Dr. Nicola McCaffrey

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Why Wait: The Psychology of Procrastination

As you find yourself beginning to read this are you doing so because you are putting off something else? The next task at work, a difficult conversation you have to have, or some housework even? Did you somehow end up reading this article on your way to something else entirely?

Whilst everyone may find themselves procrastinating from time to time, not everyone is a procrastinator. So why do we procrastinate in the first place? Well the short and simple answer is that when we undertake some tasks we can experience a negative emotional reaction. For example at work there are perhaps tasks that you do not enjoy or want to do, or if the laundry is piling up but the sun is shining for the first time in weeks. Thus we manage these negative emotional reactions, that we may not even be entirely conscious of, using an avoidant coping strategy…..procrastination. Essentially, you experience a small amount of anxiety about your upcoming task and in order to reduce that anxiety you go into an avoidance pattern. However, the fact that some of us indulge in procrastination even when it comes to enjoyable tasks that we think we would like to do, suggests that the psychology behind procrastination may be a little more complex than that.

The good news is of course that procrastination is a learned behaviour and not something we are born with. Meaning  that we can take steps to unlearn this way of coping with unpleasant emotions.

Procrastinators might try segmenting tasks into smaller pieces so they can work through a more manageable series of assignments. Furthermore, setting meaningful personal deadlines may also help to improve your ability to complete a task. Granted they are not as effective as imposed external deadlines, but they work better than no deadline at all. If you can also work with your procrastinating mindset then you may have at your disposal one of the most effective coping strategies yet. For example try to accept that any suffering or unpleasantness is in fact inevitable, thus putting off beginning the task seems like a less sensible solution. Moreover, if you can try to dig a little deeper and find some personal meaning or worth in the task then that will help you to overcome the initial hurdle of starting.