by Comprehensive Staff

02/01/2017 7:39 pm

Why Wait? The Roots of Procrastination

For many of us, procrastination is a strong and mysterious force that keeps us from initiating important tasks. The reasons driving this common behavior have not always been deeply understood, but recent research strongly indicates that procrastination is actually an emotional regulation issue, not a time management issue. It’s not that we don’t have enough time – it’s that we’re seeking a quick (misguided) hit of emotional pleasure.

According to Carleton University psychology professor Tim Pychyl, procrastination is “misregulating our emotions to try to feel good now.” It’s very tempting to put off difficult or important work by distracting ourselves with more pleasurable activities on our phones, computers, or TVs.  We may rationalize engaging in these behaviors by claiming that we “work better under pressure,” but the reality is, we don’t. 

We may want to believe we will be more motivated to complete a task later that we are avoiding.  More likely, as the deadline approaches we’ll find ourselves under increased stress, resulting in poorer performance. It may feel good to give in to procrastination now, but it only harms our health and well-being in the long term. Across multiple studies, procrastination is shown to have negative consequences and increase the direct effects of stress. 

In Professor Pychyl’s words, “If I waited to be in the mood to do most things, I’d be doing nothing.” Acknowledging that we aren’t likely to be more motivated tomorrow and instead taking a small first step now can put us on a healthier path to form more effective habits. “We know that [making] progress on a goal will fuel our well-being and our motivation. And if you can do that, you can typically get over the resistance that [you] feel about starting,” Pychyl says.

Overcoming procrastination starts with committing to take an initial action.  Starting with small steps toward your larger goals – even when you don’t want to – creates movement and increases motivation.  This movement and motivation can, in turn, help us to overcome our resistance to starting a task. 

With so many distractions readily available to us in our daily lives, training ourselves to act, rather than avoid, is an important skill.  Understanding the roots of procrastination and how to take initial small steps to overcome it are great exercises for mental health and wellness! Learn more from Dr. Pychyl at WBUR’s Here and Now site.