You’re not lazy: The psychology behind procrastination

Psychologists say we procrastinate to avoid unpleasant emotions associated with a task, not the work itself.

I hate to admit it — I’m a procrastinator.

I admire my wife, who is my opposite. She doesn’t rest until she finishes a task, no matter how late it is or how tired she is. She has an aversion to putting things off. If something needs to be done, she is driven to complete it. Needless to say, I am a regular visitor to her doghouse.

What about you? Do you delay starting work or put off completing it? Or do you live with someone who is a procrastinator? What’s this all about?

According to Adam Grant, psychologist at the Wharton School of Business, writers are some of the worst procrastinators. As a writer, I second his nomination. Writers love deadlines (sigh, I put off writing this column until the last minute). It’s not because I’m lazy, because I’m not.

Writers are always hoping that inspiration will come for a visit. When it does, words and ideas flow onto the page. It’s a joy when that happens. But all too often the muse is on vacation and finding ideas and words are like looking for my car keys. And we are perfectionists when it comes to crafting the right word, metaphor or sentence. Without a deadline, many writers would spend endless hours, days, months or years making a manuscript better.

Psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois theorize that procrastination is really a problem with emotional self-regulation — it’s not about avoiding work but it’s about avoiding unpleasant emotions. We have a tendency to put off low-interest, low-motivation, low-satisfaction, high-frustration, or high-anxiety assignments. Even though we know that delaying or deferring these jobs will likely cause us future pain.

Procrastinators do the enjoyable, high-satisfaction tasks first, leaving the emotionally challenging or low-interest tasks for later. By then, most of their mental energy is used up. Why not do it tomorrow when I’m feeling fresh?

So how do we overcome procrastination?

Do the low-satisfaction, low-interest, or frustrating tasks first. Reward yourself with high-interest or high-satisfaction tasks. For kids, do the boring or hard homework first and leave the stuff you like for later on, as a reward for getting the difficult stuff done. Do your hard homework first and reward yourself with video game or screen time when it’s done. Highly interesting tasks take less mental energy, but frustrating jobs require more gas in the tank.

Practice doing things right away. So much of what we do is habit-driven. Procrastinators are used to putting work off and so that becomes our default. Forming new habits take time and practice. Make a point of doing low-satisfaction tasks first.

Pace yourself. Complicated, frustrating or boring tasks gobble up mental and physical energy, like a car using up gas going up a steep hill. Be mindful of how much gas you have in your tank and approach work accordingly. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, pacing yourself throughout the day.

Make boring tasks more enjoyable. I turn on the Rolling Stones when I’m washing dishes and listen to opera when I’m doing paperwork. I watch Netflix when I’m folding laundry. By pairing an enjoyable activity with a dull one, it’s easier to do.

Be kind to yourself. Changing habits takes a lot longer than anyone of us would like. I’m never going to be like my wife, but I can make slow, uneven progress toward getting stuff done sooner rather than later.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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