Professor Fuschia Sirois, an expert in Health and Social Psychology at Durham University, offers insights into the real reasons behind procrastination and shares valuable advice for overcoming it.
In your book, you mention that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding procrastination. What are some of the most persistent notions?
Fuschia Sirois: One of the biggest misconceptions is that procrastination is simply any form of delay, but it’s more specific than that; it involves unnecessarily delaying something you intend to do. It’s not like postponing a task due to an emergency that needs immediate attention. Procrastination is voluntary, meaning nobody forced you to stop working on what you initially planned, and it persists despite being aware of potentially harmful consequences for yourself or others.
Some recent media articles mistakenly portray procrastination as a generally acceptable form of delay, even suggesting it can be good. But let’s be clear: procrastination, by definition, is always harmful; there’s no situation where it’s beneficial.
Another misconception I’ve come across, often propagated by the popular press, is that procrastinating people lack time management skills. Time management courses can be helpful tools but won’t cure procrastination because it’s not the root cause. Scientific research supports this, indicating that procrastination is more complex than just a matter of time management.
Lastly, there is the idea that putting things off is laziness in our society. We tend to judge people who do that as sluggish, assuming they’re not productive. This perspective is problematic as it overlooks the emotional aspect of procrastination. It can make individuals feel bad about themselves, leading to even more delay.
So, we blame ourselves for not contributing to society as much as we should?
Fuschia Sirois: We have internalized these societal norms, and that’s why we feel wrong about not being productive. This internalization leads to guilt, so we use humor to normalize and downplay the uncomfortable emotions we experience when we break these social expectations.
Interestingly, we use these same societal rules to judge others when we see them procrastinating. We might rush to conclusions like, “They’re not being productive, so they are not a good person.” These judgments stem from our society’s strong focus on productivity.
Many books and articles encourage us to get more things done, be more efficient, or achieve hyper-productivity. This culture of extreme productivity is highly salient right now in society.
As you’ve mentioned, managing our emotions is crucial in overcoming procrastination. What is the first step in regulating our feelings?
Fuschia Sirois: Our emotions are the epicenter of procrastination. So, the first step involves becoming self-aware since we often overlook our own feelings.
We tend to push negative emotions down, as it’s our way of dealing with them. Suppression is a form of emotion regulation. However, we still end up dodging the task at hand, so becoming aware of these uncomfortable emotions and letting them surface is the first step.
And what would be the second step?
Fuschia Sirois: The second step is about managing those emotions. There are several ways to do this; what works best depends on how intense the feelings are. One of the more effective strategies for regulating emotions, especially when they’re not super intense, is reappraisal. It’s about seeing the task – the source of the feelings – in a different light. But it’s not just the task that stirs emotions. It’s how we perceive the assignment in relation to ourselves, our identity, our goals, and our self-esteem.
Think of reappraising, like recasting the task in a new light, changing how it relates to us. This doesn’t eliminate all negative emotions but can shift them slightly. We’ve done some research on this. One of my former Ph.D. students conducted a study in which she had people who were procrastinating reassess a task.
She split them into three groups. The first just wrote about the task, the second tried to find something positive about it, and the third group had to find meaning in the task. They would complete sentences like “This task is meaningful to me because…” or “This task is important for my personal growth because…” By reframing the task and seeing it as more meaningful, this group procrastinated less in the following days.
Our analysis found that this reduced the intensity of their negative emotions. Viewing the task as more meaningful didn’t erase the negative feelings but brought them down to a more manageable level. It also gave those emotions a purpose. When you can see a task as being more meaningful, it can shift your perspective. It’s no longer just about the task but about how it helps you achieve important goals, learn new skills, or connect with others.
Does that also work with minor tasks that are hard to assign meaning to?
Fuschia Sirois: Sometimes, we encounter these small tasks that don’t seem very meaningful. But let’s say you’ve got a big project on the horizon that is very important to you. You can link the more minor task to the bigger one. You might think, “Managing my emotions on this small task is like a practice run for that big one coming up. If I can do it here, it’ll set me up for success when I tackle the big task.” Plus, when you view larger tasks as a series of smaller ones, it becomes less threatening and stressful, making it less likely that you will procrastinate. So, that’s another angle.
Reappraising the task itself is crucial, but it’s also about reappraising how you see yourself in relation to the task. We often beat ourselves up when we struggle with something, right? We start thinking, “Why can’t I handle this when everyone else seems to manage just fine? These internal scripts are often harsh and judgemental because self-criticism and blame are our default responses when encountering difficult situations.
In this context, I want to briefly touch on guilt and shame, as they’re critical emotions at play when we feel we have broken social norms. Guilt is all about feeling bad because we did something wrong, like procrastinating. But because here the focus lies on the behavior, guilt can also be a powerful motivator not to repeat the same mistakes.
But guilt can also morph into shame, which is more complicated. Shame results when we go beyond the behavior and see procrastination as a character flaw. If we experience shame due to procrastination, we may view ourselves as unworthy or defective because we didn’t follow through with our intentions. This results in avoidance and withdrawal from others out of fear of rejection. So, shame adds another layer of avoidance to procrastination.
And what can we do about it?
Fuschia Sirois: Self-compassion is one of the best ways to combat guilt and shame. It’s been shown in numerous studies to be a powerful tool for managing these feelings as it brings kindness into the equation instead of harsh criticism and judgment.
If you think about how you would respond to a friend struggling with a task, you probably would also be understanding and offer support—being self-compassionate means extending the same understanding to oneself.
Self-compassion also emphasizes our shared humanity. It’s this understanding that I’m not the first person to procrastinate, nor will I be the last. Everyone struggles. That is part of the human condition. I’m not saying it’s a free pass for procrastination. You can still feel bad for procrastinating, but you don’t have to beat yourself up. It’s about accepting that you procrastinated, but guess what? Others have, too. Talking to others and seeking support can help you feel less alone.
Shame tends to isolate us and make us feel like we are not like others but unproductive outliers. So self-compassion helps us accept that we’re human, we’ll make mistakes, we’ll be imperfect, and there’s no shame in that.
Can you recommend one or two strategic tools or exercises for managing emotions that may arise while performing a task?
Fuschia Sirois: The first step is identifying the negative emotions you’re experiencing and understanding why you’re feeling them. For instance, anxiety, uncertainty, or fear of doing something wrong might stem from a lack of knowledge or clarity about the task. In such cases, seeking out more information by asking questions can be helpful.
Sometimes, a task can seem overwhelming if it’s a large one. Breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts can reduce the sense of overload. Concentrating on one step at a time allows for a sense of accomplishment with each completed step, motivating you to move further.
Engaging in affective forecasting is common. This is when you project your emotional responses onto future events. If you’re worried about a task—especially if it’s reminiscent of a challenging one you’ve encountered before or is entirely new—you might begin to imagine how difficult and frustrating it could be. This sort of mental time-traveling is different from strategic planning. It can lead to procrastination, as our thoughts about the perceived difficulty of the task become overblown or inflated.
In these instances, it can be beneficial to remind yourself of the resources you have at your disposal. For example, people who you can reach out to for support to help with anticipated difficulties, but you can also think of past situations you managed and overcame. That allows you to re-establish a sense of agency and that the task you expect the worst of may not be that difficult or stressful after all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.