Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University, dotes on his eight huskies. On winter weekends he takes them dogsledding on the snow-covered trails near his house in Ottawa.
As the number of dogs has grown, though, so have the chores. Pychyl dreads one duty above all others: clipping their claws, all 150 (or so) of them.
“One of my dogs takes two or three people to pin him down, that's how much he doesn't like it,” Pychyl recounts. Although he wants the dogs to be happy and healthy, when faced with spending a strenuous evening wrangling husky paws, he finds himself severely tempted to sink into the couch with a beer.
This trade-off is the essence of procrastination. We know what we want to do, yet we bellyache, sabotage ourselves and settle for second-rate mental diversions. Why?
The easy answer is that we prefer to seek fun things now rather than waiting for a distant payoff, even when that long-term reward is significantly greater. Yet that tendency fails to explain why we sometimes twiddle our thumbs but other times get down to business. “The ‘why’ is emotional processes,” says psychologist Fuschia Sirois of Bishop's University in Quebec. “We face emotional conflict and tension, and one way to resolve that is to procrastinate.”
Recent research suggests that feeling insecure or gloomy can make us more likely to procrastinate because yielding to our impulses offers an emotional boost. To morph from couch potato to action hero, we must learn to harness the subtle lifts and dips in our emotions. Transforming an initial aversion into a source of motivation can help us dodge temptations and chase bigger, bolder dreams.
Procrastination is an engine of regret, one that has steamrolled human accomplishment since the dawn of civilization. As early as 800 B.C., Greek poet Hesiod offered a now familiar piece of advice: “Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after.” We can procrastinate about anything: work, exercise, starting a diet or sending a birthday card. More formally, it has been defined as the voluntary delay of any action that we realize we ought to pursue now.
Perhaps because of its universality, the phenomenon is also the frequent butt of jokes—the procrastinators club that never met, the book on procrastination that was never written. One writer even cited fake procrastination research in a journal article: two fictional scientists named Stilton and Edam used cheese to observe procrastination in mice. And Saint Augustine, during his hedonistic youth in the fourth century, famously prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence—but not yet.”
For habitual practitioners, though, the reality is anything but humorous. Frequent dawdlers tend to harbor self-critical thoughts and wrestle with depression and anxiety. They are consistently found to yield to impulses more often than other people. Now researchers are discovering a causal link among procrastination, impulsivity and mood. “A lot of the literature says that [such people] have higher levels of depression, anxiety, etcetera,” Sirois observes. “It's not just about being driven purely by pleasure seeking but about avoiding negative emotions.”
When chronic procrastinators are queried about their thoughts, they tend to share snippets of a dark, gloom-ridden internal dialogue. “I'm too stupid for this,” they say, or “If I can't complete this paper, everything else I've done is meaningless.” In one case study, an accountant named Tom procrastinated so much that he failed to file his own taxes. We may chuckle at the irony, but when asked how he felt about the situation, Tom said he felt defective, incompetent and pathetic.
Numerous studies by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and his collaborators have demonstrated that negative emotions diminish self-control. Anxiety undermines diets as well as smokers' efforts to quit. When people feel upset, they are more likely to act aggressively, spend too much money or play games when they know they should be studying. Feeling down is also a strong predictor of relapse in a number of addictive behaviors, such as alcoholism and gambling.
A fundamental function of the brain is to regulate emotion, including dispelling negative feelings when they do not signal a threat to survival. At the sight of a disturbing image, for instance, we deflect our gaze. When preparing to give a talk, we try to look cool and collected as a way to quiet the turmoil inside. And it is no accident that after a breakup, some of us reach for a tub of ice cream. All three strategies serve to patch up psychological injury, just as we might bandage a cut.
Distraction, it turns out, is a fabulous way to cast off unwanted feelings. Students doodling in the margins of their notebooks might have discovered on their own what psychologists only recently have shown in the laboratory: that drawing can quell negative emotions not through its expressive power but by distracting us from our feelings. Not all diversions need be so active: another effective way of restoring self-control and a chipper mood is simply to take a nap—a tried-and-true tactic of procrastinating college students.
