Clinical psychologist, professor and author in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her most recent book is What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.
As the year draws to a close, we often take this time to reflect on our behaviour and consider what we want to change. Those who are prone to procrastinate may contemplate changing their way of getting things done, especially if they have been criticized, shamed or punished for their delay. But they don't need to change: Contrary to popular belief, procrastination does not necessarily interfere with success.
Those who wait are just as likely to be successful as people who complete tasks ahead of time. One can be a high achiever – never missing deadlines, always doing great work – regardless of whether or not procrastination is involved in the process.
Purposely delaying an intended course of action, a common understanding of procrastination in the research literature, is not synonymous with insufficient action or a failure to act. Regrettably, most procrastination studies do not separate participants on the basis of those who are successful at meeting deadlines, whether or not they procrastinated in the process, from those who do suboptimal work or fail. As a result, in nearly all studies, procrastinators who succeed are in the same pool of shame with people who do suboptimal work or fail.
So what does motivate successful people to get something done and do it well? Emotions are intrinsic to all human motivation. Yet, we are not solely motivated by positive emotions, such as enjoyment and excitement, that are often felt when we anticipate future pride or rewards for our efforts. A marvel of evolution is that we are also motivated, and even driven to achieve, by negative emotions – a primary, powerful and often misunderstood source of motivation.
Illustration by Drew Shannon
Negative emotions such as distress, fear, anger, disgust and shame motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them, or they urge us to behave in ways that will relieve their effects. We may back away from a dangerous situation as a result of experiencing fear, brush our teeth to avoid the shame of having bad breath or get something done to relieve anxiety that has been activated by a pending task or a looming deadline. Essentially, people are motivated to do something based on their desire to turn on emotions that are positive and to evade or turn off the negative ones. It's just a fundamental principle about how we function emotionally.
So in essence, the different timing of procrastinators and non-procrastinators to complete tasks has to do with when their emotions are activated and what activates them. Procrastinators who consistently complete tasks on time – even if it's at the last moment – are motivated by emotions that are activated when a deadline is imminent. They are deadline driven.
Since emotions direct our attention and energize us, procrastinating enables some people to become highly focused and perform efficiently when given a deadline. In contrast to procrastinators, task-driven non-procrastinators are motivated by emotions that are activated by a task itself. Whether the task has to be completed immediately or not, the activation of emotion makes them compelled to take action right away and put the task behind them. Just because someone is a task-driven early bird does not necessarily mean they get things done well. High-achieving task-driven people always attend to the quality of their work prior to scratching a task off their list.
People who fail to complete tasks are quite unlike successful deadline-driven procrastinators. Those who fail are often not motivated by their emotional responses to complete a task when a deadline looms. Rather, their emotional responses further disable them and they repeatedly experience the shame of failure. The emotion of shame motivates us to save face. As a result, many people who do not meet deadlines often blame their failure on procrastinating, effectively hiding the emotional issues that actually interfere with completing their work.
Motivational styles generally develop at a young age, and many people can link their particular style to childhood memories of when they completed school assignments or everyday tasks. Early response patterns to emotion – such as when emotion was activated that motivated you to complete your homework – continue to influence how you tend to get things done throughout your life. You might assume you did your homework simply because you were supposed to do it. But I can assure you that emotion was present that motivated you to do it, whether it was before you went out to play or at the deadline.
Early life experiences, at some point, solidify into characteristic emotional responses to tasks and lead to a particular style of getting things done. In either case, for example, cognitively, you may have been very concerned about getting good grades and began experiencing a "fear of failure," which is the counterpart to shame-anxiety – fear about the possibility of experiencing shame. This emotion is commonly experienced among high achievers whether or not they procrastinate.
When we simply look at behaviour, without exploring what actually motivates it, we often fail to recognize the biological, psychological and social influences that account for differences among people. In fact, we might instead criticize others for being unlike us, or reprimand ourselves for being different. Similarly, numerous behaviours and convictions are subjected to negative judgment and criticism, including political-party preferences and many cultural beliefs, although these are the result of having an ideology that is fuelled by emotion. Indeed, so much of human behaviour, including personality traits, can be understood by recognizing the emotions behind it.
People with different task-completion styles who live together seem to have a particularly hard time when a situation or circumstance reveals their differences and when they do not understand the emotions that motivate each other's behaviour. Procrastinators want people around them to trust they will complete tasks before the deadline. Yet, non-procrastinators who finish things ahead of time wish the procrastinators in their lives would notice all the tasks that need to be done and participate in working on them – now rather than later.
It's easy to understand why task-driven non-procrastinators would assume that their deadline-driven partners would forget to do something. Since their own attention is drawn to uncompleted tasks, and because they have a "fear of forgetting," they just get things done. Therefore, they may issue reminders to a partner who procrastinates, or they may simply complete the task themselves. The partner who procrastinates may perceive such behaviour as insulting, intrusive or guilt-provoking. For deadline-driven procrastinators, life with a task-driven partner can best be characterized as a gigantic to-do list that has to be tackled immediately.
For the record: I do not have a stake in vindicating procrastinators, since I am definitely not one of them. Yet in taking an in-depth look at how emotions motivate successful people, I found procrastination to represent a valid motivational style, and how emotions shape how we respond to a task.
I suspect that the end of 2017 will represent a deadline for all of us to complete some tasks and to consider what we may want to alter about ourselves. But procrastinators can rejoice; they don't have to change the way they get things done.