This week as I was doing some research to support a client who suffers from chronic procrastination, I came upon the resources of Timothy Pychyl (1). As I read, I started to realise that it was not only my client who could benefit from knowing what is at play behind the mechanisms of procrastination, but it was also very much applicable to myself as well.
This short article introduces the key take aways of his 20 years of research in that field and how you can use these insights to help yourself do what you really want to do.
It always start with etymology
Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinate — 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.
So the Greeks and the Romans got it right, what is at play with procrastination is to intentionally delay something we really want to do and by doing so we harm ourselves in the process.
I have a clear example of my own. I used to practice Yoga and for almost 15 years it was a daily practice, then for many reasons that I won’t cover here, and in the last year I have been willing to start again. My body is screaming for it, my mind is longing for the silence and peace it finds during practice and every day I tell myself that I will start tomorrow. Knowledge is not an issue, I know what to do, equipment I have, so no excuse really…however, tomorrow never comes and I am still to start resuming my yoga practice.
So what is going on?
I am aware that I want to start again, I am aware that postponing it is not a good idea and still, despite reason, I am postponing starting my yoga again.
Proscratination is a coping mechanism to deal in the short term with negative emotions
So if am aware I am procrastinating, I know it doesn’t make sense and I am self-harming in some ways, if it is not an inability to plan my days, it can only be explained as a coping mechanism for dealing with negative emotions.
In my case, my negative emotions come from the fact that I am afraid , afraid that when I do my first yoga practice I am not going to recognise the Yogi I used to be. I will be confronted with the impact of stopping yoga for a long period of time, the flexibility will be gone, the flow will be replaced feeling tense and breathless…in other words, seeing myself starting at the bottom again makes me feel very afraid and disappointed so I postpone being confronted with this experience, hoping that tomorrow will be the day when I muster the courage, when the envy is going to be stronger than the fear. Obviously I feel a relief…I don’t have to do it today, it is only going to be postponed to tomorrow.
But as psychology has proven with classical conditioning is that behaviours that are rewarded are repeated. Procrastination by making me believe that I will complete my goal of resuming yoga in the future makes me feel good in the “now”, and this coping mechanism is being repeated everyday as it gives me comfort and relief.
And so as you can imagine, tomorrow never comes.
Each task will brings potentially a negative emotion such as anxiety, fear, insecurity, low self-esteem. It could be:
- the fear of starting writing a paper because you don’t have enough information.
- the boredom due to the tedious nature of doing your expense claims
- the self-doubt of being able to deliver that speech
But the “feel-good” now compounds the intensity of the negative emotion
Of course, the more I delay resuming my yoga, the more I dread the moment of reckoning. This only compounds the negative association which brings additional negative emotions like anger and disappointment with myself. A pretty toxic cocktail when you think that Yoga is supposed to bring me a relaxation and inner peace.
And so, the more “emotionally” the topic of yoga becomes, the more “relief” and “feel-good” I experience in the moment when I procrastinate. This means that a vicious circle is established and a chronic procrastination can take place with destructive effects on our mental and physical health including chronic stress, distress, anxiety, chronic illness and depression.
The paradoxical nature of procrastination lay bare our mental heuristics and biases
Procrastination is the perfect example of present bias, our natural tendency to prioritise the short term over the long term. Better now “feeling-good” than maybe later “feeling bad”. To compound this problem, we are even less capable of making rational, future oriented decisions in the mids of stress. The amygdala, a brain region, is specialise in detecting threats. In the case of yoga, the fear of being confronted with the fact I have become “so crap” at yoga is a threat to the identity I have built about myself. So, in the present moment, my amygdala is dealing with the present problem and activates a behaviour to make it go away, ensuring that the “threat” to my identity does not happen.
This mechanism shows that simply telling myself I should not procrastinate will not work as when the negative emotions arise, my limbic system, from which the amygdala is one element, is activated, takes over and deal with the short-term threat so it does not materialise. The “rational” part of ourselves is no match for the “emotional” part when it comes to protecting ourselves.
So now, what? What can we do?
So rationalising about it, buying a productivity app or forcing ourselves into self-control will not be effective. Beating the limbic system at its own game however is a more successful avenue.
The idea is to find a better reward than the one provided by the avoidance which comes with procrastination. So the holy grail is to reward ourselves for a behaviour which relieve us from the the short term negative emotion while ensuring it doesn’t cause harm in the long term.
Some of the strategies which have been found effective by researchers:
- Start small, make the first step so small that it is really hard to justify for not taking it: you get the idea, for me it would mean doing the mountain pose, which is standing upright still, just breathing and being standing on my 2 feet. Really to see why I could not do this, right here, right now.
- The 2’ habit: same idea as above but using time, just start the task and this will be only for 2 minutes. The chance is that you will do more than 2’ and you might end up doing much more what you have planned for. So as above, it is a baby step which can lead you to take a big leap.
- Practice self-compassion: it consists of treating ourselves with kindness and understanding in the face of mistakes and failure. So in my case, could I develop a kind and positive image when I imagine myself struggling with the yoga poses. Maybe I could start with an easy program and rather short to boost my confidence and reward myself for having taken the first step.
- Reframe the task: in my personal example, it is not about being “good” at yoga, it is about nurturing and taking care of my body. I might not touch the floor with my hands, but the stretch till my calfs will already provide me with the benefit of feeling more supple and release tension in my lower back. I can also imagine myself relieved and happy, proud and satisfied to have done this first session.
- Body scanning and pausing: as I contemplate starting my yoga practice, I scan my body, bring curiosity, stay with the negative emotion and stress. I pause, I breathe, I stop myself from the urge to avoid the situation and play chess for example as a way to relieve myself. Then when the wave of negativity is gone and I have not moved to some escapism activity, I can start at last my practice.
- Don’t wait for motivation to start: now that you know that the envy, motivation or desire will not come tomorrow as the same cycle will repeat itself, you act and start the task without feeling motivated. It is in doing that the motivation will come. We have a saying in French “L’appétit vent en mangeant”, which translates as “you will start feeling hungry as you start eating”. So motivation is NOT a pre-condition to start a task, it becomes the outcome of having started.
- Make your “escape” activities less tempting: for me I have found that one way to deal with negative emotion is to do a quick chess puzzle on an app that I have. So deleting this app would certainly remove the temptation. I might not do my yoga practice but I will be desperately looking for an outlay
And now, having gone public about my procrastination about Yoga will make it very difficult for me to postpone any longer what I have desired for so long.
I encourage to consider the activities you procrastinate about and use the content of this article to develop helping habits which serve you better than the habit of avoidance.
(1) Timothy Pychyl (2010). Solving the Proscratination Puzzle. Penguin Publishing