We’ve all been there. It’s 10 pm on Sunday, and your assignment is due at midnight. You might say to yourself: “How did I get here again? I feel so bad that I watched movies yesterday instead of doing my assignment. Maybe doing the assignment is not even worth it. I won’t do well at this point, anyway.”
You feel dread, regret, and anxiety. The assignment seems to be growing with each passing minute and you are kicking yourself for not making a different choice yesterday. As you sit, looking at the assignment and then the clock, you realize that you’re just not feeling interested in the topic, you're worried you won’t be able to do a good job, and now you’re tired. Maybe if you get a good night’s sleep, you’ll take another crack at it after work tomorrow.
Procrastination and What You Can Do About It
The Procrastination Cycle
The thoughts and feelings you are experiencing are not in your imagination. In fact, New York Times writer Charlotte Lieberman says that when people procrastinate, they are avoiding the negative emotions that are associated with tackling the assignment, like dread and worry that your work won’t be good enough*. At the same time, people also experience fleeting happiness and relief when they do procrastinate - the dread is replaced by relief for the time being. It’s easy, then, to see how procrastination can become chronic. It’s natural to want the short-term emotional reward (e.g. “in the now” relief from anxiety) over the long-term reward (e.g. passing the course, graduation, etc.) when the latter seems so far away.
According to writer Jari Roomer at Medium, we have two selves: the present self (“in the now”) and the future self, which conflict with each other**. While your future self realizes the goal of earning your degree and doing well in the course, your present self wants instant gratification. But of course, only the present self can do the assignment!
Interrupting The Cycle
So, how do you interrupt this conflict pattern? Review and follow these steps:
- Re-frame your procrastination habit as not a time-management problem, but an emotion regulation and a future versus present self problem.
- Get clarity on what you have to do, when, and why. If there is a lack of clarity, your brain will start telling you that it’s too difficult and uncomfortable**.
- Imagine the long-term consequence of not doing your assignment. It will take some focus to get to a place where that “cost” (and the emotions associated with it) outweighs the short-term relief of avoiding it.
- Change negative internal thoughts by forgiving yourself. Leiberman reports that “students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam...”*.
- Remove distractions from your environment, making it harder to chase the emotional “rush” of social media, for example.
- Do the “next thing” as if you were going to complete the assignment.
Changing Your Habits
There’s no doubt that you’ll need some willpower and discipline, but realize that your procrastination is not some inherent, personal flaw. By reframing procrastination as emotion regulation, you can begin to change your habits that aren’t working and develop new ones that will.
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