We all know the feeling: the existential dread of a boring task, looming deadline, or important presentation. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it feels impossible to get things done. In the face of sometimes paralyzing stress, we procrastinate — even when we know there may be disastrous outcomes.
So what's the real reason humans procrastinate? Strangely enough, it has nothing to do with a lack of discipline or time. It actually has to do with emotional regulation, says Timothy Pychyl, a social psychologist who has studied the behavior for 26 years.
“Procrastination is not a time management issue; it’s an emotion management issue,” Pychyl tells Inverse. That’s because avoiding a boring, anxiety-producing, difficult task can temporarily relieve those negative emotions.
While most articles on productivity hacks argue the solution to procrastination is restructuring time or breaking down a project into manageable chunks, Pychyl offers a simple alternative. Ask yourself one “life-changing” question: What’s the next action?
“Getting started is magical,” Pychyl says. “Motivation follows action, not the other way around.”
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
What makes procrastination so hard to overcome?
Putting off something because you know you’ll be able to finish it later isn’t procrastination. When you intend to do something, then knowingly delay it to your own detriment — that’s procrastination.
“Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite expecting to be worse off with delay,” Pychyl explains. “By definition, it's self-defeating.”
But if we know delaying an action may lead to disastrous outcomes, why do we do it? It turns out, humans often fall into the procrastination trap because it can simply feel good in the moment.
“Present self wins,” Pychyl says. “Future self, not so much.”
According to a 2016 study that analyzed the link between self perception and procrastination, people tend to view their future self like they would a stranger. This drives the idea that one can delay an action because it will become a “tomorrow problem” that their future self can handle.
In the short term, this strategy can work. When procrastination is successful, we hold onto it like “gold,” Pychyl says.
“Many people who are chronic procrastinators still succeed really well in life,” Pychyl says. “Performance is not always the casualty of procrastination, but well-being is.”
But while the cycle of procrastination might not wreck your career, it can take a toll on your mental health. When we miss the mark because of intentional delay, we transgress against ourselves, Pychyl explains. This transgression can trigger waves of self-blame, loathing, and guilt.
“That internal dialogue is really destructive and can take us apart in terms of our health,” he says.
Repeated procrastination can lead to anxiety, less physical activity, and chronic stress. Down the line, research shows these pressures can even manifest into health problems like heart disease and high blood pressure.
Ask yourself one “life-changing” question: What’s the next action?
Pychyl explains that certain people are likely to become chronic procrastinators: Those who are highly impulsive and less conscientious are particularly vulnerable to this behavior. Additional research shows people who are prone to ruminating on anxious thoughts, or who have limited self-compassion, are also more likely to procrastinate.
“You meet all sorts of people who say, ‘Why do I keep doing this to myself?’ They pull it off, but it just kills them doing it — and they promise never to do it again.”
How to avoid the procrastination trap
Pychyl’s advice to overcome patterns of procrastination is to first acknowledge you are experiencing challenging emotions. Then, you can shift your focus away from them with non-judgmental mindfulness techniques.
“Acknowledge, ‘Oh, I hate this task; I'd rather poke my eyes out with a fork than do this. It is so boring or I just resent it so much,’” Pychyl says.
Then, simply ask yourself: If I were to do this project, what is the next action would take?
Pychyl recommends keeping that action small. It isn’t helpful to break down every step involved in a project — that process can be overwhelming. By just asking what’s next, you can keep negative emotions from ballooning.
On bad days, you may have to ask, “What’s the next action?” 10 times a day. But, eventually, something will click and the method will work.
After studying hundreds of university students, Pychyl pinpointed another action that also helps: self-forgiveness.
“People who procrastinated and forgave themselves procrastinated less than the future,” he explains. “We need some self-compassion and self-forgiveness or we're just going to layer on another burden of guilt and self-loathing.”
To err is human, Pychyl reminds us. Sometimes we will procrastinate, and prioritizing the short term will backfire in the future. And that’s ok.
“Actually, to procrastinate is a very human trait. Who doesn't want short-term rewards?” Pychyl says. “But if we don't forgive ourselves, we're never going to make the self-change that we want.”