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How Negative Thoughts Relate to Procrastination

Recent research puts special emphasis on the role of rumination.

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Procrastination is best understood as an emotion-focused coping strategy. We use task avoidance to escape the negative emotions associated with a task (e.g., frustration, boredom, stress, anxiety). As colleagues have explained so well before, “we give in to feel good,” prioritizing the management of aversive mood states over our goal pursuit.

When we feel bad in relation to a task at hand, we’re more likely to procrastinate in an effort to feel better. Of course, this short-term mood repair comes at a cost to our future self.

The thing is, many of us feel bad a lot of the time. We’re more prone than others to anxiety and depression, as well as negative repetitive thoughts—in the form of worry about the future and rumination about the past. From the perspective of personality psychology, those of us who are like this are high on the trait of neuroticism.

The question is, does this make us more prone to procrastination?

Past research has documented a relationship between anxiety and procrastination, and a study we’re conducting in our research group replicates this strong association. Similarly, depression has been shown to be positively correlated with procrastination. However, as the authors of a recent study note, the processes that underlie these links are less understood.

Kaytlin Constantin (University of Guelph), Megan English (Health Sciences Centre, Newfoundland), and Dwight Mazmanian (Lakehead University, Thunder Bay) were interested in the cognitive processes that might underlie the relations previously found between anxiety and procrastination, as well as depression and procrastination. They were particularly interested in thinking that is characterized by negative repetitive thoughts. These negative repetitive thoughts come in two flavors, depending on whether we’re thinking about the future (worry) or about the past (rumination).

The Research and Results

A sample of 91 undergraduate students (72.5 percent female and predominantly white) completed self-report measures of anxiety, depression, worry, and brooding rumination. The researchers found that all of these variables were related to a self-report measure of procrastination, but the largest relation was between rumination and procrastination.

Most importantly, in the statistical modeling of their data, rumination mediated the associations between anxiety and procrastination and between depression and procrastination. Worry did not independently mediate these relations, indicating that rumination is even more important to understand than worry when we’re trying to understand the predictors of procrastination. As the authors write: “These results indicate that students experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression may be more vulnerable to procrastination as a result of negative repetitive thought, particularly regarding past events.”

Implications for Our Everyday Lives?

When we procrastinate, our present self benefits from mood repair, while our future self stands to bear the cost of the delay. The thing is, we don’t worry much about our future self; we actually think about our future self more like a stranger. What procrastination seems to be related to most is rumination. We have repetitive negative thoughts about the past—or even about our present situation.

Interestingly, the authors draw on a study conducted by one of my past thesis students to suggest how we might get beyond this ruminative brooding that is related to procrastination. Alison Flett argued that increasing our self-compassion may be the key to increasing our resilience by reducing this ruminative brooding. Why? Self-compassion, where we accept our humanity and develop a non-judgmental stance towards our thoughts and feelings, helps foster acceptance of our past failures, particularly our procrastination, and may help alleviate the distress that feeds the downward spiral of procrastination.

Our past research on self-forgiveness revealed the same thing. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are both related to less procrastination, not more. The study I’ve summarized today suggests that one of the effects of self-compassion may well be to reduce ruminative brooding—those repetitive negative thoughts about the past—and allow us to let go and move forward with our lives.

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Constantin, K., English, M.M., & Mazmanian, D. (2017). Anxiety, depression, and procrastination among students: Rumination plays a larger mediating role than worry. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. DOI 10.1007/s10942-017-0271-5

Flett, A., Haghbin, M., & Pychyl, T.A. (2016). Procrastination and depression from a cognitive perspective: An exploration of the associations among procrastinatory automatic thoughts, rumination, and mindfulness. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, DOI 10.1007/s10942-016-0235-1

Sirois, F.M. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13, 128-145. DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2013.763404

Wohl, M.J.A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 803-808.

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