Friday, September 11, 2015

Wang on the Emotional Elements of Procrastination

In the August 31, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Shirley S. Wang discusses the emotional element of procrastination. Excerpt(s):
Scientists define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an action despite foreseeable negative future consequences. It is opting for short-term pleasure or mood at the cost of the long-term. Perhaps we didn’t finish preparing a presentation on the weekend because we had house guests. That is just intentional delay based on a rational decision, says Timothy Pychyl (pronounced pitch-el), a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has published extensively on the topic.

The essence of procrastination is “we’re giving in to feel good,” Dr. Pychyl says. “Procrastination is, ‘I know I should be doing it, I want to, it gets under my skin [when I don’t].’” ...

Chronic procrastinators often hold misconceptions about why they procrastinate and what it means, psychologists have discovered. Many chronic procrastinators believe they can’t get started on a task because they want to do it perfectly. Yet studies show chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, which is a tendency to act immediately on urges, according to Piers Steel, an organizational-behavior professor at the University of Calgary.

People may assume anxiety is what prevents them from getting started, yet data from many studies show that for people low in impulsiveness, anxiety is the cue to get going. Highly impulsive people, on the other hand, shut down when they feel anxiety. Impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotion and want to do something else to get rid of the bad feeling, Dr. Steel says. ...

Dr. Sirois and Dr. Pychyl also have focused on short-term mood repair as an anti-procrastination strategy. They teach people to recognize that they might have strong emotions, such as anxiety, at the start of a project but to not judge themselves for it. The next step is just to get started, step by step, with a narrow focus.
Read the whole thing. Confession time: I procrastinate more often than I care to admit. That peculiar breed of perfectionism (or, if the article is correct, hedonistic impulsiveness) pulls me most days in every direction except toward my work. It’s a hard, almost shameful thing to wrestle with. One consolation, though, is that I bet I’m not alone. Wang’s article reminded me of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood. In it, he describes the various horrors of writing:
The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained.
Oh, yes, the fear. Fear of failure, of inadequacy, of being revealed as a sham to friends and family and passing acquaintances. No wonder Dahl concluded, “A person is a fool to become a writer.” But that’s hardly the whole story, is it? Because there’s also joy, joy inexpressible the whole cursed enterprise somehow starts to work. For my part, I’ll set that joy before me instead of my anxieties.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Viktor Hertz)

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