Turning the mind away from a dull or disturbing thought is one reason we dillydally, but other emotional processes may also be at work. Psychologists Jeffrey A. Hancock and Catalina L. Toma of the University of Wisconsin–Madison speculated that a bruised ego might compel someone to procrastinate as a way to repair his sense of self. After a setback at a meeting, a person who is feeling defeated might return to his desk, check the scores from last night's game and browse Facebook as a way to affirm, unconsciously, his feelings of social connectedness.
To test this idea, Hancock and Toma asked 86 study participants to prepare and deliver a short speech. Half the subjects then received criticism, whereas the rest heard neutral comments. The participants had the opportunity to either browse their own Facebook profile or engage in one of four other online diversions: watching YouTube videos, reading news, listening to music or playing video games. The results, published this year, showed that the people who weathered criticism were twice as likely to choose Facebook over the other online diversions as those receiving neutral feedback; the time spent on the social network seems to indeed repair mood. In a related experiment, in which ego-bruised participants viewed either their own Facebook profile or that of a stranger, Hancock and Toma found that people who checked out their own page dealt with the criticism better than those who visited the stranger's page. (They were more likely to assume responsibility and less inclined to blame others for the negative feedback.) Although you may think you procrastinate for no reason, the dawdling may be a subconscious move to self-affirm: to check in with the values and passions that shape your identity.
Other subtle emotion-regulation strategies also differentiate the doers from the dawdlers. Sirois investigated how procrastinators use a set of thoughts known as counterfactuals. These statements often begin with phrases such as “at least” or “if only”—for example, “at least I didn't crash the car!” or “if only I'd gotten a good night's sleep.” Downward counterfactuals, which illustrate how things could have been worse, serve to elevate mood. Upward counterfactuals, which capture how we might have avoided a mistake, do the opposite.
In a study published in 2004 Sirois measured 80 students' tendency to procrastinate and then asked them to read a story that described what it might be like to watch one's house burn down. Afterward the participants wrote as many counterfactuals related to the tale as they could think of. As she discovered, the students who procrastinated more egregiously dreamed up more downward counterfactuals than those less prone to postponement. Sirois reasons that chronic idlers might be less resilient when beset by negative feelings, so their defense mechanisms kick in sooner. “There is a discomfort that comes when you approach a task that brings up insecurities, and for some people that is just not a place they like to be,” Sirois reflects.
Getting to Work
One obstacle for any procrastination-beating technique is that managing our internal state—herding our thoughts and feelings so they align with our highest goals—often demands self-control, and this effort can leave us with less cognitive firepower for the tasks at hand. Resolving to not check e-mail for an hour, for example, can make you more likely to sneak into the kitchen for a bag of chips.
The idea that negative emotions drive procrastination has opened up new approaches for bolstering resilience. Several strategies that leave self-control intact are now emerging from the labs. They can help us tackle household chores, finish projects at work or finally make a date with the dentist. And, as I learned recently, they apply to the tardy disposal of a Christmas tree.
In April I found myself in the ridiculous position of having a tree, ornaments and all, firmly ensconced in my living room. That winter I had postponed tossing it out of a sense of sadness at condemning a perfectly good tree to the city dump. Plus it served nicely as a hat stand—not to mention ongoing storage for all those ornaments.
Suddenly it was March. In a blink another month passed, and my feelings started to shift. I dreaded lugging it out to the street for garbage collection. What would the neighbors think? I avoided entertaining visitors so that they could not mock my brittle Douglas fir. I was now hostage to the tree.
A shift in motivation eventually saved the day. Instead of dwelling on the potential for embarrassment, I focused on a dinner party I had agreed to host. I needed to get this tree out of my house to make room for friends, and tossing the fir became virtuous, not vexing. Without realizing it, I had tapped into one key strategy for overcoming procrastination: cognitive reappraisal.
Cognitive reappraisal is a deliberate move to change the meaning of a situation by altering our emotional response to it. In research published in 2012 psychologist James Gross of Stanford University and his colleagues set out to assess whether reappraisal could help us diffuse the allure of temptations without depleting self-control. In one of Gross's studies, 51 students were asked to memorize details about several wines while sitting in a room with distracting pictures, such as the posters and photographs that decorate dorm rooms. Half the students were prompted to view the activity as an opportunity to strengthen their memory, which could help them in college. The remaining participants, the control group, were simply instructed to do their best.
