I’d comment on how long it’s taken me to write this post, but that would come across as a lame joke. So, I’ll leave myself and the jokes out of this story and focus on you, dear reader. Some of us are masterful procrastinators. And for those of us who can whip up a reason to not do something right now, we’ve developed robust practices of frustrating ourselves and infuriating others. Put aside, for the moment, the maddening outcomes of waiting to start or finish something. The seemingly unhealthy practice that so many of us have perfected may not be so bad.
The bottom line is this: procrastination is not the evil undoing of your productivity. As it turns out, the desire to wait one more hour, day, week, month, quarter is linked to something else. That “something else” influences our willingness or lack of to start, continue, or finish a task. Procrastination has a trigger, and it’s not the task itself.
Dr. Mary Lamia, psychologist and author of the new book What Motivates Getting Things Done, explained to me that positive or negative emotions are at the root of our choices. Consider this example. Let’s say you have a significant investor presentation coming up in a month. The work requires detailed analysis of financial data, some market research, and you need to give an update on your team’s solution to a supply chain issue. Most of the work will be done by your team, except the financial analysis. Despite the looming deadline, you continue to procrastinate. You’ll start the work tomorrow when you’re more “clear headed” for the necessary deep thinking. For the sake of this example, let’s say you don’t like financial analysis. Yes, it’s important, but numbers aren’t your thing. So, you wait. And Wait. And finally, you dive in to do your part . . . two days before you give the presentation.
So, what’s going on here? Is it the work you don’t want to do that is driving you to procrastinate? Or is it something else? Dr. Lamia’s research points to something else as the trigger for procrastinating–your emotions.
Emotions and Their Influence on Productivity
Dr. Lamia explains in her book, “People are motivated to do something based on their desire to turn on positive emotions or to turn off negative emotions.” The emotion–positive or negative–that you feel towards a task triggers your motivation levels. In my example above, there is some negative emotion that is at the heart of your delay. It could be distress, anxiety, or even dread. Rather feel the negative emotions linked to the task, you put it off: “I can’t deal with this right now,” you think to yourself.
Of course, the reverse could be true. You could respond to the negative emotions by getting the analysis done. This way you would not have to feel the negative emotion any longer and end the endless, self-defeating mind-chatter that occupies your thoughts.
Too often we label negative emotions as a problem. By doing so, we create a mental block that can further compound our procrastination tendencies. To help understand a how emotions influence our productivity, look at the “emotional recipes” below and their effects:
- Distress and fear: this is what we feel when we have a lot to do and not much time to do it. Strongly linked to feeling stressed out.
- Fear and anger and distress: produces agitation
- Excitement with fear – positive feelings: stimulated and focused
- Disgust and anxiety: motivate us to do something to change a situation
- Fear and shame/shame anxiety: Fear of being negatively perceived. Fear of failure.
Depending on your personality, the recipes above elicit some motivational response: deal with the emotions or delay dealing with them, and, consequently, do or delay doing the task linked to the emotion.
What I like about Dr. Lamia’s research is she does not resort to telling us that we need to change our task-completion habits, the way you go about doing your work. Instead, she advocates understanding how our emotions trigger our response to assignments. Her book, What Motivates Getting Things Done, has a chapter titled Troubleshooting Guide. It provides guidelines on ways to navigate your way to being more productive.
Why Procrastinators Have A Reason to Rejoice
By now, you might be wondering where the information that would elicit a joyful feeling about procrastinating is? As it turns out, Dr. Lamia finds that those of us who are procrastinators benefit from waiting to start a task. Here are some of those delightful-to-the-ears benefits:
- Able to deliberate and mull over things
- Withhold action and deliver in one performance and do it right
- Synthesize lots of information quickly
- Find time to do pleasurable activities
The benefits above can have positive influences on the quality of work. Imagine the benefits from thinking through your ideas and thoughtfully completing the analysis needed for reviewing financial data.
In the end, the critical element to understanding procrastination is to understand what emotion underlies it. This insight can provide more motivating influence over pushing yourself to “just do it.” To quote Dr. Lamia, “Understand your emotions and how they work for you.” Both positive and negative emotions can have a motivating influence on your productivity. It merely requires you to examine them and then act accordingly.
Procrastination is not a terrible affliction. It’s an outcome linked to emotions. Those emotions are letting you know that something is going on, and it is worth understanding them.