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Procrastination

Procrastination Is More Than "I Don’t Want to Do It"

40 years of emotion-based procrastination research.

Key points

  • Procrastination has varied emotional links, some of which are harmful.
  • Consider the positive and negative emotions that emerge when you delay.
  • The immediate satisfaction one gets from delaying may not be so joyful.

It may be a challenge to start a task that you really do not want to do. It’s an effort, I agree. Still, life asks us to engage in many tasks (responsibilities, perhaps), minor and major, but there are times we just do not feel like doing it. We must remember that we have responsibilities, and that others count on us to do what we must do.

In this brief post, we explore some of the findings of 40 years of research on the emotions around chronic procrastination. Readers of my PT posts know that I've discussed procrastination from many angles (e.g., the meaning of procrastination, how prevalent it is globally, the origins of our procrastination tendencies, and myths around why we delay). In this post, we review what is known about the emotions that cause and are consequences of procrastination.

My colleague Reza Feyzi Behnagh, of the Department of Educational Theory & Practice at SUNY Albany, and I explored the published research on procrastination and emotions. (For a full paper, please contact me through email. Thanks. I also invite you to read Ferrari, 2010, for understanding procrastination).

We first decided to separate situational and dispositional procrastination. What does that mean? Well, everyone procrastinates but not everyone is a procrastinator. College students procrastinate on academic-related tasks like studying and reading and writing papers, but not on fun things like free campus concerts and parties in dorms. So, there are delay tendencies that are situational. In contrast, but related, is dispositional procrastination. Research indicates that 20% of adult women and men have a lifestyle of delays, across situations and tasks. That rate, 20%, is huge compared to many other maladjusted personality tendencies. My interest is more on this factor: chronic procrastination. So, we defined the two large categories, and we explored the literature.

A review of empirical studies over the past 40 years shed light on emotions in procrastinatory behavior and procrastination lifestyles in different contexts with different populations. Our paper reviewed 71 published studies (from 1977 to 2020) exploring the relationship between nine different emotions and situational and dispositional procrastination. The emotions examined, listed in the order of the extent of focus of scholarly research, were:

  • Anxiety. Anxiety is most often studied for both procrastination types, especially for situational (academic) procrastination. For many people, there is anxiety over a lack of self-control in their life.
  • Fear. We may experience fear of failure (“If I never finish, I’ll never be judged on my ability”); of success (“If I do well, more will be expected of me”); of social disapproval (“What if others don’t like how I do?”); or of missing out (“My friends are partying while I’m sitting here working on my homework.”)
  • Shame. This is a negative emotion about our overall sense of self, and procrastination helps us avoid facing our “warts.” Delaying working on something because of feeling ashamed as a result of previous failures will lead to even more delay and avoidance, perpetuating the cycle of procrastination.
  • Guilt. This negative emotion motivates us to alleviate future public exposure of poor skills, so procrastination prompts us to avoid facing it.
  • Regret. By waiting too long, procrastinators miss out on life’s opportunities, and they start the “what ifs” in their minds ruminating about past failures.
  • Boredom. “I don’t want to do this boring task; when will it end? This is so boring I don’t want to do it anymore.” Procrastination and a tendency toward boredom, leading to distractibility, is another cause and consequence of avoiding a task, chore, or job.
  • Frustration. Being unable to tolerate events might make you frustrated so you just procrastinate on completing the task
  • Anger. You are so upset, so angry, that you might procrastinate as a “passive-aggressive” tendency toward others or systems. Never finishing? You’ll show them!
  • Revenge. You believe that you’ve been treated unfairly at work, so you procrastinate on your job as a way to get back at those who haven’t treated you well.

Summary: So What?

Our literature review highlighted the important role of emotions as motives, antecedents, correlates, or consequences of situational and dispositional procrastination. We point out a lack of a comprehensive theory summarizing dispositional and situational procrastination and outline and recommend avenues for future research. Nevertheless, there is a need for you to realize that procrastination is complex, and your negative emotions may be holding you back. Not all procrastination is the same, and the emotions associated with the maladjustment need to be addressed. A change in how you think of the thing you’ve been avoiding will alleviate the negative emotions, and by getting even a bit of the daunting task done you will be more motivated and feel less ashamed, anxious, guilty — and can continue working and finishing it once and for all. As always, I’m optimistic and positive that you can change and that your life is important – you have so much more to give us. Life, by science.

References

Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still procrastination? The no regrets guide to getting it done. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

Feyzi Behnagh, R., & Ferrari, J.R. Exploring 40 years on affective correlates to procrastination: A literature review of situational and dispositional types.

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