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Procrastination

How Emotions Drive Procrastination

Self-control, emotions, procrastination, and the brain.

Key points

  • In order to get to work on unpleasant tasks, people must manage negative emotions.
  • Procrastination happens when people are unable to cope effectively with negative feelings, seeking short-term relief.
  • Brain regions involved in cognitive control, notably the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, are involved in necessary emotional inhibition.
  • Self-compassion may enable us to better balance immediate emotional relief with the pursuit of long-term goals.

While it would be dangerously perfectionistic to try to do everything all at once, without prioritizing or making choices to edit, we delay important tasks past their due date at our own peril. And who hasn't noticed that when we do get going on something we've been putting off, it often ends up being more gratifying than we imagined?

Wang, Zhang, and Feng, authors of a recent study in Brain and Cognition (2021), note that prior research shows that procrastination is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, from poor health to money problems.

When we procrastinate, we tend to get self-critical—itself associated with a variety of negative outcomes including increased depression (Ehret et al., 2015).

When Suppressing Emotions Serves Us

People are more likely to procrastinate on tasks perceived to be aversive, or unpleasant. We face a choice, whether conscious or not, to "push through" the negative emotion to get the job done, or give ourselves the temporary relief of delaying, often over and over again. The effective strategy here is expressive suppression–by exercising inhibitory cognitive control, we can manage emotional intensity and get the job done.

Research shows that inhibitory control is a core executive function enabling people to delay gratification, to say “no” to distraction and temptation when we could get quick emotional relief from saying “yes” to any one of a number of other activities. When faced with important tasks, the most adaptive coping strategy is to complete them in a timely manner, providing enduring relief and improving performance.

Looking Under the Hood

To identify what part or parts of the brain are involved in expressive suppression and procrastination, researchers Wang, Zhang, and Feng recruited over 200 university students to participate in an MRI-based (magnetic resonance imaging) experiment. Participants completed the General Procrastination Scale (GPS) and the portion of the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ) that measures the use of expressive suppression. Participants underwent brain scans looking for correlations in the size of gray matter (GM) regions in the brain and the measures of interest. Gray matter represents areas of the brain with nerve cell bodies—as contrasted with white matter, which roughly corresponds to the wiring connecting different GM regions. GM volume is reflective of involvement of that brain region when larger or smaller by comparison.

Data analysis showed that, first, procrastination was inversely correlated with expressive suppression. Lower procrastination was indeed associated with greater expressive suppression. GM volume in one brain region—the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)—was associated with greater expressive suppression. Furthermore, the relationship between stronger expressive suppression and reduced procrastination was correlated with greater GM volume in the same brain region, suggesting that the right DLPFC is directly involved in inhibitory control via suppressing expression.

Implications and Future Directions

This research furthers our understanding of procrastination by identifying a key brain area, the right DLPFC, involved in cognitive control where aversive emotions are involved. In their discussion, Wang and colleagues describe that procrastination is the result of emotion regulation failure—accompanied by greater awareness of negative emotion and the use of short-term “emotion repair strategies,” which come at the expense of better long-term planning.

The DLPFC is known to be involved in key executive functions including inhibitory control, assigning relative importance to different events, and directing and focusing attention. Future research can extend to a broader group of people, use experimental designs with actual tasks and look at brain function in addition to anatomical differences during different performance conditions.

How we deal with self-criticism is central to our capacity to succeed in the face of insecurity and self-doubt. Recent research (Lassri and Gewirzt-Meydan, 2021) found that while people with a history of childhood maltreatment were more likely to be self-critical and that their self-criticism was correlated with greater adult mental health problems, the presence of greater self-compassion blunted the negative impact of self-criticism.

This suggests that when we are tempted to use procrastination to manage negative emotions about a task, rather than beat ourselves up, we are best served by gentle recognition and kindness toward ourselves in the service of attending both to our short-term emotional needs and long-term goals. Indeed, greater self-compassion is correlated with reduced procrastination for exercise (Rapoport et al, 2022) and academics (O'Hara et al, 2021). Cultivating self-compassion may help us regulate negative emotions more effectively to procrastinate less and enjoy other benefits to health and wellness.

By developing the ability to suppress the expression of emotion when we need to, we can manage difficult emotions to complete tasks, rather than using the easier-but-ultimately-problematic strategy of behavioral disengagement (i.e. avoidance). It’s also important to note that while expressive suppression may serve us well when we need to press forward on a task perceived to be aversive, at other times we need to be able to freely express ourselves—for example, in the service of deepening relationships, opening up to others, sharing and being vulnerable, is necessary for closeness and mutuality.

Developing adaptive emotion regulation strategies tailored to different situations ultimately is a winning strategy, enabling us to modulate emotions in balance with the demands of a variety of circumstances to create synergy with cognitive control and affective experience. Some tasks require us to include emotions in the mix, notably those requiring creativity and originality, while others are easier if we don’t think too much about how bad we feel about them. Of course, if we feel good about doing something, if we are more connected to the carrot than the stick, we don’t tend to procrastinate.

LinkedIn image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

References

Anna M. Ehret, Jutta Joormann & Matthias Berking (2015) Examining risk and resilience factors for depression: The role of self-criticism and self-compassion, Cognition and Emotion, 29:8, 1496-1504, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2014.992394

Lassri D, Gewirtz-Meydan A. Self-Compassion Moderates the Mediating Effect of Self-Criticism in the Link Between Childhood Maltreatment and Psychopathology. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. December 2022. doi:10.1177/08862605211062994

Wang J, Zhang R, Feng T, Neural basis underlying the association between expressive suppression and procrastination: The mediation role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, Brain and Cognition, Volume 157, 2022, 105832, ISSN 0278-2626, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2021.105832

Rapoport O, Bengel S, Möcklinghoff S, Neidhardt E, Self-compassion moderates the influence of procrastination on postponing sporting activity, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 185, 2022, 111242, ISSN 0191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111242

Egan H, O’Hara M, Cook A & Mantzios M (2021) Mindfulness, self-compassion, resiliency and wellbeing in higher education: a recipe to increase academic performance, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2021.1912306

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