Timothy Pychyl is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottowa, who studies the psychology of procrastination. Why do we delay vital tasks, what’s the impact on our health, what kind of personalities procrastinate more and how can we avoid procrastination? Pychyl sees procrastination as an emotional coping mechanism which offers an addictive temporary hit, but is associated with longer-term negative health consequences. The research field of which he’s part shows that procrastinators often have toxic feelings of guilt and shame surrounding their behaviour. We discuss why procrastination has become so common, how we can avoid this behaviour and what’s going on in the brains of procrastinators. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
How did you end up researching procrastination?
As part of my PhD, I was studying people’s goal pursuits, what they were going to do and how it made them feel. I was interested in personality and goal pursuits and its effects on wellbeing. And when I did a qualitative study as part of that research, I realized that it’s the things that people said they were going to do, and never did, that predicted their wellbeing. It’s just fascinating: there are all really talented people I was talking to, and yet they were complaining about the fact that they had all these intentions they never fulfilled. Why do we do that to ourselves, I thought?
The term procrastination is bandied around all the time. What does it mean?
Oh, it is bandied about all the time. All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination – and that’s a really important distinction. As rational beings, we use our practical reason to set priorities and once you set a priority, you’re going to do one thing and other things are going to have to wait. So delay is part of life. Procrastination is a voluntary delay of an intended act. I expect to be worse off for the delay, too. That’s really crucial. When people procrastinate, they’re well aware of what delineates procrastination. It’s a negative form of delay. There’s no upside to procrastination because by definition, it’s a needless voluntary delay. We’re expecting to be worse off for the delay.
Does procrastination correlate with certain personality traits?
Very much so. The perfect storm for procrastination in terms of personality would be low conscientiousness. Conscientious is one of the big five personality traits. A conscientious person is self-disciplined, organized, dutiful, planful. So you can see it’s the opposite of procrastination. If you’re low in conscientiousness, you’re more likely to procrastinate. If you’re high in impulsivity, you’re more likely to procrastinate. If you have socially prescribed perfectionism, you’re more likely to procrastinate. Those are the major traits. Neuroticism is related too and if you’re high in anxiety.
How does it play out in the brain? Are there neural correlates of procrastination?
Big time. Some German colleagues did some interesting fMRI work to show chronic procrastinators – people who score high on measures of procrastination, which basically means they frequently procrastinate. They had larger amygdala volume. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It’s that part of the brain that really codes for emotion in learning and it’s also known as the fight or flight centre. People who scored high on measures of procrastination actually have larger amygdala volume – indicating that neurologically, they seem to be susceptible to fight or flight. Well, procrastination is flight. You’re escaping.
I’m a big advocate of mindfulness meditation for developing volitional resources and skills and for avoiding procrastination. Research out of the University of Pittsburgh by Adrienne Taren demonstrated that even eight weeks of mindfulness meditation shrunk the size of the amygdala and changed the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
What are the links between procrastination and other (chronic) illnesses?
My colleague at the University of Sheffield Fuschia Sirois has done most of this work, first with me and then on her own. She has demonstrated that procrastination predicts health problems, including coronary heart disease and hypertension. We see the direct effects procrastination leading to stress, which undermines our health. Then we see indirect effects of procrastination: fewer wellness behaviours and treatment delay.
You’ve said that guilt and shame and anxiety are associated with procrastination. How?
It’s not just the delay, but the self-blame and internal hostility associated with procrastination, that causes damage and undermines the individual. When you start having guilt and shame built up inside of you, you’ve got a different route to problems with your health.
Procrastination is effective in some ways. If I say, I’m supposed to do a task at a certain point and then my whole body’s screaming ‘I’m not in the mood’ and then I don’t do it, I actually do feel good at that point. Or at least I feel relief. There is a powerful short-term reward. I think that’s why procrastination is so habit forming – because the present self does get that immediate reinforcement. You have some negative emotion – boredom, resentment, frustration, anxiety, you pick your favourite – to get rid of at least temporarily. Just think about drug addicts who feel exactly the same way. ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, then bang that feels good.’ We are powerfully addicted to things that have immediate short-term rewards. Procrastination is an emotional coping mechanism – it’s not a problem with time management.
Where’s the hope? What advice would you give to a really chronic, inveterate procrastinator?
If I was working with a chronic procrastinator and they were stuck I’d say, ‘well, what would be the next action that you would take if you’re going to do this, and I want you to keep that action as small as possible’. That to me is where the magic happens: just getting started. You’re going to learn to manage your emotions in a week or a month or a year even. So if you want to stop your procrastination, don’t put your focus on your emotions, put your focus on your actions, and then that behaviour will lead you to motivation. That’s what I really believe.
Okay, but to change our actions in a deep, enduring and profound way requires dealing with the underlying emotions behind procrastination, I guess?
Yes, but I’d also say it also takes a sense of agency. If you really want to stop dithering with your life, you have to have a sense of yourself as an agent in the world, author of your own life, because then you realize, well, I either do want to do this, or I should take it off my list. I shouldn’t wallow in this self pity of, ‘Oh, I got to do this but I don’t want to.’ If you don’t want to, then maybe you should be living a different life. You don’t procrastinate. Procrastination can be a symptom that you really aren’t invested in anything in your life. And so why don’t you stop doing that stuff and get on with something that actually matters to you? And maybe you’ll actually do it.
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