Good News About Procrastination: Psychologists Explain Why We Do It (Not What You Might Think.)

Why procrastination feels so awful…and proven techniques to get you on the path to productivity.

by Ruth Harris

We really, really want to write our book/next chapter/next scene, but we don’t.

Instead, we

  • Organize our sock drawer.
  • Search for the missing sock. It must be somewhere. The washing machine? The dryer? Under the bed? Under the dog’s bed?
  • Call our best friend and whine about why the book is taking forever.
  • Make a grocery list. Which is at least useful, but still doesn’t get that scene drafted (or written).
  • Scrub the trash can. It’s that dirty? Really? Didn’t you just sanitize it yesterday? And the day before?
  • Weed the garden. Even though it’s January and it’s well known that even weeds hate cold weather.
  • Run a boring, pointless, time-consuming errand.

Why Do We Do Something (Procrastinate) That We Know Makes Us Feel Awful?

Why, instead of getting on with finishing those last chapters, editing that saggy middle, or polishing those crucial first, “look inside” chapters, do we indulge in irrelevant activities that make us feel awful instead of getting us closer to our goal?

  • Are we lazy?
  • Stupid?
  • Unmotivated?
  • Untalented?
  • Incapable of managing our time?
  • Incompetent?
  • Do we suffer from a character flaw?
  • Are we the victim of bad juju or some ancient curse?

Or Is It Something Else?

  • Are we insecure?
  • Anxious?
  • Frustrated
  • Bored?
  • Resentful?
  • Filled with self-doubt?
  • Suffering from low self-esteem?

A Bad Habit Or A Bad Mood?

According to Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

What!?

We procrastinate because we’re in a lousy mood?

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

In a 2013 study, Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois found that procrastination can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”

Dr. Sirois goes on to explain that we procrastinate because we’re more intent on managing negative moods like anxiety, frustration, and self-doubt in the present than in focusing on our goal, in our case writing a book.

A Dirty Bathroom Or Something Else?

The prospect of having to clean a dirty bathroom would make anyone go into mañana mode. And who wants to wash and fold an extra load of laundry? Or who but a masochist looks forward to tax season?

But we’re not faced with a dirty bathroom. Or laundry. Or taxes.

We’re faced with writing a book—something we want to doSomething we’re actually pretty good at.

So why, then, do we torture ourselves and put ourselves through the special hell of doing something—anything—except write?

Why are we doing something—procrastinating—when we know it will make us feel awful?

Are we nuts?

Maybe we should be plumbers instead.

Or maybe we should just give up and sling burgers at Mickey D.

I sure hope not.

But what if deeper, murkier feelings are involved?

The Empty Page Or, The Blank Document And Blinking Cursor.

You’ve fired up Word. Or Scrivener. Or Google Docs.

You’re staring at the empty screen.

And then?

Nada.

Suddenly, you’re seized by the urge to get out the Fantastic, put on some household gloves, and scrub the bleep out that bathroom.

Before you start, take a moment to peek in that bathroom mirror, and ask yourself: What am I really feeling? What thoughts are going through my mind? What emotions am I feeling? Rainbows and moonbeams?

Or does your inner script go something like this:

  • I’m not smart/talented/good enough to write this.
  • Even if I write it, no one will read it.
  • I’ll get bombarded with one-star reviews.
  • Jeez, writing’s soooo hard, way too hard for me.
  • I’m so inadequate.
  • What if I write so badly, even my editor gives up and declares my book unfixable?
  • Idea stinks.
  • Characters and plot stink.
  • Book stinks.
  • I stink.

A Vicious Cycle And A Double Whammy.

Those self-critical, downbeat thoughts connected to writing will only increase the negative associations the next time you sit down in front of the keyboard. The next day (or week or month) when you return to that blank screen, those negative feelings will still be there—and they will be amplified by increased stress and anxiety, the feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame that follow procrastination.

Psychologists call those thoughts “procrastinatory cognitions” and, in a classic double whammy, they exacerbate our distress and stress. Which, in turn, contributes to further procrastination.

We find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle in which we hate ourselves and our book languishes, unfinished. Or perhaps even unstarted.

In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief from painful feelings. “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.

We can blame evolution, because we’re hard wired to attend to immediate needs—in this case, relief from our negative emotions—even if we know that procrastinating will only make us feel worse.

Why productivity hacks don’t work.

The real issue is that procrastination is all about avoiding unpleasant emotions—not about to-do lists, will power, self-control, or downloading the latest, greatest time management app.

The way to stop procrastinating is to learn how to manage our emotions with new, more constructive approaches.

To rewire any habit, we have to give our brains what psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, called the “Bigger Better Offer” or “B.B.O.”

We need to find a better reward than the mere avoidance of negative emotions. But how?

Self forgiveness.

One option is to forgive yourself while you procrastinate. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for an exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam.

Self compassion.

In a 2012 study examining the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination, Dr. Sirois found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, suggesting that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions.”

Self-compassion allows you to approach your book with a kinder, more understanding attitude. Remind yourself of your four- and five-star reviews, praise from your editor or an author you admire. Imagine your own feeling of satisfaction when you finish that chapter or when that difficult scene turns out so much better than you’d feared.

Analyze yourself (no, it’s not a movie).

When you feel tempted to procrastinate, take a moment to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Do you feel your desire to procrastinate in your stomach? Your chest? Does that wish to escape via procrastination intensify or diminish as you stay with your feelings and physically locate them?

What exactly are you telling yourself? Does a loop of self-critical thoughts intensify your wish to procrastinate? Does deliberately shifting your thoughts into kinder, less accusatory directions cause your wish to procrastinate to diminish?

Analyzing your thoughts and feelings will help deprive them of their negative power. You will feel less vulnerable, more in control, and you will reduce the compulsion to flee negative emotions by procrastinating.

Consider the next action.

According to Dr. Pychyl, focusing specifically on the “next action” helps calm our nerves.

“Motivation follows action. Get started, and you’ll find your motivation follows,” Dr. Pychyl advises.

Don’t wait to be in the mood to write. Instead, go to your desk and write something—a word, a phrase, a sentence.

Just do it.

Because:

Every book starts—and ends—with a word. A phrase. A sentence.

Because:

Even if it does stink, what happens between you and your muse stays between you and your muse.

After all, you can edit it/change it/fix it/delete it later.

Because:

As Nora Roberts said: “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

Want to know more about procrastination?