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Procrastination 101: It's Not About Feeling Like It

How we can get past not feeling like it.

As my sabbatical came to an end last month, one of my sabbatical projects came to fruition. My publisher sent copies of my recent co-edited book, Procrastination, Health and Well-Being. Dr. Fuschia Sirois and I assembled a great volume, I think, with contributions ranging from sleep procrastination to the social psychological implications of violating norms. It’s probably time that I distilled these interesting and informative chapters into equally informative, shorter blog posts. The thing is, I don’t feel like it.

Did I just write that? Yep. It’s how I’m feeling.

Why? Well, I just finished writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a colleague who is up for a prestigious award. I find those letters exhausting. On top of that, distilling chapters into blog posts is hard work. It’s much easier to ramble . . . and I’m doing a good job of it right now you might say.

Seriously, the issue is, as much as I scheduled this blog-writing task for this afternoon, I don’t feel like it now, and, ironically, this is exactly what I want to write about. In fact, my major contribution to the book we just published (in addition, that is, to writing the preface for the book, editing each of the chapters carefully, and co-authoring some chapters with students) was the chapter entitled, “Procrastination, emotion regulation and well-being.”

I put my focus on emotion regulation, because I think that’s the whole story of procrastination. Well, at least it’s absolutely essential. Let me explain what I mean.

I don’t feel like . . . I don’t want to . . . I’ll feel more like it tomorrow . . . are the lyrics to the procrastination song, as I’ve learned it. I think we might all sing it to a slightly different tune, but all the tunes that I have heard are a little whiney. They have that “poor me” quality about them.

When we face a task for which we lack motivation, as evidenced by the “I don’t feel like it” thought, we face a choice. We can either move forward with the task despite the lack of motivation, or we can “give in to feel good” by delaying the task now in preference for later. Needless delay seems the easier choice, but it comes at a cost. Research shows that the hedonic boost we get from avoiding an aversive task right now is short lived. We might give in to feel good, but it doesn’t last. And, most of us experience quite a bit guilt for making this choice.

I had a student in my office just last week who was telling me about his procrastination. He was well aware of the irrationality of his delay, and even though he put off his work voluntarily, he was tortured by it. Strange, isn’t it, how we become our own worst enemy? We seem to know what we should do, what’s in our best interest, and then we don’t. It’s what that Greeks called akrasia – weakness of will; acting contrary to what we know is in our best interest.

If you’re reading this post because you’re sometimes troubled by your procrastination – and I wonder who isn’t? – the above paragraph was probably a little gut wrenching. Becoming our own worst enemy is something that most of us understand all too well, and it’s not only with procrastination. We have other self-regulation failures that are troubling such as over eating, spending money we don’t have, gambling too much, binging on social media . . . maybe all of these at times.

The alternative is what you might be seeking. How do we move forward with the task despite the lack of motivation? In fact, if we can do this, we can beat the procrastination habit. It is that simple.

Because this is “Procrastination 101,” let’s do a little recap to be perfectly clear. Time management is not the issue. We can schedule a task as I did with this blog writing, but then when we get to that time in our day we “don’t feel like it,” so we put it off. We needlessly delay the task despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. It may mean that the timely completion of the task was important and we’ll pay a cost for not getting it done on time, or it may mean that doing it later will result in something else getting pushed off. For some people, life gets out of control because of this, much as how one lie leads to many others. The key thing is that the only thing standing in the way of us doing an intended task is this – we don’t feel like it; we don’t want to.

It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that I never feel like doing some tasks. When do I ever feel like cleaning the fridge for example? Oops, maybe that’s not completely true. There are days where I’m more than eager to clean the fridge if it means I can avoid something else that at the moment is even more aversive, like doing my taxes or writing another letter of recommendation. I think you get my point. It’s all relative, isn’t it? I could have put off writing this blog post, struggling with the expression of ideas, and done some course preparation instead. I didn’t. Here’s how.

I acknowledged that I really didn’t feel like writing right now. I let myself become aware of these feelings, but I didn’t pay attention to them per se. As I’ve written before echoing the words of Parker Palmer, I had feelings but I didn’t become those feelings. Or, in the words used by mindfulness practitioners or researchers, I was non-judgmentally aware of my emotions. That’s the first step.

The next step was to then put my focus on my behavior. What I could actually do. This time you could say that I was channeling the productivity guru David Allen. I asked myself, “what’s the next action?” And, that was simple, I had to close that letter of reference and open a new blank Word document. I could do that. I did.

Of course, then I still had to acknowledge those feelings or more precisely my whole body screaming, “I don’t want to do this right now. I can do it tomorrow. There is no deadline for this you know.” Yes, it was a little overwhelming, but I asked again, “What’s the next action?” I need a topic/title. Ah, that’s good.

It is this simple, and it is this difficult. The simple part is the focus on behavior and tiny choices. The difficult part is the volition or volitional skill to keep focused while acknowledging the emotions that are working against this. It’s much like someone who is afraid of public speaking who must keep his or her feet planted firmly behind the podium, resisting the impulse to run away, and instead focus on the next line to say. Success is found in staying put, staying on task.

Our emotional lives are complex, typically intense, dynamic and ever changing. You could say our emotions are like the weather. In some parts of the country when commenting on the weather people will say, “wait a minute, it will change.” This is often true about our emotional state as well. Research has certainly documented this. If we stay on task, a little progress fuels our well-being, we get happier. If we avoid the task, we may find some immediate relief in our distraction, but we also typically experience guilt in the short term and self-loathing longer term. The key thing is that our emotions come and go, they follow our behavior, and they should not be the sole determinant of our behavior.

My grandmother would have simplified all of this to a single word, maturity. When I ask my children about feeding the fish, dogs or horses (or any other chore, including homework) and they say, “I don’t feel like, I don’t want to,” my typical response is, “I didn’t ask you how you felt or what you want to do. I asked you about that action.” Maturity is in applying that to ourselves, recognizing that “not feeling like it” is not a reason, it’s an excuse.

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