Intentionally putting something off until later does not necessarily imply that tasks are not completed well and on time. People who delay yet never miss deadlines are just as likely to be successful as those who attend to things ahead of time.1 But some people just don’t get things done and allege that their tendency to procrastinate is to blame.
Consider Donald who claims he is “procrastinating” about making an appointment with a doctor for worrisome physical symptoms he is experiencing. Generally, negative emotions such as distress or fear—commonly referred to as anxiety—motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them or to be relieved of their effects. People who get things done, whether it is making an appointment with a doctor or completing a task at hand, make use of the information, directed attention, and motivation their negative emotions provide. Donald’s belief that he is simply procrastinating obscures what is really in the way of his taking action. This is also the case with people who suffer from repeated failure in their work or academic life and blame it on procrastination. Emotions motivate everything we do, including what we avoid doing.
Failure is painful. The emotion of shame motivates humans to save face. The shame of defeat and the fear of shame can challenge our potential to look with interest at what is happening or what has happened and to learn from it. It is no wonder, then, that people with a history of failure might cope with their feelings around a present challenge by using typical defensive responses to shame, such as withdrawing effort, avoiding any engagement with a task, or attacking themselves or others with criticism rather than looking within. Their pessimistic thoughts around the possibility of their efforts leading to a successful outcome may lead them to anticipate the familiar negative emotions associated with failure, defeat, or an assumed weakness. Shame is information that we have not met the higher standard we had set for ourselves and, as a result, we are left with an expectation that we will be negatively evaluated by others.
It’s not always easy to pull yourself up and alter a deeply engrained pattern, but the goal is to create new emotional memories of success that will override memories of failure. The following are a few guidelines for troubleshooting failing motivation:
1. Lamia, M. (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.