Investigating into procrastination is an adventure into complexity of the human rationality.
A recent New York Times article shared an interesting overview of a variety of concept helping to decode procrastination.
The article develops a wide net of systems shaping our reactions to tasks and procrastination. The more we dive into this net, the clearer it becomes that the systems all are interdependent. They are part of the homeostasis of our self.
With such a number of systems involved, we start to see how self-control, or let’s say conscious self-control, is an elusive idea if not a fantasy.
As we become aware of the system of emotions, reactions and thoughts involved we find that they create an invitation to connect with them. The awareness we can develop help to see ways to adapt the strategy of avoidance linked with procrastination.
While I don’t see emotions as the root cause for procrastination, I do believe that they are a major resource. It starts with the information they provide about the status of homeostasis of our self.
It continues with the want they create to be treated with kindness and understanding when facing our mistakes and failures.
It is great to be at the recipient’s end of compassion, but it is not sufficient. It will not work if the “giving” isn’t also happening through self-compassion.
Neither compassion nor self-compassion will solve the riddle on their own. They need at least another essential helper which is curiosity. Curiosity is complementary to compassion as it creates an ability for self-awareness. But curiosity does more as it also means to open up to testing small or bigger changes in our belief system.
On the path for more curiosity and self-awareness, there’s a small overview of the processes involved below.
Which ones help you to stay connected with yourself?
Reading our feelings associated with a task makes us aware of our reasons to avoid it. Feelings can tell us we like or dislike the task. They can also create a picture of the positive or negative associations we have with that task.
Stories we tell ourselves:
Building on feelings we develop a story about ourselves. That story tells us how apt we see ourselves to handle the task. But also what we think others will think of us and how we’ll succeed (or not) having done the task. These stories shape our anxieties on the journey to achieving the result aimed for.
Self-esteem and self-blame:
The stories we tell ourselves are not only based on our self-esteem, they also influence it. Self-blame being one of the most frequent tools when ruminating.
When postponing a task to a later moment we do it against our better judgment. We are aware of the discrepancy between what we are doing and what we are not doing. We know that the plan we had established and the priorities we had defined have been replaced by reality. We know that changing that decision has negative consequences. But consequences aren’t our ultimate rationality.
As babies and children, we learn to deal with our emotions and their expression. This process of self-regulation allows us to deal with our mood. The stories we tell ourselves create our self-regulation just as well as they are its result.
The present is the only moment we actually experience. It is the moment when we feel relieved through the self-regulation we’ve used. The short-term prevails over the long term. Our short term needs create more urgency. In the case of nutrition, sleep, and other basic needs they cannot be delayed much.
The ability to integrate long term needs into our planning requires to let go of the present bias.
As we deal with the task ahead by postponing it, we also get an immediate reward. The self-regulation released the tension felt, the unease. It doesn’t matter at that moment that the reward may be somewhat poisoned.
The loop made up of cue, routine and reward is thus established. It becomes a cycle we repeat and once it is trained it becomes a habit.
It is our future self who is the recipient of the result of procrastinating or doing the task at hand. That future self is an experience we haven’t lived yet, it feels foreign to us. Thus the problems that future self might experience become “someone else’s problems”.
The most visible threat we experience when dealing with a task is how it makes us feel uncomfortable to us or makes us anxious. Sensing this, the amygdala immediately sends a warning signal, one made up to avoid the given threat.
A less visible threat is one linked to doing the task when it would transform the habit loop. Changing that loop endangers how we’ve seen and experienced the world until now. It requires to give up an element of stability, the habit, we have been building our experience on. The alarm signal only becomes more important.