Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Uncertainty, Emotion & Task Delay: I May Have Fear, but I Need Not be My Fear

Are you uncertain about what to do next?

In a recent discussion with a friend about procrastination, he said, "I find I always procrastinate when I don't know what to do next." The research literature reflects his personal experience, uncertainty is related to procrastination, but it's more than just not knowing what to do next. As I said in response to him, "It may also be about how the uncertainty makes you feel."

Let's face it. We often don't know exactly what to do next. That's part of life, both our personal and professional lives. Uncertainty can be a wonderful challenge in life that sparks our creativity and makes life interesting. It can also be seen as a threat, potentially undermining our well-being.

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If uncertainty is threatening, like any threat, it will evoke negative emotions. These are emotions we'd rather not have, so often times our immediate response is mood control. We'll do something to feel better. We'll give in to feel good.

What does this mean? Usually in this situation the mood regulation involves leaving the task, or procrastinating. We escape the negative emotions by escaping the uncertainty which means walking away from the task . . . at least for the moment we say as we rationalize our choice.

Of course this focus on mood regulation undermines our volitional skills related to the task. Instead of using our volitional skills to self-regulate our behavior to stay on task, perhaps mustering our creativity to make a plan of action, we self-regulate our emotions. Mood takes precedence, and we pay the cost in terms of task delay.

The other thing that is associated with uncertainty besides negative emotions like anxiety or stress is a threat to self. I'm suppose to know how to deal with this! Uncertainty can spawn feelings of incompetence or even thoughts of being an imposter, "They're going to find out I don't really know what I'm doing!"

When self is threatened, we may employ new strategies to protect our self-image. Again, unfortunately, one of these may be task delay. For example, self-handicapping by doing the task at the last minute can ensure that we have a built-in excuse in case of failure. There are other ways we can protect our self image, but with my focus on procrastination, I'll simply emphasize this one, as well as the general principle that task uncertainty is not the whole issue.

When we face a task for which we are uncertain on how to proceed, the subsequent psychological experiences may be negative emotions and threats to self. Both of these experiences may precipitate task delay as a form of coping. The thing is, this approach, while useful in the short-term in terms of mood repair or protecting self-esteem, can have serious long-term consequences. We may undermine our own performance and ultimately our well-being.

Concluding thoughts . . .
So, when you're feeling uncertain about how to proceed and you start to feel a little overwhelmed, perhaps fearful and threatened, recognize the emotion you are having, but keep the following clearly in mind: I may have fear, but I need not be my fear. Choose to take action from another part of your being, as there is more to you than this immediate emotional experience.

And, above all, when you're feeling threatened by the task at hand, put your focus on staying on task. The most important volitional skill you might engage in at the time may be "keeping the seat of your pants on the seat of your chair." The mood will pass, you will find a way, and that task progress will rebuild feelings of competence and well-being. In other words, at the moment that you think that the best plan of action might be to walk away, "just get started!"

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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