Procrastination is an anxiety symptom

Aug 18 JDN 2458715

Why do we procrastinate? Some people are chronic procrastinators, while others only do it on occasion, but almost everyone procrastinates: We have something important to do, and we should be working on it, but we find ourselves doing anything else we can think of—cleaning is a popular choice—rather than actually getting to work. This continues until we get so close to the deadline that we have no choice but to rush through the work, lest it not get done at all. The result is more stress and lower-quality work. Why would we put ourselves through this?

There are a few different reasons why people may procrastinate. The one that most behavioral economists lean toward is hyperbolic discounting: Because we undervalue the future relative to the present, we set aside unpleasant tasks for later, when it seems they won’t be as bad.

This could be relevant in some cases, particularly for those who chronically procrastinate on a wide variety of tasks, but I find it increasingly unconvincing.

First of all, there’s the fact that many of the things we do while procrastinating are not particularly pleasant. Some people procrastinate by playing games, but even more procrastinate by cleaning house or reorganizing their desks. These aren’t enjoyable activities that you would want to do as soon as possible to maximize the joy.

Second, most people don’t procrastinate consistently on everything. We procrastinate on particular types of tasks—things we consider particularly important, as a matter of fact. I almost never procrastinate in general: I complete tasks early, I plan ahead, I am always (over)prepared. But lately I’ve been procrastinating on three tasks in particular: Revising my second-year paper to submit to journals, writing grant proposals, and finishing my third-year paper. These tasks are all academic, of course; they all involve a great deal of intellectual effort. But above all, they are high stakes. I didn’t procrastinate on homework for classes, but I’m procrastinating on finishing my dissertation.

Another common explanation for procrastination involves self-control: We can’t stop ourselves from doing whatever seems fun at the moment, when we should be getting down to work on what really matters.

This explanation is even worse: There is no apparent correlation between propensity to procrastinate and general impulsiveness—or, if anything, the correlation seems to be negative. The people I know who procrastinate the most consistently are the least impulsive; they tend to ponder and deliberate every decision, even small decisions for which the extra time spent clearly isn’t worth it.

The explanation I find much more convincing is that procrastination isn’t about self-control or time at all. It’s about anxiety. Procrastination is a form of avoidance: We don’t want to face the painful experience, so we stay away from it as long as we can.

This is certainly how procrastination feels for me: It’s not that I can’t stop myself from doing something fun, it’s that I can’t bring myself to face this particular task that is causing me overwhelming stress.

This also explains why it’s always something important that we procrastinate on: It’s precisely things with high stakes that are going to cause a lot of painful feelings. And anxiety itself is deeply linked to the fear of negative evaluation—which is exactly what you’re afraid of when submitting to a journal or applying for a grant. Usually it’s a bit more metaphorical than that, the “evaluation” of being judged by your peers; but here we are literally talking about a written evaluation from a reviewer.

This is why the most effective methods at reducing procrastination all involve reducing your anxiety surrounding the task. In fact, one of the most important is forgiving yourself for prior failings—including past procrastination. Students who were taught to forgive themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate in the future. If this were a matter of self-control, forgiving yourself should be counterproductive; but in fact it’s probably the most effective intervention.

Unsurprisingly, those with the highest stress level had the highest rates of procrastination (causality could run both ways there); but this is much less true for those who are good at practicing self-compassion. The idea behind self-compassion is very simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat someone you care about.

I am extraordinarily bad at self-compassion. It is probably my greatest weakness. If we were to measure self-compassion by the gap between how kind you are to yourself and how kind you are to others, I would probably have one of the largest gaps in the world. Compassion for others has been a driving force in my life for as long as I can remember, and I put my money where my mouth is, giving at least 8% of my gross income to top-rated international charities every year. But compassion for myself feels inauthentic, even alien; I brutally punish myself for every failure, every moment of weakness. If someone else treated me the way I treat myself, I’d consider them abusive. It’s something I’ve struggled with for many years.

Really, the wonder is that I don’t procrastinate more; I think it’s because I’m already doing most of the things that people will tell you to do to avoid procrastination, like scheduling specific tasks to specific times and prioritizing a small number of important tasks each day. I even keep track of how I actually use my time (I call it “descriptive scheduling”, as opposed to conventional “normative scheduling”), and use that information to make my future schedules more realistic—thus avoiding or at least mitigating the planning fallacy. But when it’s just too intimidating to even look at the paper I’m supposed to be revising, none of that works.

If you too are struggling with procrastination (and odds of that are quite high), I’m afraid that I don’t have any brilliant advice for you today. I can recommend those scheduling techniques, and they may help; but the ultimate cause of procrastination is not bad scheduling or planning but something much deeper: anxiety about the task itself and being evaluated upon it. Procrastination is not laziness or lack of self-control: It’s an anxiety symptom.