You’ve been through this many times, haven’t you?
You want to finish up that essay, clean up that corner in your room, get through those 5 pesky things on your to-do list…
But you just can’t seem to do it.
Instead, you find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed, daydreaming or maybe even skimming through this article.
Being an avid procrastinator, I’ve tried tons of time management hacks, downloaded plenty of apps; thinking that there must be a problem with the way I spend my time. But this article by Dr. Timothy Pychyl opened my eyes. It’s not so much about your time management – though that is also important – as it is more about your emotional state when you are about to do something.
Dr. Pychyl has devoted many years of study and research into the area of procrastination, having written a fascinating number of articles and books on it. An Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Dr. Pychyl is also a Director for the Initiatives in Education. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Pychyl recently and he has shared his insights and tips on tackling procrastination.
1. Dr Pychyl, a lot of your books and articles are written around the topic of Procrastination. What got you so interested in this topic in the first place?
I completed my graduate work in Psychology between 1984 and 1995 (with some time away for a B.Ed. and some school teaching). My graduate research was focused on people’s goal pursuit (their personal projects) and how this affected their well-being (happiness and life-satisfaction).
From my research, particularly my doctoral work, I learned that what people said they were going to do, but never did, or delayed unnecessarily, really affected their well-being. So, just after I defended my doctoral dissertation, I turned my attention to this topic – the breakdown in volitional action – that we commonly call procrastination.
2. In some of your work, you mention the link between regulating one’s (aversive) emotions and procrastination. Do you have any tips for someone who constantly struggles with the “I don’t feel like doing it today” syndrome?
Yes, absolutely, because this is the key to reducing or even eliminating procrastination. The key notion is that I may HAVE feelings, but I do not have to BE these feelings. I can acknowledge that I feel bored or resentful or frustrated or angry or anxious, but I don’t have to let these feelings control me.
Instead, the key is to develop the mindful ability to be aware of feelings without reacting to them. Instead of focusing on the feelings, acknowledge the feelings and then think (say to yourself), “What would be the next action that I need to do if I were to move forward on this task/project?” Keep the action very concrete. Something very doable.
Now, with your attention on this action and not your feelings, you can more easily get started on this action. It is but a small action after all. What psychologists have learned from other research is that progress on a goal fuels our well-being, and with that, our motivation.
The trick is to not let our busy brains, what the Buddhists call our “monkey mind” control us. Our brains are meant to think and feel, and our feelings come very quickly. When we recognize that we can have these feelings without letting them control us, we’re well on our way to self control.
“I can acknowledge that I feel bored or resentful or frustrated or angry or anxious, but I don’t have to let these feelings control me.”
3. These days, social media dominates so much of our attention and time; and makes things even worse for people who are already wont to procrastinate. How could we better deal with this?
The simple truth is that we must pre-empt that which tempts. We have to shut off or put away these devices that tempt us. If not, it’s like trying to diet (calorie reduction) or eat a more healthy foods yet be surrounded by tempting sweets.
As well, it’s imperative to recognize that we’re being manipulated by social media. These apps are meant to be “sticky” and more of us should resent this control on our lives. Knowledge can be powerful in this regard, motivating change.
4. What are some ways to beat procrastination when working towards a long-term goal, where one risks “losing steam” halfway?
Short-term subgoals with intermediate rewards are key. Imagine that classic “journey of a 1,000 miles.” Each day we may only walk a small portion of the journey, but each day is a success, and each success needs to be celebrated.
We seek such immediate rewards, particularly in a world full of instant gratification with technology, that we forget how to reward ourselves along the way. This is key.
Another often used phrase is that the journey itself is the joy. There is much wisdom in this.
5. Are there any ways around our aversion to being goal and task specific?
I take it that you mean can I learn not to be reluctant to have plans and specific goals? I think the way to get around this reluctance is to learn the power of specific goals and tasks in the achievement of one’s own larger goals. Without some sense of playfulness, we will not necessarily build the lives we want.
It’s not a matter of being uber productive to earn a living; it’s a matter of being more effective in our goal pursuit to make a life.
6. In your opinion, is procrastination a result of nature or nurture (or both)? Are some people just more inclined to be procrastinators than others?
In all of life, it’s always nature and nurture together. The separation of the two is a false dichotomy. Fifty percent of the phenotypic variation in our traits can be attributed to genetic variation. The rest is due to the environment, and the two – nature and nurture – dance together.
When it comes to the individual, of course, you can not separate the effects, and even at the population level only 50% of a tendency is typically predicted by our genes. In the case of procrastination, there are traits such as impulsivity and low conscientiousness that predict procrastination, but this is not destiny.
Thank you Dr. Pychyl for your time and great insight into tackling procrastination!
Dr. Pychyl is an Associate Professor at Carleton University. He is a best-selling author of three books: Procrastination, Health and Well-being (2016); Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (2004), and, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for Positive Change (2013). Be sure to check out his blogs, podcast and website for more facts, research, trivia and tips as well as comic strips on procrastination.