It was Monday morning when I got assigned a copywriting project that was due on Friday. The job seemed relatively simple, so I thought to myself, I can start working on it tomorrow because I have to clean the apartment today. However, I did not begin the project on Tuesday. Or on Wednesday.

Thursday evening. All right, I’ve got to tackle this baby. A few hours into working on the project, I realized that it was a lot more complicated than I had assumed, and I started to panic. I began to feel incredibly guilty and, as a way to make up for the lost time, I stayed up all night working on my project. And all day on Friday.

As soon as I hit send, I was overcome with guilt. Instead of feeling relaxed for having finished the project, I felt anxious and frustrated with myself.

Another project came in the following week, and instead of learning from my mistake and starting it as soon as I got it, I gave in to self-indulgence. I put off working and looked for something more pleasant to do — something that would wash the negative feelings off myself, thus repeating the same cycle.

Working as a freelancer can be particularly challenging for people who tend to procrastinate. Without a boss breathing down your neck, it’s too easy and too tempting to put off work and do something more fun.

After displaying this blatantly consistent behaviour pattern for a long time, I decided to investigate why I was stuck in a routine that oscillated between procrastinating and feeling guilty about not working. Here’s what I found out.

Time-management tools: do they work?

Determined to find a solution to my procrastination, I read articles and articles about time management skills and how to be more productive — and, you guessed correctly, I did it all when I was supposed to be working.

The Pomodoro Technique, for example, didn’t help me much. I would work the designated 25 minutes and then take a two-hour break. Sometimes I wouldn’t even manage to focus on the task in front of me for 25 minutes.

Some other articles suggested planning out your day to keep track of your productivity. I am a big fan of online tools, so I incorporated Google Agenda and Toggl, a time management tool, into my routine. They only served as a reminder, though, of all the work I was not doing and made me feel even guiltier for not ticking much off on my to-do list.

Okay, so why do we procrastinate?

With my failed attempt at using productivity tools, I dug a little deeper into the topic and found out that procrastination has nothing to do with poor time management.

We procrastinate because we don’t want to deal with negative emotions. We try to avoid all the negative feelings that come with the task ahead of us — stress, anxiety, frustration — and seek a more immediate pleasure instead.

We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy either: even doing the dishes seems more appealing and urgent when the alternative is something we consider more unpleasant (like finishing a project within a tight deadline).

Whenever we have to choose between two tasks, our self-preservation instincts kick in, and we end up picking whichever task gives us more immediate pleasure — or less discomfort.

The problem with procrastination is that it’s a difficult cycle to break. It’s a cycle of pleasure, stress and guilt.

Even though your brain feels the instant pleasure of putting off an unpleasant task, the outcome of doing something later is harmful. And when it’s finally time to face the negative feelings that come from it — anxiety, frustration and guilt, to name a few — , we give in to self-indulgence in an attempt to feel good about ourselves more instantaneously.

There are ways to break free from that cycle, though, and they don’t involve time-management techniques or apps.

How do we break the procrastination cycle?

If you’re a serial procrastinator, consider using one of these strategies:

  1. Manage your expectations: How much time do you need to complete a specific project? Having a good grasp of your productivity can help you set more realistic deadlines, which, in turn, will help reduce stress and anxiety over completing a task. If you feel comfortable with the time frame you have, you’ll feel less tempted to procrastinate.
  2. Manage other people’s expectations: When you understand your limitations, and you’re straightforward about them, people have more sensible expectations of your productivity as well — and, by other people, I mean people who rely on your work, such as your boss, a project manager or a client. Removing that external pressure can reduce anxiety and self-loathing.
  3. Make “fun activities” more inconvenient: What is it that distracts you? Add obstacles to your go-to activities so that the pleasure you’d get from them becomes less immediate. For instance, you can sign out from your social media and Netflix accounts so that the annoyance of logging in can discourage you from using them.
  4. Forgive yourself: Guilt and self-loathing make us put off work because procrastinating is all about avoiding unpleasant feelings. By forgiving yourself, you won’t feel so tempted to self-indulge because those negative feelings (hopefully, and with time) won’t be there in the first place.

The first step in a long journey

Don’t feel disheartened if change doesn’t happen overnight — because it won’t.

Procrastination is an emotional issue, which means it might take you a while to understand your feelings and how to deal with them.

More importantly, it’s a journey of self-awareness. Being aware of your feelings and being able to identify them is the first step towards embracing them. With time, they won’t affect you as much, and you’ll be able to break free from the procrastination cycle.

If you feel procrastination is interfering too much with your professional life, you can always talk to a therapist about it. They’re the best people to help you deal with your negative emotions.

In the meantime, don’t forget that it’s a long journey, and you’re bound to make a few slip-ups along the way. Forgive yourself every single time.