Going from Productivity Awareness to Improvement

For decades, some scientists have devoted themselves to studying procrastination--and they haven’t just been putting it off. After all, most of us are aware of procrastination problems, the debate comes down to why we procrastinate, and how to stop doing it.

Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University in Canada describes procrastination as a “self-regulation failure,” in which we know what we should do, but can’t bring ourselves to do it. To put it simply, Pychyl says procrastination is “that gap between intention and action.” As long as humankind has procrastinated, they have also sought to fill in that gap. Why is it so difficult to do what we need to do, when we need to do it? The science shows that we are not just aware of when we’re procrastinating, but we’re equally as aware that procrastinating is bad. Research reveals this overwhelming correlation between procrastination and shame. And while such a negative association would seem like a motivator, that shame actually hurts productivity Studies show that “procrastinators recognize the temporal harm in what they’re doing, but can’t overcome the emotional urge toward a diversion.” Thus, being aware of how productive we are--or how we’re not productive enough--is only a fraction of the journey to improvement.

More than Self-Management

Jeniffer Porter, Managing Partner of the Boda Group, advocates for self-management, which involves the “conscious choice to resist a preference or habit, and instead, demonstrate a more productive behavior.” It seems that the key to self-management isn’t just behavior modification, though that may help. 

Note that Porter discusses the conscious choice to resist a preference or habit. For the human brain, that half of the equation alone can be a herculean task. This is because filling the gap between “should do” and “done” isn’t just about the task itself, but the emotions surrounding it.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, University of Sheffield professor Dr. Fuschia Sirois says that people “engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of the inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

Together, Sirois and Pychyl conducted another study of procrastination, and found that putting off our to-do list has more to do with our emotional regulation than our time management skills. They explain that procrastination is “the primacy of short term mood repair...over the longer term pursuit of intended actions.”

Neurologically, we are wired to seek the gratification that comes with putting off a task. Our brains are urging us to immediately resolve the problem: the negative mood surrounding the task. This tendency to “prioritize short term needs over long term ones” is called present bias, and over the course of eons it’s helped humans survive.

According to Dr. Hal Herschfield, professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, in a primal sense, our brain is diligent in seeking satisfaction because it is making sure we get what we need--like food and water--and the future is a secondary thought. He explains that our conception of the future (or lack thereof) can determine the choices that we make, because “we really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.”

Thus, our brain, focused on getting us through the present, helps us avoid the unpleasant emotions of a foreboding task by putting it off in favor of something more gratifying--like online shopping, baking, or any activity likely to provide more of a dopamine surge than that paperwork.

How Will We Ever Manage?

If there’s a neurological tendency to procrastinate, which becomes more addictive over time, how does one manage not just their tasks, but the emotions surrounding them. Experts agree this is no easy feat, but is possible with the implementation of emotional intelligence.

Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, claims that rewiring a habit involves presenting our brain with a “bigger, better offer,” than avoiding a task. The catch is that there are a lot of ways to avoid a task without actually being productive, so “the solution therefore must be internal.” Research suggests that if we can deal with the negative emotions procrastination is seeking to avoid, we can become more productive than if we just begrudgingly set another pomodoro timer. Since we often associate procrastination with shame, one evident way to cope is with self-compassion, which decreases stress and boosts motivation so that we can get past our negative emotions and move on to the task at hand.

Ok, But What Can We DO About It?

The awareness piece is only part of our procrastination problem, and hopefully leads to the emotional awareness that lies at the root of the issue in the first place. Even so, most find ourselves asking how to be more productive and not just reflective. In fact, most leaders don’t prefer a reflective approach, though neglecting the reflection phase of change results in grave consequences.

Armed with the awareness of how your brain works, you can increase your odds of productivity. Different strategies work for different people, the important part is actually implementing a strategy. How can you make these unpleasant tasks easier on your brain?

Dr. Pychyl suggests focusing on merely the “next action,” which creates an impression of a hypothetical self. Asking yourself, if I were to tackle this task, what would the first step be? These beginnings are small, such as putting a header on a document or drafting an e-mail, and are small successes to convince your brain that this work stuff might not be so bad after all. It’s not about waiting until you’re in the mood to start a task, but starting small so that motivation will follow as you ease into a project.Another suggestion comes from Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits.” She says that we can create obstacles between us and our distractions, thus making the relief from them less immediate and less enticing. For example, removing social media apps or placing them in a separate folder, creating steps that are “adding friction to the procrastination cycle.”

To Awareness and Beyond

Ultimately, procrastination is an age old human habit that is, according to research, hard-wired into the human brain. It’s easy to catch ourselves in this habit, and pretty easy to feel bad about it, but even when we’re aware, the cycle is likely to repeat itself.

But don’t let that cycle get the best of you. Understand the emotions behind avoidance and appreciate the ways that your brain is doing its best to help you out. Then, with emotional intelligence equipped, you can begin your customized journey from being aware to being productive.