Why we wait: 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 us to get started and the rising anxiety, you keep on procrastinating.

Humans have always struggled with procrastination. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates asked how it is possible that, if one judges an action to be the best, one would do anything other than this action. Why we act against our better judgement?

Still, as irrational as it sounds, we do procrastinate. And when it happens, no amount of rational thinking will help getting unstuck: that’s because we already know we should be doing the thing! So what can we do instead?

Procrastination is an emotional process

Procrastination arises from a fight between the limbic system — the ancient part of the brain influencing many our our automatic behaviours — and the prefrontal cortex, which is a newer part of the brain involved in cognition and higher-order thinking. Because of this fight, there are often several emotions at play when we procrastinate.

Researchers found that procrastination is often associated with negative emotions such as anxiety and hopelessness, and could even lead to even depression. Considering how ashamed and stressed we feel when we procrastinate, it’s no wonder that we see procrastination as an enemy to get ourselves rid of.

But a lot of the distress we experience when we procrastinate actually arises from our resistance to it. We feel ashamed that we procrastinate; we feel stressed about the fact that we procrastinate.

Instead, we should treat procrastination as a source of information. Procrastination is your body and your brain trying to communicate a state of emotional struggle. Ignoring that message leads to more negative emotions, but embracing procrastination and trying to decipher the message can help you get unstuck while protecting your mental health.

Making friends with procrastination

There are many complex emotions underlying procrastination. While more organic forms of self-reflection such as free-flow journaling can help, it can also be useful to follow a more structured approach, especially if you are feeling paralyzed and don’t know where to start.

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. It stands for the four most common reasons why we procrastinate: Difficult, Unclear, Scary, and Tedious.

  • 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.

To use the DUST model of procrastination, just grab a piece of paper, or open your notebook or note-taking app. Then, consider each emotion in the model to identify whether you’re procrastinating because the task is difficult, unclear, scary or tedious — it can be a combination of several emotions. Finally, apply the corresponding strategy in the model.

If that strategy doesn’t work, it is also possible that the problem doesn’t come from the task itself and you need a break. The task isn’t difficult, unclear, scary or tedious, you’re just tired. Instead of feeling guilty about procrastinating, let it go for now and focus on resting and recharging your batteries.

Procrastination is a way for our body and our mind to tell us we don’t feel comfortable with the way forward. It’s perfectly natural, and it’s okay at times to just go with it.

But when procrastination becomes recurrent and prevents you from achieving your goals, it’s good to ask yourself why without beating yourself up in the process. You’ll avoid unnecessary distress and you’ll be able to get unstuck much quicker.

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