Procrastination As Emotion
<span style="font-size: 1.5rem;" >You have a big work report due tomorrow. You’re feeling good because you have plenty of time to get it done, and this time you are determined to be organized. You sit down to make a plan. But then you realize that you don’t have any food in your house. How can you work without food? So, you quickly make a grocery list. But what do you need? Guess you need to find some. Here we go - a corn salad. That sounds interesting! But is corn really healthy? If corn syrup is bad for you why would corn itself be good? Better find out before buying corn. Suddenly, it’s 10 PM. You have a great list of super-nutritious meals for the week… and nothing done on your work report. Looks like somebody will be pulling another all-nighter.</span>
Most of us have been there. And some of us have been there a lot. Studies have found that around 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, constantly putting off important activities even though they don’t want to.1 Why do we procrastinate when it is so unpleasant? Is it laziness? Something else?
Some researchers believe that the root cause of procrastination is actually not disorganization or a lack of motivation, but a struggle in the part of the brain that deals with emotional awareness and executive function. According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.”2 When faced with a task, people can become emotionally dysregulated and paralyzed by insecurities, anxiety, self-doubt, and a focus on perfectionism. They may become overwhelmed and in the moment, putting off what needs to get done feels like the better option. However, procrastination can in fact make people feel worse about themselves, leading to a downward spiral.
This certainly sounds like a very human problem. And indeed, procrastination is often thought of as a phenomenon that is particular to people. But do animals procrastinate too? Very little research has been done to figure this out. Surprisingly, the studies that have been done have been conducted in pigeons. And they found that yes! Pigeons and people do indeed have procrastination in common.
Dr. Thomas Zentall is a researcher who has been studying procrastination in pigeons. Specifically, he has used pigeons to study a theory called the delay reduction hypothesis in relation to procrastination. In a nutshell, this hypothesis states that procrastination can actually be self-reinforcing. As Dr. Zentall explains it, the relief that a person feels after completing a task can be thought of as a negative reinforcer (The pain of pulling that all-nighter is over! I feel so good now!). The more you delay a task and feel anxious about it, the larger the relief will be when it is over. You may swear that you will never pull an all-nighter again when you remember how awful you felt after researching recipes instead of doing that work report. But that elated feeling that you felt when you got the report in anyway will win out in the end - and cause you to procrastinate the next one too. As Dr. Zentall states, “it may well be that the relief from anxiety that occurs upon completion of the task makes it difficult to stick to one’s intention not to procrastinate in the future.”3
How did Dr. Zentall study this phenomenon in pigeons? He designs experiments where pigeons chose between different patterns of reinforcement. To get a reward, they have to peck a certain number of times (a “pecking task”). In one experiment, pigeons had to walk across a long cage and perform a pecking task before receiving a reward. He found that the pigeons preferred to delay the pecking task rather than completing it early on.4 By default, the pigeons didn’t charge ahead to get the tasty reward, they strolled down the cage and lollygagged before knuckling down and completing the pecking task. Sound familiar?
We all know that procrastination can lead to increased stress and decreased work quality. It definitely seems like procrastination is a uniformly bad thing that we should try to purge from our lives forever. But are there actually advantages of procrastination? One potential advantage is that working under a deadline can increase efficiency. Some people swear by procrastination. They say it enables them to do get more done because they only give themselves a limited amount of time to complete a task. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant also believes in the benefits of what he calls moderate procrastination. He states that it leads to innovation and original thought.5
If you are like most people and believe that procrastination is having a negative impact on your life, there are things that you can do to improve the situation. There are of course practical solutions such as deleting Instagram from your phone. What’s less expected is that some effective strategies focus on being kind to yourself. For example, one study found that practicing self-compassion decreased procrastination.6 Because procrastination is correlated with being hard on one’s self, self-forgiveness can actually be the key to breaking the pattern. So if you end up pulling an all-nighter, be nice to yourself about it. That just might be what you need in order to do better next time.
“In putting off what one has to do, one runs the risk of never being able to do it.” — Charles Baudelaire, Poet
1 Haupt, Angela. “Why Do We Procrastinate, and How Can We Stop? Experts Have the Answers.” The Washington Post, 9 July, 2021.
2 Lieberman, Charlotte. “Why you Procrastinate (It has Nothing to Do With Self-Control): If Procrastination Isn’t About Laziness, Then What Is It About?” The New York Times, 25 March, 2019.
3 Zentall, Thomas R. “Basic Behavioral Processes Involved in Procrastination.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 12, 23 Nov. 2021.
5 “The Benefits of Procrastination.” DeVry University, 8 Feb, 2022.
6 Sirois, Fuschia M. “Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-Compassion.” Self and Identity, vol. 13 no. 2, 2014,