The researchers found that thinking of the task as self-improvement decreased the students' susceptibility to temptation and helped them remember more information about the wines. Several variations on this experiment similarly showed that reappraisal increases people's focus, enthusiasm and performance—three things most rueful procrastinators surely covet.
The finding is in line with prior work by two of Gross's co-authors on this study, Véronique Leroy and Jacques Grégoire of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. They have shown that university students who routinely reappraise their emotional reactions tend to do better in school. As Gross explains, cognitive reappraisal “is a little like learning to surf. If you can harness the incredibly powerful force of your emotions, you'll have a lot more fun than if you're constantly turned around and around by them.”
Pychyl overcame his aversion to trimming his huskies' claws by focusing on love and care. “There are other places in my inner landscape from which I can work,” he muses. “My first emotions for a task are not the only emotions in me.” He also breaks the chore down into smaller parts. He tells himself to take care of one animal and then permits himself to call it quits. Inevitably the job is not as bad as he imagines, and all 150 claws get clipped.
Another way to view an event more positively is to give yourself a break. Because procrastination seems to trigger harsh self-criticism, it may be self-reinforcing, sending us spiraling further downward. For this reason, Pychyl has highlighted the importance of self-forgiveness: a three-step process to reduce the emotional distress that procrastination stirs up. It entails acknowledging having made a mistake, weathering feelings of guilt and then experiencing a shift in motivation as self-punishment gives way to the positive feeling of self-acceptance.
To test the value of forgiveness, Pychyl and his colleagues gave 119 students in a class questionnaires measuring their tendency to procrastinate and either forgive or berate themselves for it. The students reported on their procrastination twice, both times before a midterm. Between the exams, they indicated how they felt about their performance.
The researchers discovered that the students who were kindest to themselves after procrastinating for the first midterm experienced fewer negative emotions and improved their study habits for the subsequent test. Conversely, students who continued beating themselves up for procrastinating not only felt worse but also perpetuated their mistakes for the second exam. Thus, the next time you miss a deadline because you stayed up late watching cat videos on YouTube, don't dwell on the mistake. Acknowledge your error and feelings of guilt, then move on.
A partial explanation for why criticism fuels procrastination may come from self-affirmation—the same strategy that sent people in Hancock and Toma's study scurrying to Facebook for a fix of pleasant feelings. That self-affirmation was unconscious, but it can also be deliberate.
This idea is based on the theory that humans are powerfully motivated to pursue self-worth. A suite of studies has made it clear that consulting our deepest values can free a person from defensive responses. Starting with work published in 2009, psychologist Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Minnesota and her colleagues have consistently found that self-affirmation can restore self-control.
For example, one experiment looked at how well people stayed on task when they either did or did not self-affirm. The participants in this study first wore out their self-control with a cognitively draining task—watching a video and keeping their attention trained on a woman's face on the screen while ignoring words that popped up periodically. They then wrote about either a personal value of great importance to them or about Bill Gates. Those who wrote about their own values persisted almost twice as long at a subsequent boring activity than did the ones who pondered the billionaire. Vohs and her colleagues theorize that reflecting on our core convictions helps us see the bigger picture. ”My own pet theory is that it stops people from evaluating themselves for a moment and gets them to focus descriptively on what matters in life,” Vohs says. A simple strategy such as having photos of family on your desk can serve as a reminder of what counts most.
With self-control all stocked up, we can shift away from our inner environments and begin tailoring external circumstances instead. Ultimately, it seems, the key is not to constantly fight temptations but to learn to avoid as many of them as possible. In a 2012 study Baumeister, Vohs and their collaborators asked 205 people from the city of Würzburg in Germany to wear smartphones for a week. Periodic signals to the phones cued them to record any desires they were feeling at that moment. The psychologists found that people reported some kind of desire in response to a whopping half of the cues. About half of those desires conflicted with a goal or value.
Looking more closely at the data, the researchers observed a funny thing: participants who scored high in self-control reported far fewer conflicting temptations than people on the low end. Thus, self-control may not be the capacity for titanic acts of willpower but instead an ability to shape one's environment proactively through effective habits and routines.
So if you plan to exercise in the morning, tuck your keys into your shorts and lay out your shoes the night before. Stash the alarm clock across the room. The fewer obstacles, the fewer opportunities for negative emotions to arise. And when you encounter an urge to avoid doing what matters most, check in with your feelings first. They may govern the moment, but you can still rule the day.