The Emotional Roots of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them


May 31, 2021
schedule showing a small amount of work scheduled vs procrastination

Think of a time when you had a big project due the next day. You’re sitting there at your desk. Your computer is booted up. You’re all set up to work. But, ah! You need some coffee to really get going. So you get your coffee. Mmm. That hit the spot! And the caffeine should be kicking in any minute now to really boost your productivity. Time to get down to work.

Ooh, but wait. You’d better check your email. You’re waiting for that package to arrive today. There’s the notification from FedEx. Delayed?! What’s that about?! Click the link and go down a rabbit hole. All of the sudden, it’s almost the end of the day, you’re watching a hilarious clip of Steve Martin doing standup, and you’ve gotten nearly nothing done on that big project due tomorrow. What happened?!

That’s procrastination.

It’s a huge problem for even the highest performers. But why do we do it? And what can we do to prevent it, or stop it once we feel it taking hold? More than anything else, the answers to these questions have to do with emotions. There are two specific phenomena that push us to procrastinate. Understanding them allows us to put strategies in place to preventing and stopping procrastination.

What Is Procrastination?

Motivational psychologist Piers Steel has roughly defined procrastination as the voluntary delay of something you intend to do, despite knowing the negative consequences of not doing it. Though it certainly is irritating, it’s actually fascinating when you look at some of the research that’s been done on procrastination.

Psychologists Tim Pychyl and Fuchsia Sirios argue that procrastination is a breakdown in self-regulation—meaning we fail to get ourselves to do something that we know we should do. They frame it as a kind of battle between three selves.

On one hand, you’ve agreed to do something, and you know you should. But that was you in the past. Your present self feels repulsed, bored, or just lacks the energy to begin the task. That present self thinks that some future version of you (even perhaps you 20 minutes from now!) will somehow have the energy and motivation to do the task. So you end up putting it off to do something else.

But Why?!

So why do we procrastinate? Why do we pit our present selves against or past selves, at the expense of our future selves?

According to Pychyl and Sirios, there are 2 main cognitive phenomena that drive us procrastinate: short-term mood repair and temporal disjunction.

In other words, we do a short-term action—an easy, often mindless one—that we know will boost our immediate mood. We try to start a task that we know will require a certain amount of energy and focus. But we don’t have that emotional energy available to do it. But our brain is happy to suggest a source of that emotional energy: a quick dopamine hit.

We’re all too familiar with how to score a dopamine hit, and there are nearly endless options available to do just that. From YouTube to Wikipedia, and from Twitter to TikTok—we can get those quick and easy hits to elevate our mood. And while we’re doing it, it seems to work. It makes us feel better, for a little bit.

That’s where the temporal disjunction part comes in.

In the back of our mind, we know that the short term dopamine hits that come from procrastination won’t give us lasting emotional energy. We know they’ll only keep us from doing what we should be doing: the hard, emotionally demanding task.

But we’ve separated our present self—who is busy at the moment watching outtakes from “The Office”—from our future self, who we assume will somehow have the emotional energy that our present self lacks. We disjoin our present self from our future self, and it allows us not to worry about the task we need to do—at least not enough to scare us into taking action.

So How Do We Beat It?

Once you understand that the roots of procrastination are emotional, you can develop strategies to beat it. Here are some helpful ones to use.

  • Understand the emotional weight of each task you have to do.
    This can require a bit of thinking, but it will ultimately help you avoid frustrating bouts of putting off work.
  • Schedule emotionally demanding tasks for times when you have higher energy levels.
    If you can, begin work on hard tasks when you have just recently rested or taken a break. When you’re not already feeling stressed or drained, you won’t feel the need to remedy your mood by looking for dopamine hits.
  • Minimize visual distractions from your workspace.
    For a computer, this means closing all windows except for the one that contains the task you’re looking to do. If you’re in an office environment, this may mean clearing off your desk of papers and other triggers, or even hiding away in a conference room to focus.
  • Log your feelings of task-resistance.
    Just try to start the task, but be ready to record what stops you—what makes you want to procrastinate. Usually, you’ll feel some sort of emotional resistance within a minute of trying to start. In most cases, this is when you will succumb to distraction, and procrastinate. Verbalize or write down what you’re feeling at that moment. This will help you to talk yourself into continuing with the task.

Strategies for dealing with emotional energy dips can vary from person to person. But these tips are great ways to start becoming aware of the emotional foundations of your procrastination, and take them on. Once you do that, it’s all about preventing or managing that emotional load and tendency to not think about your future self. When you can do that, you’ll find that you procrastinate a lot less, and with less serious consequences.

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2 years ago

So the trick is to make work generate the dopamine rush.
One way to do this is to play your favourite music – it generates the dopamine while you get on with work.
Alternatively choose work which gives fairly rapid job satisfaction (tricky).
Or, every day create a carefully crafted To Do list/ team plan/ etc, using multi-coloured pens & with cross references. You see where this is going – it’s satisfying but nothing actually gets done.
Or, which is where WFY or similar come in, use tools that are satisfying to use, that enable you to create ‘good work’ fairly quickly, can generate your To Do list(s) automatically, cross-references are embedded, etc.

Phil Saunders
Phil Saunders
2 years ago

This article has succinctly described what is going on under the scalp, which countless other articles have never achieved. Thank you so much for unlocking this.

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