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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 17, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

The psychology of procrastination

In honor of the ever-growing list of homework and tasks I need to get done, I thought I’d step into the realm of psychology to discuss procrastination.

The unfortunate reality of being a successful adult includes work and responsibilities. And I have the habit of saving the obligations that are too anxiety-inducing until absolutely necessary — but hey, save the best for last, right? This is the logic behind procrastination, and it’s something that many of us ritualize in one degree or another.

A common pattern of procrastination is indulging in preferable activities to reduce anxiety in the “here and now.” Later, these temporary benefits are replaced with the added stress of completing the task in a shorter amount of time, likely resulting in decreased quality in the finished product and an overall increased stress level and lower personal well-being.

What I’m calling “acute” procrastination happens with many. You have occasional timemanagement issues or find more pressing projects to work on instead of the undesirable one. However, chronic procrastination is more complex, and in some cases, evidence of an underlying mental health concern such as depression, ADHD or anxiety — all are linked to hitches in executive function.

Executive function is seated in the frontal lobe of your brain and is a set of tools that we use in organizing, remembering, focusing, behaving and multitasking in everyday life. I think of executive function as my mental daily planner that also has some handy guides called “How to Behave in Any Situation!” and “Tips on Emotional Control.”

This impacts procrastinators in two main areas: failure of self-regulation and difficulty managing emotions. When you procrastinate, you have a temporary lax in this area of executive function, and you’re more focused on feeling better now.

But when I say that these folks may have difficulty managing emotions, I’m not talking about a rollercoaster of happy one minute and upset the next. Rather, think of it as high impulsivity paired with low self-discipline. My impulse is to watch “Once Upon a Time” instead of writing my ecology lab report. If I follow my impulse and watch my show, I’ll be more emotionally gratified in the moment; however, I’ll still have to write the report another day — initial benefit at a later cost.

I’ve collected a few potential solutions. Self-forgiveness is an important first step because procrastination is often self-inflicted — one study showed that students who forgave themselves procrastinated less with later projects. This step breaks the cycle of negativity related to procrastination by reducing the negative emotions tied to the task so you might try again. Next, take small steps to accomplish your goals by dividing scary responsibilities into smaller, achievable tasks. You’ll likely be more motivated to accomplish a few small tasks than to embark on a large project. And third, which if you know me, is a hypocritical statement, seek help from others — especially a counselor or other professional if you think you’re a chronic procrastinator or suspect you have a mental health condition.