How To Turn Your Procrastination Into a Self-Compassion Practice
We all do it. Putting off a difficult conversation, a challenging (or boring) project, booking your appointment with the dentist (my least favorite activity). Procrastination is a fairly common and universal experience. We know we need to get something done but it feels like there is chain tied around your ankles so it’s better to just sit still and pull out youtube on your phone or scroll through your social media feed. What if I told you there’s a way to remove that chain but it’s not through grit or pushing past your “laziness” or “disorganization”. What if I told you to give into it for a bit? You heard me, give in to your procrastination, but let’s make it worth it.
Most common discourse around procrastination is describing it as laziness or disorganization. Alternatively, procrastination can best be viewed as a symptom marking the need to regulate or manage emotions. Our negative emotions might be associated with the task itself or another life stressor. Oftentimes it’s about what the tasks represents, how we make meaning out of it (e.g. “If I fail this test I’ll never be a nurse”, “I’m not smart enough”,), or if the task is connected to other difficult life events.
Moreover when we view procrastination as a character flaw, we focus on the dysfunction lying within the individual. However we should also consider other factors that might lead or impact our ability to manage our emotions. One example is examining the role of our societal culture and the expectation as members that we operate efficiently and produce at a fast pace. Whether you are a student, an employee, a care-taker or something else, your value as a society member is often equated with producables (finishing tasks, homework, projects) and capital (how much business you bring, money you make etc..). This type of pressure to produce and value on the individual output is both time consuming and depletes our internal resources that would otherwise allow us to successfully manage our emotions. To address this on a more structural level we can push back on this culture of highly valuing productivity through identifying policies that impact our education, workplace, homelife, and take action. If our positionality allows, we can also advocate in our workplace or education setting to set policies that allow a degree of flexibility and appreciation for attending to our well-being. At an individual level we might consider setting boundaries in these contexts (e.g. stop reading and responding to email at a certain point in the day) or specifically suss-out educational institutions or workplace environments that have a culture of being humanistically focused.
Given that many people are not in positions that allow them to push for structural change, we can work towards responding to procrastination with compassion. I tell my clients that procrastination is our mind and body’s way of saying there is a need that is not being met. This is the moment to listen and ask yourself what is it that I need to do to care for myself. I offer 3 steps that might lead to some insight on how to move our compassion into action.
Step 1: Ask Yourself Which Needs Are Not Being Met
Physical (food, exercise, sleep)
When was the last time I ate a nutritious and satisfying meal?
When was the last time I engaged in a physical activity?
What is my sleep like?
Relational (connecting with friends, family, community)
When was the last time I had a meaningful conversation with someone, or felt fulfilled by their presence?
Emotional (allocating time to experience and process emotions, positive or negative)
When I have created time to spend on myself exploring and processing my emotions (through art, writing, listening to music etc..)?
Step 2: Set Aside Time To Meet That Need In The Moment
Choose an activity that you think will best meet that need
Give yourself a time limit according to the activity you chose
Remove distractions that will take away energy used towards your need (e.g. turn off notifications)
Step 3: Identify Ways to Integrate Meeting That Need In Your Routine
Block off regular time in your week (1x to 3x a week) to spend on that need
Schedule other events accordingly
It is only when we recognize that our procrastination is our mind and body’s way of communicating with us, we can begin to let go of, or focus less on, the shame or blame that is often experienced with procrastination.
Eckert, M., Ebert, D. D., Lehr, D., Sieland, B., & Berking, M. (2016). Overcome procrastination: Enhancing emotion regulation skills reduce procrastination. Learning and Individual Differences, 52, 10-18.
Lieberman, C. (2019). Why you Procrastinate (It has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html
Rabin, L. A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K. E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of clinical and experimental neuropsychology, 33(3), 344-357.