Understanding Procrastination

Whether your child puts off their chores, or your partner never quite gets around to the the “honey-do” list, or you’re frustrated at your own tendency to get lost in not-so-important tasks instead of doing the important-but-not-fun tasks, this article in the New York Times offers great insight: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html.

When we procrastinate, we know we’re doing it to avoid something, and we know it’s not a good idea, but we do it anyway. Why? It’s not a time management or organizational issue – it’s an emotion regulation issue. Certain tasks inspire negative moods for us: anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment or other challenging emotions.

When we procrastinate, we are prioritizing short term pleasant mood over longer term issues. And the more we put off one task, the more negative feelings get wrapped around it as we add in self-blame and increased stress. And then we’re even more inclined to seek out a different activity to get relief, putting it off even longer. It becomes a vicious cycle, and can lead to long-term chronic stress and low life satisfaction.

So, once you understand the emotional aspects of task avoidance, how do you get past them? The NY Times article phrases these in ways to overcome your own tendency to procrastinate. That’s the first bullet point in each pair. The second one in each pair is how you might translate this when addressing your child’s procrastination.

  • Self-forgiveness – instead of beating yourself up for procrastinating, forgive yourself… that may make it easier to do the task the next time around.
  • Compassion: “Hey, this time you procrastinated a lot, but I know it was just because you were really frustrated about X. Next time, I bet it will go better.”
  • Cultivate curiosity – Pay attention to how you’re feeling and wonder why you feel that way.
  • Help them be curious: “How are you feeling right now? What do those feelings remind you of? Is there some way we could help you feel better while doing this task?”
  • Consider the next action as a mere possibility “If I WERE going to do this, even though I’m not, what would I do first?” Try it out… often if you get started without pressuring yourself, the motivation will follow.
  • Help them imagine “if your teddy bear needed to do this thing, where would they start? Could you show them the first step?”
  • Make temptations more inconvenient. If you procrastinate by grabbing your phone and checking social media, try putting the phone across the room. If you stall by tidying up, keep things tidy or move to a different space to work. If you take a lot of snack breaks, don’t work near the kitchen, or have less interesting snacks.
  • Whatever tends to distract them from their task, can you put it out of sight?
  • Make the thing you’re avoiding as easy as possible to do. Pack your gym bag in advance and keep it in the car.
  • Make the thing your child is avoiding easier or more enjoyable. Watch a movie together while they fold laundry or listen to music together as they clean their room. Put their homework out with their snack and encourage them to finish it quickly so they can move on to other things.

It is easy to view procrastination as a character flaw that can’t be overcome or blame it on “I just need to be more organized.” But perhaps acknowledging that you’re avoiding the task because of negative feelings the task brings up may help you get to the root issue and move past that procrastination.

To learn more, check out the original article in the NY Times!

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