Do you have chronic procrastination problems? It’s tempting to blame a lack of time management, but it might actually be an emotion regulation problem.
Illustration: Kim Ryu
You start your morning like you do every other day: with your to-do list.
You jot down everything rattling around in your brain and realize that you have a lot to accomplish in a few hours. Time to buckle down, right?
But first you grab yourself a cup of coffee and a pastry. After that, you post some recent dog photos to your team’s instant messaging channel before scrolling through social media. You water your desk plants, chat with a colleague, and schedule a dentist appointment. And now it’s time for another coffee refill.
Before you know it, a huge chunk of your morning has disappeared and you’ve barely glanced at your to-do list.
Sound familiar—or, even worse, like your typical workday?
Plenty of people can relate to your tendency to procrastinate. In fact, all of us do it to a certain extent from time to time. However, one in five people are actually classified as chronic procrastinators. Chronic procrastination simply means procrastination is a persistent and even debilitating issue for them.
We all know that chronic procrastination isn’t productive. So why do we continue to sabotage ourselves?
It’s tempting to point the finger at things like a lack of time management skills. We blame the planning fallacy, which says that we are too optimistic about predicting how long things will take. Put simply, we underestimate the time required to complete a task and end up with a time crunch.
While a failure to manage our time might seem like the obvious answer, research says otherwise. When it comes to procrastination (particularly chronic procrastination), the real culprit is far more human: we struggle with emotion regulation.
Wait…what do our emotions have to do with our productivity?
Think of the last time you delayed a task that you knew you needed to get done. Why did it continue to remain unchecked on your to-do list?
For most people, it boils down to this surprisingly simple answer: you just didn’t feel like doing it. You weren’t quite up to the challenge.
So maybe you postponed that task, assuming that your mood would shift. Maybe after a nap or yet another mug of hot coffee you’d finally have the motivation to power through. What actually happened was that you waited until the deadline was breathing down your neck and you had no choice but to start.
The worst part about all of this is that procrastination often sends us spiraling into a vicious emotional cycle.
We delay a task by wasting time on unproductive activities (like scrolling through Instagram or watching celebrity interviews on YouTube). It feels good at that moment.
But we become riddled with guilt over our laziness, and our emotions take even more of a nosedive. Now it’s even harder to inspire yourself to take action. You’ve essentially dug yourself into a deeper hole.
There is research to back this up. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University had study participants read sad stories to put them in distressed emotional states. Participants knew that they had an intelligence test coming up, but their distress made them inclined to procrastinate with enjoyable activities like puzzles or video games.
“The implication is that when people are upset, they indulge immediate impulses to make themselves feel better,” wrote the researchers in their abstract.
Beyond the instant emotional boost, we also believe that those breaks we take will ultimately serve our productivity in the long run. We assume that they’ll improve our mood and inspire us to keep cranking through our lists.
“Subsequent studies by the same team showed low mood only increases procrastination if enjoyable activities are available as a distraction, and only if people believe they can change their moods,” wrote Christian Jarrett in an article for BBC.
Kick chronic procrastination to the curb: 4 tips for emotion regulation
All right, so you have a greater understanding of why you procrastinate. But that knowledge alone doesn’t do much for you. You want to figure out how you can light a fire under yourself. You want to show your to-do list who’s boss—regardless of what your emotional state is.
You’re probably far too familiar with the pep talks you give yourself when you’re trying to climb out of that procrastination trap. “C’mon, you’re being ridiculous. You have to get this done. You’re wasting so much time. Stop being your own worst enemy.”
You’re also probably familiar with the fact that those rousing rallying cries don’t really get you anywhere. That’s because our own emotions can be tough to combat.
Notice that we said tough—not impossible. Let’s dig into four strategies for keeping your emotions in check and making some progress (uhh…like, now).
1. Understand why you’re pushing that task off
This emotion regulation theory means that there’s some sort of unpleasant emotion behind your procrastination. But is that unpleasant emotion?
Are you dealing with a fear of failure? Are you intimidated by that task? Is it a familiar responsibility that you have a distaste for? Are you resentful about the fact that you don’t think it’s even your job?
Whatever it is, try to pinpoint that negative emotion and then literally state it out loud to yourself. For example, “This task makes me feel inadequate” or “This task makes me feel bored.”
What does that accomplish for you? Well, it ties back to an approach from psychologist Dan Siegel: “Name it to tame it.” “Naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create,” according to an explanation in the New York Times.
So something as simple as stating your emotion might be just what you need to get over it. Then you can move on with the rest of your responsibilities for the day.
