The Truth About Procrastination

Procrastinating? It's not a time management problem, it's an emotion management problem.

Courtesy of Netrun78/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Netrun78/Shutterstock

​We’ve all done it. Sat down to write that report/do the accounts/pay the bills and found ourselves watching animals doing stupid things on the internet, cleaning out the kitchen cupboards or organising your t-shirt draw by brand then colour. OK, maybe that’s just me.

But if you’re reading this, you know you procrastinate. And perhaps you’re reading this article as a way to procrastinate. Well, keep going and by the time you get to the end of it, I think you’ll have great tips about how to stop avoiding and start doing.

Why we procrastinate

It doesn’t make any sense right? You know you’ve got to do something but you can’t find a way to get started. Your mind starts telling you a million reasons why you don’t have time now, or you’ll get round to it later. And you buy into it. Why?

Because of something called short-term mood repair.

Short-term mood repair means avoiding feeling a certain way. In procrastination that’s usually anxiety.To get rid of your anxious thoughts and feelings, you do something else.

And guess what? IT WORKS.

The horrible thoughts and feelings in your body go away and you feel better.

So, in the short term it works, and you feel better quickly. You are giving in to feel good. That’s incredibly reinforcing — you are getting a good payback for avoiding and you are getting it quickly. And so you keep on doing it. This is simple behavioural psychology. The more you are reinforced for doing something the more likely you are to keep doing it.

But the problem is the long term consequence of procrastinating. In the long run you aren’t achieving what you need to. And then you leave something to the last minute and so the cycle goes on. Lots of other articles on this will tell you it’s a time-management problem but it’s not so simple.

The problem isn’t that you can’t manage time. The problem is that you can’t manage emotions.


How to stop procrastinating

Step 1. Work out what you are doing when you procrastinate

Figure out the trap you are falling into with what we behavioural psychologists call an ABC formulation. Here’s an example:

  • A. Triggers. What triggers your procrastination? For me it’s writing an article, thinking it will be no good, feeling annoyed.
  • B. Behaviours. What behaviours do you engage in to get rid of the triggers? I avoid feelings I don’t like by doing the following: watch TV, google pictures of sea otters holding hands, tidy up, google more animals, look at pictures of clothes I want on the internet…you get the picture.
  • C. Consequences. What are the consequences of these behaviours? In the short term I avoid feeling agitated, I don’t have to sit down and write anything. Hooray! But, but, but…in the long-term I don’t get anything done, time runs out, I do a worse job. I don’t achieve my goals or live by my values. I buy stuff I can’t afford on Net-a-Porter. I know too much about sea otters.

Do this ABC exercise for yourself to find out what pattern you have fallen into. Don’t google sea otters while you do it. I know you want to.

Step 2. Values: The secret motivation weapon no one told you about.

Most people will tell you that you need to start with a small goal etc. That’s great advice, but I think there’s a crucial step missing before you do any of this and I want to share it with you.


Values are our heart’s deepest desires for how we want to live. Goals are what we do, values are how and why we do them.What are your personal values? What is this task you’re so determined to avoid in the service of? You’re not writing a report for the sake of it are you? Hope not. There’s a reason you are doing it. Are you doing it to be creative, to educate, to learn? 
Having values gives you a supercharged level of purpose.

So work out what some of your values are. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Step 3. How to deal with procrastination’s biggest trap!

In over 10 years as a psychologist, there is one trap that I see people fall into more than anything else.

It’s the ‘I don’t feel like doing it’ trap.

Time and time again, people wait to ‘feel’ like doing something. Quite often they wait for ever.

Well, here’s an uncomfortable newsflash for you. You won’t feel like doing it to begin with.

You don’t do something because you feel like it, you do it because you made a commitment to do it. You do it because it’s in line with your values.

Just do it. There’s a reason Nike have had so much success with that one. Maybe I should try marketing ‘Just Do It Because You Are Committed To Achieving Your Goals In Line With Your Values’. Snappy no?

Step 4. Make friends with anxiety

Stop shoving your anxiety away and invite it to sit next to you at your computer. Make it a cup of tea. Yes, you heard me. Research shows pushing an emotion or a thought away tends to make it come back stronger.

A social psychologist called Daniel Wegner found that if you try to suppress thinking of a white bear, you are, ironically, more likely to think of one. It’s called Ironic Process Theory. Try it out for yourself. Don’t think of a white bear.Bet you are thinking of one. Not sure if this experiment works if you live near polar bears.

Step 5. Realistic Goals

Start by telling yourself you can only do 3 minutes on it today, that’s it. Most people find that this allows them to get started and then, hey! They’re off! Your initial goal must be as easy as jumping off a piece of paper.

Step 6. Hack your environment to work for you

Set up your environment to get you doing the stuff you want. Give your poor mind a helping hand, it’s trying to get committed, find values and be pals with anxiety. It’s having a tough day. So, if you are putting off going to the gym, get your gym kit by the front door. If you need to get an article done, have your computer ready to go. Make it easy.

​Take away: your 6 tips to beat procrastination

  1. Figure out the pattern you are in
  2. Work out your values — this is what will keep you going.
  3. Don’t wait to feel like it
  4. Remember commitment comes first. Motivation might come later. Boring but true.
  5. Just get started but begin with something so easy. As easy as jumping of a bit of paper on the floor.
  6. Make friends with your anxiety. You don’t need short-term mood repair. Because that’s what watching reruns of Friends is.
  7. Make your environment work for you. Give your mind all the help it can get.

Now, stop reading this article (I know you’re only here for the short-term mood repair) and get started.​

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