Breaking the Bad Habit of Procrastination

Learn how to overcome the ways procrastination may negatively affect your business and personal lives

Breaking the Bad Habit of Procrastination

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An old English proverb notes that all good things come to those who wait. But by and large, waiting to tackle tasks and projects isn’t a good recipe for success in today’s fast-paced workplace.

Nonetheless, many of us — 20% by one expert’s measure — are procrastinators. And this vicious cycle of personal ignition failure is not only difficult to break, it also can lead to chronic stress and illness, job and life dissatisfaction, low productivity and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Understanding what makes us put off tasks requires a dive into the science behind procrastination. After all, knowledge is power. And few people are more knowledgeable about procrastination than Tim Pychyl, the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.

In simplest terms, studies have shown procrastinators aren’t bad people or poor time managers. Instead, it turns out they’re hard-wired to do it, says Pychyl, also an associate professor in the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and the founder of the university’s Procrastination Research Group.

It's biology

Procrastination is essentially an arm-wrestling contest between the amygdala in the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and the weaker prefrontal cortex, which governs the brain’s information integration and decision-making capabilities.

And unless we know how to circumvent it, the amygdala usually wins.

“Essentially, we give in (to procrastination) to feel good,” Pychyl says. “We call it the amygdala hijack, which occurs when we face a task that prompts negative emotions, such as boredom, frustration, resentment and anxiety.

“We procrastinate because the amygdala perceives a task as a threat and hijacks the prefrontal cortex, so it can’t plan or follow through with the executive functions it’s supposed to implement.”

The result? We feel relieved when we put off something we don’t want to face. In essence, procrastination is a form of flight.

“It’s totally rational to want to feel good instead of bad,” Pychyl says, “but if you can’t attend to what you’re supposed to attend to, you can’t self-regulate. It’s like having a thermostat that doesn’t pay attention to the temperature.”

The upshot? Avoidance only makes you feel good in the short term. And eventually “it bites you in the butt,” Pychyl says.

Follow the science

The science behind procrastination has come a long way in the past decade. For example, one study showed that people who habitually procrastinate have larger amygdalas, Pychyl says.

“This finding backs up the assertion that, in effect, procrastination isn’t a time-management issue, it’s an emotional management issue,” he says.

Furthermore, Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist and associate professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at the University of California – Los Angeles, published a study in 2015 that added another piece to the procrastination puzzle. The study showed that an emotional disconnect often exists between our present selves and future selves that leads to bad decisions and behaviors.

What does that have to do with procrastination? Well, Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, a graduate student of Pychyl’s, took that study’s conclusion a step further. She led a study that examined whether guided meditation could help students better achieve their academic goals by envisioning their future selves.

The results of the study showed that participating students developed more empathy for their future selves, which led to decreases in procrastination.

Managing emotions

Much of managing procrastination comes down to better control over emotions.

“If you want to procrastinate less, you have to focus on short-term mood repair — better regulate your emotions,” Pychyl says.

One thing that can help is mindfulness training, or learning how to meditate. Deep-breathing and relaxation exercises help the body’s parasympathetic nervous system kick in and stop the amygdala from firing on all cylinders, he says.

In fact, a study published by a German researcher in 2016 showed that people who practiced mindfulness procrastinated less. In addition, a former University of Pittsburgh researcher, Adrienne Taren, conducted a study that showed mindfulness training actually can shrink the size of the amygdala and strengthen connections with the prefrontal cortex.

What else can people do to stop procrastinating? Become aware of our negative feelings about a task and learn something from them, rather than coping by avoiding, Pychyl says.

“We need to be aware of our emotions because they can teach us things,” he says. “One of my favorite mantras is you can have an emotion, such as frustration, resentment or anxiety about a job or project, without being the emotion.

He notes that “when you realize why something makes you anxious, then you’re able to get going. So the next step is asking yourself about the next action you can take on the project, even though your body may be screaming that you don’t want to do it. When we focus on action, not the emotion, it leads to motivation. And at some point, the self just hauls off and does what it needs to do.”

Difficult but rewarding

It sounds simple and sensible, but Pychyl readily concedes that changing years of deeply ingrained mental muscle memory is anything but easy. But it helps if people can forgive themselves if they take the proverbial one step forward and two steps backward, he says.

“Procrastination is effectively a transgression against yourself,” Pychyl says. “But you have to practice some self-compassion. Change is difficult and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

In fact, a study Pychyl did 10 years ago about self-forgiveness and procrastination showed that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating subsequently procrastinated less going forward than people who didn’t forgive themselves.

On a related note, many procrastinators tend to be perfectionists; they’re too busy trying to live up to the expectations of others, which more often than not makes them feel bad when they don’t measure up.

“Another one of my favorite mantras is there are cracks [imperfections] in everything,” Pychyl says. “But cracks are what let in the light. So don’t let expectations for perfection cripple you.”

That philosophy underscores Pychyl’s belief that learning to manage procrastination can yield profound results that transcend the workplace. Time is a nonrenewable, so if we waste it, we essentially are wasting life itself, he says.

“If you stop procrastinating, it can change your life — if you want it to.” 



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