Why procrastination has nothing to do with laziness

Contrary to popular belief, your students don't procrastinate because they're lazy or because they have poor time-management skills, writes Charlotte Lieberman for New York Times.

When students put off studying for their finals or delay starting a project, they're likely aware that doing so is a bad idea. "This is why we say that procrastination is essentially irrational," explains Fuschia Sirois, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield. "It doesn't make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences."

So then why do students (and the rest of us) engage in this self-destructive behavior? "People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task," adds Sirois.

In other words, people procrastinate to cope with the negative emotions—like boredom, anxiety, or self-doubt—that certain tasks induce. For instance, your student might put off studying for her midterm because reviewing the difficult material provokes feelings of low self-esteem or insecurity.

Therefore, "[p]rocrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem," says Tim Pychyl, a Professor of Psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University.

But putting off a task such as studying only delays—and may even compound—those negative emotions, recognizes Sirois. After procrastinating, your student likely experiences even higher levels of stress and self-blame—in addition to the feelings of self-doubt and insecurity that led her to procrastinate in the first place.

In fact, over time, procrastination can have destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Despite these consequences, we continue to procrastinate because doing so provides us with momentary emotional relief, Sirois points out. "[Y]ou've been rewarded for procrastinating," she says, which is why procrastination tends to become a chronic habit.

Hal Hershfield, a Professor of Marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management, adds that we prioritize this short-term relief over our long-term wellness because our brains don't recognize our "future selves" when perceiving potential threats. "We really weren't designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now," says Hershfield.

Related: How to help students cultivate smarter study habits

So how can we bypass these subconscious tendencies and stop procrastinating?

1: Recognize the root cause of procrastination. First, we must recognize that procrastination isn't about productivity or time management, it's about emotions, the researchers point out. So if we want to ditch our procrastination habit, we must learn to manage our emotions.

2: Find a better reward than avoidance. "Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven't found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do," says Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. He recommends finding a "Bigger Better Offer," or "B.B.O."

3: Show yourself some kindness. According to a 2010 study, students who were able to forgive themselves during moments of procrastination were better able to "move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts." Sirois recommends that procrastinators practice self-compassion and allow kindness to act as "a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events."

4: Engage in self-reflection. If you feel tempted to procrastinate, ask yourself why. Ask yourself questions such as, "What feelings are eliciting your temptation? Where do you feel them in your body? What do they remind you of? How are the sensations in your body shifting as you continue to rest your awareness on them?"

5: Think about the "next action." Skipping ahead to the "next action" creates a "layer of self-deception," according to Pychyl. He recommends considering what might happen if you began a certain task: "What's the next action I'd take on this if I were going to do it, even though I'm not?" Then you might begin to think, "Maybe I would begin by opening my email, then I would put the date at the top of the page."

6: Make your temptations less tempting. Place obstacles between yourself and your temptations, recommends Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits. For instance, if you're tempted to scroll through social media when you're supposed to be drafting a budget proposal, delete the app from your phone. This way, you lessen the reward value of your temptation, she suggests. On the flip side, you can also make the task you need to complete more doable: "Try to remove every, every, every roadblock," suggests Rubin (Lieberman, New York Times, 3/25).

Learn more: 3 steps to knock out that project you've been putting off


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