- Research demonstrates that four important therapeutic potentials can help alleviate the urge to procrastinate.
- According to some experts, procrastination might be considered a form of "self-harm."
- Temporal discounting is the process used in deciding to avoid a task.
How do I stop procrastinating?
That question is usually asked by those who have reached an intolerance level in their daily life.
I can think back to my college days regarding this topic of procrastination. I remember pulling the infamous all-nighters when studying for tests and arriving the next day feeling washed out and exhausted. Most of the time, the end results were not good. Research suggests this outcome is shared among students who defer studying this way (Kim & Seo, 2015).
After such experiences, I always made the promise to myself that this would not happen again. But it did. And this is just one facet of a host of contexts where procrastination may rear its ugly countenance. Others include work, home life, personal goals, and more. Procrastination has long been wrongly misaligned with ideas like laziness, avoidance, or an unwilling nature. In fact, it can actually be traced to deeper psychological underpinnings.
Procrastination Links to "Psychological Vulnerability"
Researchers Ferrari and Díaz-Morales (2014) define chronic procrastination as, “the purposive and frequent delay in beginning or completing a task to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort.” Some researchers who have studied procrastination, like Piers Steel, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, view it as a form of "self-harm." If this is true, then many people who engage in procrastination may be doing so with a full awareness of the choices they are making. But why continue to do it?
Unfortunately, we can’t just tell ourselves to stop procrastinating, writes therapist Charlotte Lieberman in the New York Times in 2019.
A large part of what I have seen in my own private practice is that people tend to engage in procrastination because there is an underlying inability to regulate one’s internal emotional climate around a task. This usually happens when a task invokes stress, insecurity, anxiety, or a perceived threat to our own self-esteem. For example, not pursuing a dream can mean, "I am still worthy,” rather than the possibility of rejection or failure. Once this happens, a part of our brain responsible for detecting threats known as the amygdala intercepts, locks in, and encourages self-preserving action, even if we understand the implications.
As well, the behavior comes to be perceived as a “rewarded” outcome for the brain, which primes itself to do the same thing again and again. This can severely impede one’s goals, such as the desire to lose weight, change careers, enroll in college, or pursue personal interests. For those who are more “psychologically vulnerable” and struggle with things like perfectionistic tendencies, impulsivity, anxiety, and self-control issues, there is an even greater likelihood of succumbing to procrastination's potential (Liu et al., 2023).
The Amygdala Hijack
The decision process used to disengage a task once the amygdala hijacks things is known as temporal discounting, which is a motivated optioning based not on a future state, but rather the needs of the moment. This may happen because the present is perceived as overwhelming, or the relief from the task is more stimulating than future rewards unrealized (Hershfield, 2011). Researchers have looked at temporal discounting leading to procrastination, and have noted that problems with intertemporal decision-processing (momentary thinking) typically arise because of conflicts between temporally distinct and delineated versions of “self.”
“For example, the self in this model could be seen in terms of self as long-term planner, and self as short-sighted doer. Although the planner-self may plan to lose weight by this summer’s beach season, the doer-self may indulge in several cookies in the office break room.” (Hershfield, 2011).
Additionally, the likelihood of procrastination is complicated by the lack of one’s ability to see themselves in a positive future state, known as episodic prospection, where a goal is visualized in its successful completion (Liu et al., 2023).
According to neuroscientist Judson Brew, procrastination is truly about emotions and not productive potential. Thus, quick fixes like productivity apps and the like do not address deeper psychological conflicts going on internally. Instead, we must address better ways to manage our emotions to lead healthier lives, and ultimately change procrastination tendencies.
Here are some ways to combat procrastination, based on evidence from research conducted by van Eerde & Klingsieck (2018), which found promise in: self-regulation, cognitive behavioral techniques, strengths-based interventions, and enlarging resources.
- Start by engaging in mindfulness and your orienting response for better self-regulation. You can start by identifying your triggers. Once you clearly articulate them to yourself, you can begin adopting powerful mood-modifying techniques to combat procrastination, such as thought-stopping, often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). To try it, look for a time when you feel the urge to deviate from a task. When this happens, close your eyes for a moment, stop engaging in procrastination-invoking thoughts such as, "I can’t," "This is stealing my time," "I have too much on my plate," "I will never get there," and instead actively distract yourself through a focused re-orientation to the sounds around you, perhaps naming them (i.e., "fan blowing", "computer humming"). Breathe slowly, and mentally begin re-envisioning the task into smaller, progressive steps. See yourself walking through the first step with confidence.
- Taking a lesson from the process of CBT regarding how we change thoughts, we might also pair this with context therapy to fight procrastination by cultivating a better, and more "rewarding" way of doing things, thus changing our thoughts about them. If it is a work-related task we are procrastinating on, then consider the approach of changing the contextual environment. As an example, if procrastination concerns exercise, it may be that instead of lifting weights, you provision more “flexible context optioning” by listening to your biorhythms and doing something different, like taking a walk or riding a bike. This contextual change can also be rewarding and stimulating for the brain. If it is a work-related task, you might change the context by considering engaging in the task at a local coffee shop.
- Resourcing is about developing your internal toolkit to help address the urge to procrastinate. You might begin by looking to your closest-proximity resources, like friends, co-workers, and family who can encourage or help at the moment. Examples might include brainstorming a work project with a colleague, asking a friend to be an accountability partner, or asking for help in sharing the workload.
You can also journal about your procrastination, bring it to your full awareness, and develop a plan that works for you as you optimize the potentials mentioned above.
Ferrari, J. R., & Díaz-Morales, J. F. (2014). Procrastination and mental health coping: A brief report related to students. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256475556_Procrastination_and_mental_health_coping_A_brief_report_related_to_students
Hershfield, H. E. (2011). Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235(1), 30–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06201.x
Kim, K. R., & Seo, E. H. (2015). The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 26–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.02.038
Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate…
Liu, Y., Zhou, F., Zhang, R., & Feng, T. (2023). The para-hippocampal–medial frontal gyrus functional connectivity mediates the relationship between dispositional optimism and procrastination. 448, 114463–114463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2023.114463
van Eerde, W., & Klingsieck, K. B. (2018). Overcoming procrastination? A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Educational Research Review, 25(1), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.002