Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Procrastinating 101: What We Have Here is a Failure to Self-Regulate

In this week's Procrastinating 101, we continue to learn from Dr. Timothy Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator's Digest:  A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.  His third chapter asks, and answers, the question "What's the Most Important Thing We Need to Know About Procrastination?"

And the answer is . . . 

Procrastination is an issue of self-regulation, or impulse control--which we have read about before.  Pychyl says our procrastinating is directed at "short-term mood repair," and that it is self-reinforcing.  We put off a dreaded or unpleasant task; we feel better; we learn that putting off tasks feels good; we are more likely to do it again.

So what does Pychyl see as the way out of this cycle?

Step 1Get smarter emotionally.  Pychyl defines emotional intelligence--a term widely used since its academic emergence in the mid-1980s, and having trickled into popular parlance by way of talk shows, magazine articles, blogs, even elementary school curricula--as "the ability to effectively identify and utilize emotions to guide behavior."

Apparently, "[r]ecent research has shown that lower emotional intelligence is related to more procrastination" but, thankfully, "[w]e can learn to more effectively perceive, understand and regulate our emotions."

Having recognized the emotional morass that leads to procrastination (and to other "poor choices," as grade school teachers are known to point out), the challenge is to get it together and stop acting out about our feelings.  As in

Step 2Learn to deal with the negative emotions associated with the tasks we tend to procrastinate.  Here's where the mantra for this chapter comes in:  "I won't give in to feel good.  Feeling good now, comes at a cost."

Using this statement to remind ourselves of what we know, we can stay put instead of fleeing the scene of an impending task, and "suck it up."  "If you turn away in an effort to make yourself feel better, it's over," warns Pychyl. 

Pychyl sums up his approach this way:
IF I feel negative emotions when I face the task at hand,
THEN I will stay put and not stop, put off a task or run away.
He references the work of Peter Gollwitzer on implementation intentions, which take this IF/THEN form.   The stay put admonishment made me think of the Butt in Chair writer's guide developed by Jennifer Blanchard, author of the excellent, now-defunct-but-still-archived blog Procrastinating Writers

Dr. Pychyl softens the "suck it up" bromide with this suggestion.  We can overcome our discomfort with the negative emotions engendered by unappealing tasks by accessing some of the other thoughts and feelings that are also part of our "inner landscape."  For example, instead of focusing on the fear triggered by a daunting project, we can center our thoughts on the anticipation of success and reward, or on our interest in the content, or on our capable self.  

Again, a pithy treatise.  And because it's short, I still have time to get to some of the things I've been avoiding. . .  

"I won't give in to feel good.  Feeling good now, comes at a cost."

"I won't give in to feel good.  Feeling good now, comes at a cost."

"I won't give in to feel good.  Feeling good now, comes at a cost."

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