However, be mindful that this isn’t permission to vent to the extreme. Research also shows that endlessly obsessing over your negative feelings can actually lead to even more destructive thought patterns.
Resist the urge to ruminate and instead stick to identifying it and stating it aloud. Then challenge yourself to move forward.
2. Pick a starting point
Chronic procrastination can often feel like you’re stuck on a hamster wheel. As much as you try to jump off and make some progress, the wheel just keeps spinning—and you’re stuck on it.
To break the cycle of your negative emotions, you might want to try something seemingly counterintuitive: taking your emotions out of the equation altogether.
“Make your focus as simple as ‘What’s the next action—a simple next step—I would take on this task if I were to get started on it now?’” advised Tim Pychyl, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Canada, in the same BBC article.
Sometimes all you need is to take that first step and then headway will start to snowball from there. It’s something called the progress principle, which states that making progress in meaningful work can be a huge boost to your motivation, perceptions, and emotions during the workday.
“The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place,” according to author Brian Tracy. “Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue.”
3. Selectively use extrinsic rewards
Have you ever tried to bribe yourself by offering yourself even a small reward?
Maybe you said if you finally finished those presentation slides, you’d grab a donut from the break room. Or, perhaps you’d indulge in 15 minutes of online shopping once you finished organizing your computer files.
It can feel strange to have to dangle a carrot in front of your own nose, but rewards have proven to be powerful motivators (according to the incentive theory of motivation).
However, it’s important to be aware that rewards aren’t necessarily effective for every type of task. They can offer a big boost to your motivation to complete tasks that don’t require a ton of creative thinking—like cleaning off your desk or filling out your expense report.
But in situations where we need to get innovative and think outside the box, extrinsic rewards (like ordering your favorite burrito for lunch) can actually have the opposite effect.
Researchers have discovered that “if, then” rewards (for example, if I finish my expense report then I’ll treat myself to a burrito) can actually hinder performance in tasks that require creative thinking.
“Extrinsic motivation isn’t our best bet when we’re working on something creative,” according to Belle Cooper in an article for Zapier. “It narrows our thinking by focusing us on getting the task done so we can earn the reward. But in creative work, that’s the opposite of what we want. We need broad thinking, so we can come up with innovative ideas and see new connections.”
So yes, rewards can be powerful—but they have their time and place. If you need to make it through a rote task, go ahead and tempt yourself. But if it’s a bigger project or a complex problem you’re trying to solve? You’re better off finding your motivation elsewhere.
4. Set scary deadlines for yourself
The next scenario will resonate with nearly every procrastinator. You’ve continued to put off that task, but finally the deadline is here. You need to have things wrapped up by tomorrow morning. The pressure is on.
There’s nothing quite like the threat of a looming deadline to overpower your emotions. By some miracle, you finally find the inner wherewithal to get that thing done—despite the fact that it seemed impossible for the past few days.
That’s because deadlines are scary. Knowing that it’s crunch time increases our stress and arousal. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that a person’s performance increases as their arousal increases, to a point at least. Too much stress (for example, knowing there’s no way you’ll meet that deadline) can actually sabotage your performance.
Make the most of your deadlines (whether self-imposed or handed down from on high) by adding to their intimidation factor. The best way to do this? Set them in hours or days—rather than weeks, months, or longer. This is especially effective for avoiding procrastination on larger, more daunting projects.
One study put together by researchers at the University of Michigan and USC split participants into two different groups. The first group was asked if they wanted to retire in 40 years, when should they start saving their money? The second group was asked the same question, except in days—14,600 days, the equivalent of 40 years.
How did it pan out? The group who was given the timeline in days felt a far stronger sense of urgency about saving compared to the group who was given the timeline in years.
According to the researchers, this is likely because those seemingly shorter deadlines better connect our future selves to our present selves. They increase our arousal because we feel like time is slipping through our fingers.
While you probably don’t have projects spanning four decades (at least, we certainly hope not), you can still apply the concept to your work. Don’t tell yourself that you have until the end of the day to complete those mockups—remind yourself that you only have six hours.
Keep your emotions (and chronic procrastination) in check
Procrastination is frustrating, but it’s also common. An estimated 88% of the workforce admits that they procrastinate for at least an hour of the workday.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all chronic procrastinators. (Chronic procrastination is a far less common and more serious issue). But it does indicate that most of us struggle to get ourselves moving more frequently than we’d like.
It’s tempting to indulge in self-loathing and label ourselves as lazy or as poor time managers. But as it turns out, chronic procrastination might actually have more to do with emotions than work ethic. Use the four strategies we’ve outlined above, and you’ll improve your emotion regulation—and, as a result, your productivity. Take that, to-do list.