The Procrastination Jigsaw

For some time I have been procrastinating about writing the next blog post. All my good intentions have come to no avail. I’ve asked myself numerous questions about the ‘block’ - is it the change of seasons? have I run out of ideas? could it possibly be a time of life issue? am I just bone-lazy? do I doubt my ability to write something interesting?

All might be possible, but I decided to do some research to see if there were more pieces in my unfinished jigsaw puzzle to help me understand why I balk at doing the challenging tasks on my ‘to-do’ list.

Fossicking around on the Internet led me to a number of scholarly articles one of which I found particularly interesting, ‘Procrastination and the priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self’.1

In the article I discovered that procrastination comes from an emotional reaction to whatever we’re avoiding. Researchers call it “mood repair”, where we avoid the uncomfortable feelings associated with a perceived undesirable task that’s on our plate and instead spend time on mood-enhancing activities. For me this usually involves a spot of gardening.

In other words, we put off what we consider is an unpleasant job ahead, to make ourselves feel better. I want to feel good, I love to garden - yet digging in the garden gives me only a very short positive burst - and then I’m feeling discouraged and annoyed with myself.

The reality is that while the mood lift I give myself in the garden is nice, it’s inevitably short-term. Once I’ve planted, watered and fertilised – the blog is still sitting unwritten and it continues to cause me stress. I now have a wee bit of anxiety coming at me from two levels – the task itself, which can be quite a slog and I am not pleased with myself… I seem to have inadvertently added to my negative emotion!

The report helped me to find quite a few of the pieces missing from my procrastination jigsaw. I ping quite a few ….

  • procrastination occurs due to a break down in my self-regulation (how I direct my thoughts, feelings and behaviours to achieve my goals)

  • it stems from my thinking that I have an overly challenging task to accomplish

  • to relieve myself of these negative feelings, I give myself a bit of an upward ‘hit’ (in the garden)

  • past procrastinating behaviour can increase feelings of anxiety. That is, the rot has set in (are we talking about a behavioural habit here … I think it’s definitely another jigsaw piece)

  • tasks that are perceived as difficult or challenging can activate negative self-talk that interferes with task persistence and, therefore, lead to procrastination

  • low self-compassion suggests that it may be difficult for those of us who needlessly delay to ‘beat ourselves up’ – which no doubt adds to the negative emotions

  • we are more likely to needlessly delay tasks when we lack self-discipline and/or we are very impulsive, or where we feel there’s a low chance of success

  • remembering past threats to yourself are not enough to prevent the re-occurrence of the procrastinating behaviour – I guess once you’ve done it once and survived, you tend to do it again

  • if you’re already feeling low, dispirited or tired, procrastination may be more likely to raise its ugly head.

The experts believe that we tend to misjudge what will make us happy and have trouble seeing through the filter of the present. Our current feelings blind us to how we'll make decisions in the future, when we might be feeling very differently. Dan Gilbert of Harvard University calls this “presentism” bias and suggests this contributes to procrastination.

The University of Sheffield psychology professor Dr. Fuschia Sirois (co-author of the report) says: “Procrastination is essentially irrational. It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences. People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

We humans believe that tomorrow will be different. We believe that we will be different tomorrow. In reality however, we prioritise our current mood over the consequences of our inaction. We rely on the present to predict our future.

In my research, mindfulness was raised as a possible alleviator or mechanism to counter procrastination due to its stress relieving qualities. Truth be told, that sounds challenging all in itself!

Even if I don’t practice mindfulness, I am determined to reduce my perceptions of tasks being overwhelming. My aim is to break the next blog post into manageable chunks - decide the topic first as one whole piece of work, then research the topic in a second burst and finally bring my thoughts on paper. I’m also going to have a good talk to that inner critic who sits on my shoulder and tells me all sorts of negative drivel. Honestly, how dare that critic say I’d never write another blog post!

[1] Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013) Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood

Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7

(2). 115 - 127. ISSN 1751-9004

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