Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Emotions, Decision Making, and Procrastination

How to control emotions that lead to procrastination decisions.

Negative emotions (discomfort, frustration, anxiety, a down mood) are common triggers for procrastination. Here, the problem is twofold. The first fold is being whipsawed by your emotions. The second is taking your eyes off your priorities.

Emotional procrastination can start with a whisper of negative emotion. Once aware of an emotional trigger for procrastination, you can use this information to tune into a conflict between procrastination and productive actions. You can will yourself to act. The following describes how.

The Horse and the Rider

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used the metaphor of a horse and rider to show the endless conflict between emotional impulse and reason. The horse is the source of emotional impulses. The rider represents reason. How you resolve a conflict between reason and emotion can determine whether you'll procrastinate or not.

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The horse and rider metaphor puts attention onto a never-ending conflict between procrastination and a "do it now" way of getting reasonable things done in a reasonable way within a reasonable time to improve productivity and increase accomplishments.

The horse knows two things: if something doesn't feel good, move away; if something feels pleasurable, go for it. When the horse is in charge, you are likely to take the path of least resistance and go for pleasure and avoid pain.

The rider symbolizes your higher mental processes. The rider (1) reasons, makes connections, plans, and regulates actions; (2) anticipates change, maintains perspective, decides actions, and solves problems. When the horse's instincts depart from the rider's awareness of reality, the rider has the ability to restrain the horse. However, this is easier said than done.

The metaphor points to a conflict that is worth noting. Once aware, you have options you may not have seen quite the same way before, However, metaphors have limitations. For example, the rider is not always realistic. You may unintentionally fog reason with false beliefs, such as thinking that inconvenience is terrible. You can feel anxious about failing. This parasitic anxiety is a form of helplessness thinking that can startle the horse and spur procrastination. However, these are addressable and correctable matters.

The Y Decision

When you come to a branch in the road where you have a deadline or personal challenge to meet, your horse may have an urge to follow a path of least resistance. You may not want the hassle of acting now when you can do something that is more comfortable or fun. The rider may see the benefit of addressing a productive priority now. Thus, you face a Y decision. At this juncture, you can go one way or another.

The horse normally chooses the easier or safer way. Sometimes the horse is spot on in seeking safety over risk. However, some horse impulses don't fit with the situation and are best reined in. You have a market analysis to do, and a deadline to do it. The horse has no interest in meeting commercial objectives or in long-term planning. It's a creature of the moment. It takes an enlightened rider to seize the opportunity and take charge.

Guiding the horse takes an articulated awareness of a conflict between comfort and productive priorities. Once aware of this distinction, you can decide whether or not to tolerate emotional discomfort and to take the necessary steps to meet the priority goal. However, you may face a hidden challenge first.

The Double-Agenda Dilemma

The double-agenda dilemma is a conflict between stated and unstated agendas. Your stated agenda is to start, work on, and wrap up the market analysis. Even though you dislike the process you want the results. The horse has another agenda: avoid hassle and get a quick (specious) reward by dodging the discomfort linked to the task.

You'd like to finish the market analysis ahead of schedule. This is your stated agenda. But working through this analysis takes many steps. There is no guarantee that you'll get it completely right. You risk error. The time it takes to do the analysis detracts from pleasurable pursuits. Dwelling on negative possibilities, you get tangled in your emotional underwear and put off the analysis. Dodging discomfort is your unstated agenda. When the unstated agenda influences your decisions, you emotionally procrastinate.

Because it's rational to meet goals that you associate with accomplishment, you will probably publically endorse your stated agenda. Nevertheless, the unstated agenda has emotional appeal.

If you procrastinate, it's not that you don't want the benefits of following through with the stated agenda. It is that you want something else more, which is to avoid the discomfort you associate with persisting to achieve the goal.

When you face a double-agenda dilemma you have an opportunity to grab the reins and move in a productive direction. The more practice you have in grabbing the reins, the easier it becomes to harness the horse's considerable energies and achieve timely goals.

In resolving a double-agenda dilemma you face at least two self-help psychology challenges: (1) recognize the conflict; (2) apply your organizing, directing, and regulating abilities to achieve the goal of completing the market analysis.

Reasoning versus Urges

The horse will want to go for a short-term "fix." An enlightened rider will see the benefits of making sacrifices in the present moment to attain a greater gain later. When you come to this juncture, you face a never-ending conflict between reason and emotion.

A short- and long-term advantage analysis can put a priority matter into perspective. To complete the short- and long-term advantage analysis, start with the most pressing activity that you are now putting off. Think about both the short- and long-term advantages of delay and then the short- and long-term advantages of the "do-it-now" way. What do you gain by a pattern of delay? What do you gain by following through now?

When the advantages of following through are compelling, the results of the analysis may trickle down to the horse. However, even if the horse doesn't get it, the rider can grind through the process by starting and persisting with disciplined effort for work that is important to complete, such as a market analysis.

Not everything that is purposeful and productive to do in life has to be pleasant. Filling out forms, for example, can feel like a drag. When this is a priority, it's a sign of maturity to do it anyway. By living through procrastination urges and taking productive actions, you can gain ground in developing emotional muscle, meet deadlines, and accomplish more of what you want with less stress and strain.

 I'll tell you about cognitive decision making challenges in the next blog in this procrastination series. Meanwhile, use the word EMOTION to remind yourself to follow through.

Energize your priority efforts by addressing the most important first.

Move yourself toward achieving productive outcomes.

Operate by keeping your focus on long-term advantages.

Tolerate-but don't give in to-emotional signals for needless delays.

Integrate realistic thinking with self-regulated actions to achieve stated objectives.

Overcome diversionary unstated agenda urges by "do it now" actions.

Nudge yourself in the direction of Y decisions that lead to productive results.

If you want to learn more about how to handle the emotional side of procrastination, click on  End Procrastination Now and Do it Now

(C) Dr. Bill Knaus

All rights reserved

Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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