Procrastination: Some causes and cures

Procrastination can be viewed as an emotionally driven response related to our concept of self. Negative emotions arise because we might feel that the task we are putting off simply represents something that we aren’t prepared to handle. We might think of the task as being too difficult or the prospect of failure being too high. These negative emotions deactivate the desire to begin the task and feed off our fear of failure.

There are a number of ways to overcome this behaviour, for example, dealing with the emotional aspects and sense of self, or reassessing our sense of time. However we look at procrastination, we can assume that behaviour is essentially goal-driven and this putting off disrupts our goal-orientated behaviour. Disrupting this behaviour leads to negative emotional responses, including shame, guilt and increased anxiety.

The role of negative and positive emotions.

One way around this, according to Dr Fuschia Sirois, is to attempt to balance out these negative emotions with more constructive positive ones. These then help to activate and motivate us to complete the task.

But overcoming procrastination is also concerned with changing our attitude to the task itself, especially if the task involves some kind of academic endeavour. Changing our view of potential setbacks, seeing failure and struggle as necessary, can also help us to engage with more difficult tasks.

Forgive yourself.

Another way to prevent procrastination is to forgive ourselves for our past procrastination. Professor Tim Pychyl describes procrastination as a transgression against the self – we told ourselves we needed to complete a task, we intended to complete the task but, in the end, we failed to live up to our own standard. This can be followed by emotions such as shame and blame, which then lead to even more procrastination. If we forgive ourselves for our past procrastination, we are less likely to suffer in the future.

(for more on these aspects of procrastination you might like to listen to this podcast).

Adjust the way you view time.

There is a tendency for us to categorise time as either present or future and this can have a very interesting effect on how we deal with goals and objectives.

If a deadline is in the present (for example, my essay needs handing it by 4pm tomorrow) we tend to start it sooner. However, if the deadline is further away (say, next week) we think of it in terms of the future and mentally place it in the someday box.

The way we categorise time is both inaccurate and illogical. For example, if a deadline crosses a calendar year we tend to place the activity in the future box (even if it’s the last week in December and the deadline is the first week in January). But if the activity deadline is in the same calendar year we place it in the present category. We may still have the same amount of time to complete the task, but because the deadline spans a calendar year, we think about it differently. Similarly, a Wednesday deadline given on a Monday is treated differently to a Monday deadline given on a Friday because Monday becomes next week.

Visit your future self.

Human beings are time travellers. Our imagination and propensity towards daydreaming allow us to recall our past (although not always accurately) and project ourselves into an infinite number of possible futures (psychologists call this future orientated cognition). Some people view their future selves as distinctly different to their present or past selves, while others have stronger feelings of future-self continuity. Greater feelings of continuity lead to fewer instances of procrastination, so if you feel that the person you’ll be when you’ve completed that task in the same as you, there is less of a chance that you’ll put off what needs to be done.

Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon studied the principle of future-self continuity by creating custom scripts and asking volunteers (all students) to engage in different types of visualisation to identify those techniques that were more likely to reduce procrastination.

Students who visualised their future selves reported more overlap between who they were in the moment and who they’d soon become. They also reported fewer incidents of procrastination.

This visualisation need to be quite specific, however, and Blouin-Hudon offers the following advice:

Be specific about what you need to achieve. For example, picture yourself doing the type of thing you procrastinate over. Also, recognise the consequences of not completing the task.

Use a third person perspective. By seeing our future self in a more objective way, we reduce the emotional connection, allowing us to be more rational about what needs to be done.

Imagine events in as much detail as you can, even down to smells and sounds. For example, what is your future self wearing? What is the lighting like in the room? What can you smell and hear? How does your future self feel?

Choose a limited number of concrete steps to progress forward towards the ultimate goal. Try chunking time or breaking larger tasks into small ones, each with a realistic and time managed deadline.

The key is to regularly practice the technique; Blouin-Hudon suggests every day. The script used in the study (and available online) incorporates aspects of mindfulness and relaxation techniques and could easily be adapted to support specific groups or individuals.

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