Understanding the emotions behind procrastination

You have a deadline. You know you should get to work. But instead of focusing on what’s urgent and important, you spend your time on something else. Despite the inner voice telling you to get started and the rising anxiety, you’re procrastinating.

While the neuroscience of procrastination is mainly based on a fight between your limbic system—the ancient part of the brain influencing many our our automatic behaviours—and the prefrontal cortex—a newer part of the brain involved in cognition and higher-order thinking—there are often several emotions at play when we procrastinate.

DUST model of procrastination

The DUST model of procrastination

Created by Graham Allcott, the founder of Think Productive and author of A Practical Guide to Productivity, DUST is a simple method to identify why you may be procrastinating.

  • Difficult. You may find the task too challenging, which may be caused by a lack of confidence, a lack of skills, or both. The solution is to move the starting point a bit earlier. For example, if you want to build an app but find it too difficult, you could take an online course that covers a very similar type of app. It’s important to not use an earlier starting point as a way to procrastinate even further. Clearly define what the first action step will entail, commit to it, and do not create an endless list of “pre-tasks” before you can get started with the main task.
  • Unclear. Sometimes, we procrastinate because the task is not clearly defined. We often use vague one-word items in our to-do list, leaving our brains to fill in the blanks. In order to be productive, it’s important to have clearly defined actions. The solution is to make your tasks more detailed and to break them down into simple, actionable, clearly defined items. For example, “presentation prep” could be replaced by “record myself presenting the talk by Tuesday so I can get feedback from my manager on Wednesday.”
  • Scary. Our fear of failure can get in the way of our productivity. The biggest changes we want to make and the most exciting projects we want to work are also the most daunting. Our brain is designed in a way to keep us safe. Comfort is good, risk is bad. Procrastination is a way to stay in your comfort zone. A solution is to create an even bigger fear to trump the original one. For example, announcing your deadline in public may trigger your fear of being judged, helping you overcome procrastination to avoid disappointing your peers. However, it’s better over the long term to embrace these fears, which are perfectly natural reactions to have when building something meaningful.
  • Tedious. Some tasks are just boring. Need to copy-and-paste lots of numbers into a spreadsheet? Need to clean up some data? Need to write a hundred handwritten notes for an event? There’s no way to change the nature of the task itself—even though learning some automation tools can be useful in many cases—but you can change your environment. For example, you could listen to a podcast while doing copy-and-pasting work. Or you could create a reward for yourself when you get the task done in order to make it more exciting.

That’s the DUST model of procrastination. Identify whether you’re procrastinating because the task is difficult, unclear, scary or tedious—it can be a combination of several emotions—and apply one of the solutions to get yourself out of the procrastination hole. Another useful approach is to understand the three components of motivation, which have some overlap with the DUST model, so you can run a motivation clinic.

Procrastination is perfectly natural, and it’s okay at times to just go with it. Procrastination can also be a way for our body and our mind to tell us we need a break. But when procrastination becomes recurrent and prevents you from achieving your goals, it’s good to ask yourself why, and apply simple strategies to tackle the problem head-on.

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