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Negative Emotions Today Predict Procrastination Tomorrow

Research points to the most effective interventions for procrastination.

As readers of this blog know very well, I argue that procrastination is an emotion-focused coping response. We use avoidance to cope with negative emotions. For example, if a task makes us feel anxious, we can eliminate the anxiety if we eliminate the task—at least in the short term. The key relation here is that negative emotions are causal to our procrastination. A study published just last month provides further evidence for this understanding of the role of negative affect (feelings) and procrastination.

Shira Pollack and Joanna Herres of The College of New Jersey conducted a two-phase study that provided longitudinal data to explore the relations between affect (feelings) and procrastination. First, a large random sample of undergraduate students completed an online survey. From this group, another smaller sample of volunteers was recruited to participate in a 10-day daily-diary study. The focus was on collecting daily, repeated measures of the participants’ feelings (negative and positive affect) as well as their procrastination.

Statistically, they modeled the relations between affect and procrastination to understand which predicts the other. It's possible of course, that negative affect predicts procrastination as I would expect, but it’s also possible that procrastination would predict negative affect (we can feel very badly about our procrastination, can’t we?). In sum, they found that negative affect did predict next-day procrastination. However, positive affect (feelings of happiness) did not predict next-day procrastination, and procrastination did not predict next-day negative affect—a little surprising, but it may be a limitation of the study design.

As I have explained in other posts, these results are exactly what we would expect. Not only might we use procrastination to try and make ourselves feel better (mood repair), but feeling badly also undermines our ability to self-regulate. It’s difficult to pursue our goals effectively when we’re feeling lousy.

In explaining why these results are of interest, the authors note that our typical intervention techniques for procrastination may be misplaced, with too much emphasis on self-control techniques and time-management. Instead, based on their results and the theory behind it, they suggest a need for interventions that focus on emotion-regulation strategies that help us reduce our negative affect. I couldn’t agree more.

As they write: “Fostering acceptance and tolerance of negative emotions among college students could help students better regulate [negative affect] . . . and, in turn, improve their productivity.”

Most importantly, the authors draw on their own clinical backgrounds to suggest therapeutic approaches that might be most effective including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Affect Regulation Training, Emotion Focused Therapy, and mindfulness-based treatments. Each of these “may facilitate a positive, non-judgmental attitude toward aversive emotional experiences, while increasing tolerance for negative affective states. Acceptance strategies could help improve students’ productivity by shifting their frame of mind away from their distress, while energizing and motivating them to focus on meeting long term goals.”

If you’re bothered by procrastination, I would suggest you check out each of these intervention approaches. Procrastination: It’s not a time management problem. Are you ready to better understand your emotional life?


Pollack, S., & Herres, J. (2020), Prior day negative affect influences current day procrastination: A lagged daily diary analysis, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 33:2, 165-175, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2020.1722573.

Gagnon, J., Dionne, F., & Pychyl, T.A. (2016). Committed Action: An initial study on its role in the prediction of academic procrastination. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 5, 97-102.

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