Don’t blame your lack of will power or poor time management skills for your inability to get stuff done.
According to psychologist Tim Pychyl, a leading expert on procrastination from Carleton University, the fickle habit goes much, much deeper.
At its heart, Pychyl tells Business Insider, procrastination is an emotional issue.
“We could both put something in our schedule, and then we get there and we go ‘Ugh, I don’t feel like it.’ And then we don’t!” he says. “What procrastination is, is that we cope with negative emotions by using avoidance.”
The emotions aren’t always the same. If you’ve made plans to buy a new outfit for a wedding, you might put it off because you don’t want to confront your weight gain. If you’re delaying starting a budget, you might feel ashamed having to face all the money you’ve spent.
Importantly, Pyhchyl says those negative emotions — guilt, shame, embarrassment — are problems for the present self. They’re problems for you right now. And the quickest way to eliminate these emotions is to put off problems for the future you until you can’t put them off any longer.
So you avoid, and you procrastinate. Pychyl calls this a “misregulation” of emotion. When we misregulate our emotions, we try to cope by dealing with them in unproductive ways — in this case, by heaping them onto the shoulders of our distant selves.
“You believe it’s going to make you feel better,” he says. “But it doesn’t. It comes back to bite you on the butt.”
Take a low-stakes form of procrastination: not doing your chores. Most people avoid chores because they’re boring. But even if you know putting them off only makes it worse for future you, you’ll still do it because you’d rather avoid the short-term burden.
“We really think about future self like a stranger,” Pychyl says. He points to research from UCLA that has shown people tend to exhibit similar levels of empathy for strangers as for their future selves.
That’s part of what makes procrastination such an emotional behaviour — when you put stuff off, you’re essentially putting one person’s emotions ahead of someone else’s. It just so happens both of those people are you, only at different points in time.
Pychyl says people can avoid procrastinating by coming to that realisation when they feel compelled to delay. They should ask themselves why they want to procrastinate and confront that impulse, not necessarily the task itself.
“You have to recognise it’s about feeling good in the short term,” he says. “That’s the place you have to start conceptually.”
Only then will you feel truly prepared to tackle the task ahead.