We used to think that procrastination and the decreased productivity that accompanies it was a time issue, but we’ve since broadened our understanding to factor emotion into the equation. But does it end there?
Time: Why we thought people procrastinate
Until more recently, the pervading theory behind procrastination was that it was purely due to a problem with time management — the idea that people who procrastinate can’t do the following properly, among others:
- Budget: judge how long a task will take.
- Schedule: make time for the tasks they have to do.
- Commit: control the number of tasks they take on.
While poor time management can certainly lead to procrastination, it’s not necessarily the root cause for everyone that does it.
Emotion: What also needs to be managed
Recently, the exclusive focus on time management has shifted instead to the management of emotion. A BBC article by Dr Christian Jarrett highlights the obvious fact that no, people don’t do things like watch cat videos or check IG because they failed to properly allocate time for these activities (they likely don’t even want to). Instead, they procrastinate simply because they want to:
- Avoid discomfort: the task they’re supposed to be doing feels extremely unpleasant at that moment.
- Lift moods: the task they’re going to do instead is going to life their mood and they know that.
More importantly, we have a mood that needs to be lifted because the task is boring, too unclear or too complex, or it makes us contemplate and fear failure. The solution? One proposed in the article is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is an offshoot of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy used to address mental health improvement. In a nutshell, ACT proposes that we :
- Accept the discomfort we’re feeling.
- Choose a direction that aligns with our values.
- Take action.
But what can you do in the event and all likelihood that you don’t have the time or will to start a full mindfulness regiment of any kind to address the occasional bout of procrastination?
Christian points to Tim Pychyl of Carleton University, who studies the emotional angle of procrastination with collaborator Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield. He proposes a familiar solution: “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.”
Energy: What often gets forgotten
Regardless of how much we wrangle our time and our emotions, the “2:30 Feeling” (the midday slump in energy) is still a thing. Of course, most work arrangements mean that you’ll have to find ways to fight through that slump, especially if you work in an office that hasn’t invested in nap pods or the nap culture that’s already normal in many companies.
The point is that our energy levels — or focus, wakefulness or engagement, depending on what you prefer — have tie-ins with our natural circadian rhythm and are finite regardless of our lifestyle choices.
What’s more, many will agree creative work, unless you’ve figured the much vaunted “process,” often isn’t something you can accomplish by throwing time directly at it: staring straight at a blank page for hours, doesn’t always result in a better product much less progress. Some solutions to avoid creating yourself into a corner?
- Prioritize: prioritizing important, urgent and the most mentally taxing tasks means you’ll tackle them when you have the most energy in the tank.
- Bob and Weave: if you hit a solid wall in one task, don’t force creativity by smashing into if it’s not due immediately, but rather, tackle other related sub-tasks or take a break from it by chipping away at another task with a similar priority. This way, you might be moving sideways, but you’re still heading forward.
- Break it down: getting started can sometimes be daunting because we contemplate (and catastrophize) the entirety of a task — something that wastes our energy but doesn’t accomplish as much. The solution? Break the task down into smaller actionable pieces. As previously mentioned, getting started is often the hardest. Why not get started with the smallest thing you could do?
- Actually take a break: this means actually getting up from your work area and moving around or doing something unrelated that doesn’t take any additional focus (like long reads or getting stuck on Reddit). Better yet, how about feeding the meter by taking a power nap?
By working on the hardest tasks when you’re the most mentally “on,” there isn’t just a chance you’ll finish them, you might also finish faster and at a higher level of quality (versus slapping together the work to get it done or slogging towards the finish line). This in turn, can give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment that will fuel the next task.
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional bout of distraction and it should be mentioned that distraction (and some degree of procrastination) can be “a feature, not a bug” in creative people.
But if it’s something that happens more often or suddenly, it helps to dig down towards the root causes.
Again, the short answer is that it takes two key factors to tango: people procrastinate because they are avoiding the discomfort of the task before them and because they believe the activity they’re choosing instead will make them feel better.
Addressing this dynamic means having a grasp of several things in combination — your time, emotions and your energy — to minimize how much you have to ‘fight’ yourself to stay on task throughout a given day. The more you work with yourself while keeping an eye on your priorities, you’ll be better positioned to win on the big things, even if you don’t win at everything that day.