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Procrastination is not about the task. Nor is it about lack of discipline. It’s about emotions, and an inability to regulate them – the original emotions that keep you from doing the task and the critical thoughts that arise as you procrastinate yet again. That means the common productivity tips you use to beat procrastination might fail. Instead, you need to understand and control those emotions, adopting self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

That assessment comes from Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, who has been researching the problem for more than twenty years. It is estimated that 15 to 25 per cent of people procrastinate on a regular basis. She stresses it’s not bred in the bone, however. It’s a behaviour you can change.

But not by latching on to popular advice about bolstering willpower, curbing your urges to indulge in pleasurable pursuits, managing your time better or enhancing your motivation. Those reflect negative stereotypes about people who are not productive. She calls for more compassion – and scientific rigour.

“Procrastination isn’t due to laziness, or a lack of focus or poor impulse control. It’s about poor mood management, not poor time management,” she writes in Procrastination: What It Is, Why It’s a Problem, and What You Can Do About It.

She asks you to imagine a difficult conversation coming up with a friend about a planned getaway you agreed to but no longer want to join. Every time you pick up your smartphone to call and let them know about your change of heart you end up responding to social media notifications or browsing websites with clickbait articles. And not just one time. This goes on for days. You feel worse and worse.

You’re not a victim of digital distractions, although the environment can contribute to procrastination. If you dig deep, peeling back the layers, you were anxious about making that call. More broadly, the truth about procrastination is that we aren’t avoiding the task, but instead the unpleasant emotions associated with the task. You are managing those emotions by avoiding the task.

That’s backed by research she says has consistently shown people procrastinate when they find a task aversive or unpleasant. Scientific evidence also indicates that people prone to procrastination have trouble thinking about their actions in the future, placing greater weight on the present.

The two approaches she recommends to counter procrastination are compassion and forgiveness. She stresses neither are intended to let you off the hook. But they steer you away from the belief that to succeed in life you must push yourself harder and further through what she calls the whip of self-criticism, which only backfires.

“The solution is to replace these harsh, judgmental and unforgiving responses with ones that are kind, accepting and forgiving,” she writes.

Self-compassion has three elements. First, it involves responding with self-kindness rather than self-criticism. Second, it helps you to feel connected rather than isolated in your suffering, recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and falls short. Third it involves being mindful of your emotions rather than being captured by them, stepping back to take a non-judgmental view of what happened.

Similarly, self-forgiveness releases the negative emotions you have been holding on to. That involves accepting you have procrastinated and are unhappy with yourself for doing so; acknowledging and allowing yourself to experience the negative feelings you have about procrastinating; and moving on to overcome those feelings rather than ruminate endlessly about them. That is important because negative emotions can lead you to procrastinate longer.

“More self-compassion equals less procrastination,” she says the research shows. “More self-forgiveness equals less procrastination.”

Quick hits

  • The quicker you want something, the easier you are to manipulate, warns Farnam Street blogger Shane Parrish.
  • How long can you go without taking on any additional obligations or time commitments, asks writer Nicole Dieker. Can you do a “Say No Day” or even more boldly, a “Say No Month,” during which you only commit to what you already have on your schedule?
  • Too busy to exercise during the week? New research shows that exercising just on the weekends – albeit for the same ultimate time as if you had been doing so throughout the week – is just as effective, according to mortality measures.
  • With so many books, podcasts, webinars and other learning opportunities available, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Consultant Kevin Eikenberry says you need a goal of just trying to move the needle a bit – if you come away from a book with just one nugget you can put into action, that’s great.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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