professor Tim Pschyl says to be careful about minimising procrastination as a minor issue. The personal costs associated with procrastination can include severe impacts to performance, well-being, health, relationships, and regrets. “Procrastinators get sick more often, report higher rates of depression, and suffer the somatic and psychological effects of elevated stress. Procrastination doesn’t only affect our personal well-being and integrity, but it has an ethical dimension, affecting those around us who suffer “second-hand," either because of the time we take away from them when we rush off to finish things last-minute, or because the stress we put ourselves under negatively affects the health of our relationships.”

4 ideas to reduce procrastination

  1. Stop the negative self-talk when you have procrastinated. Don’t berate yourself. Stop the “there I go again … failed again to do what I said I’d do”
  2. Just start the very first action required of the activity. If it’s a report you have to write, decide on the structure of the report and start writing. If you need input from others for the report, get the input. Just start.
  3. Think about the positives you’ll experience when you complete the activity.
  4. Start the positive self-talk when you have completed your activity or the first chunk of your activity. “I’m pleased to have put the effort in to get this started/finished. I can get things done when I put my mind to it.”

To sum up Professor Tim Pychyl’s research on our attitudes about procrastination: “We think we’re having more fun, but we’re not”. “We think we’re not affecting our future self, but we are” and “it’s all about giving in to feel good,” which, see point number one, doesn’t actually work that well.

In The Thrive Programme we teach people how to discover and strengthen their beliefs and thinking styles that impact attitudes such as procrastination. 

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” ~ William James

Here's a link to the podcast.