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Blog: Procrastination is not a time management issue, it’s an emotional regulation issue

At SKCI we love a Productivity Hack as much as the next person… who doesn’t want to get more done in less time? However, it is important and interesting to delve beneath the surface at times, to question what is motivating our behaviour in order that we can make enduring, positive changes.

One of the biggest issues we all come up against when trying to be more productive is procrastination: putting off doing what we know we should be doing and doing something else instead (usually unconstructive or totally unrelated). The result of procrastinating is that we waste precious time, run behind on our schedule and feel bad about ourselves. Over time procrastinating can to lead to missed opportunities and failure in work and in life.

Recent research has shown that procrastination is not most effectively tackled with better time management or ramping up levels of self-control, as was previously thought. The reason for this is: “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem” according to Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa. Essentially procrastination isn’t about laziness or a lack of self-control, it’s a behaviour we choose in order to avoid (or displace) unwanted feelings.

Can you think of any tasks or projects that you (or members of your team) procrastinate on? Often there will be some negative feelings associated with those tasks or projects, it might be that it’s an unsavoury / menial task that you’d really rather not do, or perhaps it’s a project that feels tied up with your self-esteem and a fear of failure is gnawing at you when you think about it. Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield explains, “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

When we procrastinate instead of starting the big project that we may be feeling insecure about, this leads to momentary relief of the feelings of uncertainty and fear of failure – our brains are rewarded with this relief, so we procrastinate again and again. However, as we have all experienced, procrastinating only serves to make us feel worse in the long run.

So how do we tackle procrastination? By dealing with the issues that are motivating this unproductive and unhelpful behaviour? An article in the New York Times has some very useful suggestions based on the research, all of which are aimed at decreasing or managing the negative feelings to encourage moving past them and onto the task at hand:

  1. Forgive yourself in the moment that you procrastinate – having the effect of reducing the build-up negative feelings.
  2. Practicing self-compassion has been proven to work very well in a number of studies because it “decreases psychological distress, which we now know is a primary culprit for procrastination, it also actively boosts motivation, enhances feelings of self-worth and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative.”
  3. Try reframing the task to develop more positive feelings towards it – leading to less of an urge to avoid it by procrastinating.

Procrastination is something we all do; it is part of being human. However, it can be highly detrimental and certainly doesn’t make us feel good over time, so we hope this deeper insight into what causes it and how to tackle it at its source, supports you and your teams in your overall productivity and wellbeing.

Next time you feel the urge to procrastinate, remember the three steps above, and start the move to a more productive future.

Cartoon image credit: www.roberthalf.co.uk

Published March 9th 2020

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