Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

“I’m very good at procrastination,” declared Courtney Act at Monday night’s Brainwave event on procrastination. Act, a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003 and a top three finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6 (the best season!), joined psychiatrist Tim Pychyl on stage at New York’s Rubin Museum to discuss why we procrastinate and tools to help overcome it.

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Courtney Act and Tim Pychyl discuss procrastination at Brainwave’s final event of the year. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

The topic, suggested by Act, is tied to the Brainwave theme of emotion, and Pychyl was quick to congratulate her on recognizing that procrastination is indeed tied to emotion–it is not just a time-management issue or a product of laziness. Procrastination, he said, is an “emotion-focused coping strategy” that we use for short-term gratification.

People procrastinate for different reasons–some out of fear, others boredom, for example. A recent Fast Company article delved into five common types of procrastinators, and I’m sure you’ll either personally identify with one or will know people who fall into the different categories. Act is what Pychyl called a “structured procrastinator,” someone who harnesses her avoidance motivation and can actually become quite productive…just not doing the task she’s meant to be doing.

One trick she’s found that helps her focus is to give herself made-up deadlines; Act sets an alarm for an hour (no longer) during which she has to do her work. Pychyl identified this practice as an actual technique, named the Pomodoro technique, which calls for setting an alarm for 25 minutes to focus on a certain project or task without interruption. When broken into small chunks of time, tasks–even hard or boring ones–become less daunting.

Another tip to move beyond procrastination is to “just get started,” as opposed to “just do it,” said Pychyl, who is the director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Writing letters of reference for students is something that Pychyl dreads because of their importance and the attention needed to do them well. To get them done, he takes a step-by-step approach, saying to himself, “If I were going to write this letter (but I’m not),” I would need to do X… He recommends making the actions as concrete as possible, which gives weight to them, despite being only a partial plan.

But what about a way to combat chronic procrastination? One approach is to learn to better connect with your “future self.”

The “present self” and “future self” is a common divide, said Pychyl. How many times have you left dishes for future self to do in the morning? Or have to wake up at some ungodly hour to pack for a trip because you didn’t feel like it the night before? Right now usually wins!

The discussion revealed that many of us leave future self to bear our burdens because we view him or her as a stranger more than as our self. Research has shown that in some people, certain parts of the brain activate differently for present and future self. And not accepting the continuity of self can lead to bigger problems than just dirty dishes in the morning.

Hope for self-improvement comes with a study Pychyl referenced by social psychologist Hal Hershfield in which adults who were not doing a good job at investing for retirement were divided into those who saw digitally generated photos of their senior selves, and those who didn’t. They found that those who interacted with the photos were more likely to accept delayed monetary rewards, which is a habit beneficial for retirement savings. These findings have even been turned into a commercial venture called Face Retirement.

There are other, more accessible ways to connect with your future self. Pychyl called mindfulness-based meditation “the magic bullet” of the evening, in terms of advice. [Read our recent briefing paper on mindfulness meditation to learn how meditation changes the brain and may benefit students in school.] Meditation can slow us down and bring us closer to our future selves, he said. He pointed to research done by his former student Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, where undergraduate students listened to a guided meditation tape twice-weekly for four weeks that asked them to imagine the end of the semester and what they’d be doing during that time. Following the four weeks, many of these students exhibited an increase in future self-continuity and reported procrastinating less.

But don’t beat yourself up for checking social media at work or cleaning your desk to postpone writing an email; procrastination is part of human nature. “We are only human,” Pychyl said. To change our motivation from avoidance to approach we sometimes have to exercise self-compassion for ourselves, he explained. Pychyl and colleagues published a study in 2010 on first-year college students who performed badly on their initial exams. They found that the students who forgave themselves for procrastinating their studies for the first exam procrastinated less for the second exam.

So, hopefully you now have a few new strategies to deal with your own procrastination, or at least scientific validation for techniques you already use. To learn more about procrastination (or for a semi-justifiable way to procrastinate), you can read Pychyl’s blog on the very subject.

– Ann L. Whitman

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