The beginning of June brings a new edition of The Inner (wellness conference), and one of the speakers for this year’s edition is Dr. Fuschia M. Sirois, professor of psychology, psychologist and researcher. Dr. Sirois is one of the world’s leading voices about procrastination. Author of successful books such as Procrastination: What it Is, why It’s a Problem, and what You Can Do about it and Do It Now: Overcoming Procrastination, she presents the causes and consequences of procrastination, but also the relationship between procrastination and the way we regulate our emotions. Based on over two decades of experience in procrastination research, it offers ingenious solutions that support thousands of people in their journey to combat this problematic practice. To learn more about managing procrastination, but also about the workshop she will have in Romania, we invited Dr. Sirois to an exclusive interview.
What is the definition of procrastination and how can we know that we are „procrastinators“?
Procrastination is type of delay in the start or completion of a task that is voluntary, unnecessary, and involves an important task that we intended to do. Yet we delay despite knowing that this delay may cause harm to ourselves or others. Sometimes we have to delay a task because it is necessary – there may be something more urgent that needs our attention like an emergency, and so we have to priorities this other task over the one we intended to do. Or sometimes we delay because someone requested that we do so. But neither of these types of delay are actually procrastination because the delay wasn’t voluntary or necessary.
What it is the main psychological processes that lead to procrastination?
Although many people think that procrastination is due to laziness or poor time management, these are not actually the real reasons people procrastinate. When we feel lazy, we don’t actually have energy to do anything. Yet many people who procrastinate get very busy with other tasks that are not as important as the one they know they should be working on. There is also little scientific evidence that poor time management „causes“ procrastination. This myth is mainly due to our observance that people who are procrastinating seem to not meet deadlines and so must therefore have difficulty with their time.
Instead, the real reason people procrastinate is due to poor mood regulation. When we procrastinate, we are trying to manage the difficult feelings that we have about a task. When thinking about the task makes us feel stressed, or anxious or frustrated or even insecure, and we don’t know how to manage these feelings internally, we put the task aside. By avoiding the task, we are also avoiding the difficult emotions connected to the task, and so procrastinating gives us relief from these emotions. This avoidance is rewarding in the short term, which is why procrastination can be reinforced and become a habit for some people. But this relief is short-lived as the guilt and shame from procrastinating soon return.
How works the internal scripts that can maintain us in procrastination?
Our internal scripts or „self-talk“ can keep us in a procrastination loop through several processes. Research has found that after people procrastinate, they engage in repetitive, automatic negative thoughts about themselves and their procrastination. Thoughts such as „why can’t I finish things I start“ and „I’m letting myself down“ generate more negative feelings of shame and guilt. These layer on to the negative feelings that prompted procrastination in the first place, making it more likely that we will continue to procrastinate as a way to manage these difficult emotions. Additionally, when we may convince ourselves that our future self will be better able to manage these feelings and deal with the task we are putting off. We might tell ourselves that we will have more energy, less self-doubt, and be better able to manage the difficult emotions at some future time, so it’s okay to put it off for our Future Self to handle. But when our Present Self becomes that Future Self who put off this task, the same difficulties remain, and we may again avoid the task for the same reasons.
What is the link between perfectionism and procrastination?
Perfectionism can play a role in procrastination because it creates anxiety and concerns about not getting things perfect. There are different forms of perfectionism though, and only the form that involves being overly self-critical and adopting unrealistic standards to try and please others is linked to a tendency to procrastinate. If you have this type of perfectionism, you worry that what you do won’t be good enough and that yourself worth is contingent upon a perfect performance. This creates stress and worry about failing to meet this high standard which in turn is managed by procrastinating, for some people.
Can you tell us a few effective ways to manage the automatic responses to the tasks on which we most often procrastinate?
It is very important to try and short-circuit the negative thoughts and feelings that can make a task feel too difficult or unpleasant. People often procrastinate on tasks that feel too large and overwhelming because these sorts of tasks are stressful and lead to difficult emotions. But if your break a large task down into a series of smaller tasks this makes the task less stressful and more manageable, and will reduce the risk of procrastination. Some of my research has also found that finding meaning in the task can be an effective way of reducing procrastination, because doing so gives context for the negative feelings we have about a task which then reduces negative emotions. Once you have procrastinated, it’s also important to change how you respond to your procrastination. Instead of defaulting to being self-critical and getting caught up in the guilt and shame about procrastination, my research suggests that being kind, compassionate and mindful towards your procrastination can paradoxically reduce the chances that you will continue to procrastinate. Being self-compassionate reduces guilt and shame by reminding you that you are not the first person to procrastinate, nor will you be the last. This increases motivation to do better and take action.
What are the most important changes in our environment for less procrastination?
An environment that is filled with tempting detractions, including social distractions can make it easier to procrastinate when we are struggling with the negative emotions about a task. Such environments remind us of other things that may be more enjoyable than the task we need to get done and create the potential for goal conflicts, that is having to decide to feel good now or work on our task to feel good later. So, it’s important to make sure that you set up your environment to reduce these procrastinogenic influences when you are working on a task. Instead set up your environment with things that remind you why you are doing this task and that help you see the meaning in your task.
Can we get rid of procrastination for good or is it important to be able to manage it?
I think this depends on the person. For some people, procrastination can be eliminated when they learn to spot the feelings that prompt them to procrastinate and effectively manage them. For others who are more prone to procrastination because they have less tolerance for negative emotions and also have difficulty managing them, procrastination may just have to be managed. For these individuals, they can reduce their procrastination by better managing their emotions and the thoughts that feed negative feelings about a task.
At the beginning of June you will come to Romania, at The Inner conference, what can the participants expect at the workshop you will hold?
In this workshop we will focus on first helping people understand the reals reasons they procrastinate through reflective and interactive exercises. After this we will then explore and engage in several evidence-based approaches for helping manage the negative emotions that can drive procrastination so that people can reach their goals and improve their well-being.
For more information on the topic, we also recommend Dr. Sirois’ TED talk. This interview was conducted with the support of The Inner team.