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The Secret Trick to Beating Procrastination, Says Top Psychologist

Here's how cognitive reframing—and a healthy does of self-compassion—can help you get things done.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

According to Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor psychology at Canada's Carleton University and one of the world's foremost experts on the science of procrastination, the act of procrastinating isn't nearly as simple as people think it is. Pychyl says people don't engage in procrastination to avoid a task at hand, and it's not a behavior rooted in laziness. In reality, he says, procrastinators are actually trying to avoid the "negative feelings associated" with that task.

"I argue that procrastination is an emotion-focused coping response," he's explained. "We use avoidance to cope with negative emotions. For example, if a task makes us feel anxious, we can eliminate the anxiety if we eliminate the task—at least in the short term. The key relation here is that negative emotions are causal to our procrastination."

Related: What Happens to Your Body When You Have a Busy Job, According to Science

Procrastinators often find themselves in a vicious cycle. If there's chore to do and they don't do it to avoid the negative feelings associated with the chore, it momentarily makes them feel good to have kicked the can down the road. However, those feelings eventually take an ugly turn into self-blame, stress, anxiety, and low-esteem—all of which actually leads to more procrastination.

This is why the leading psychologists say that practicing self-compassion is one of the best ways to fight procrastination. In fact, a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that college students who forgave themselves for procrastinating actually procrastinated less afterward. Another study, published in the journal Self and Identity, found that those who procrastinate have not only higher stress levels but also test really low in the category of self-compassion.

"I think people don't realize that procrastinators, especially chronic procrastinators, are extremely hard on themselves—before and after the task. And rather than getting on with the job, they just go round and round spinning their wheels," Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield—and also one of the world's top experts on procrastination—recently explained to Science Focus.

According to Sirois, there's another tactic you can use to beat procrastination besides simply being kinder to yourself: cognitive re-framing. In short, if you've got a task on your to-do list that you don't want to do—something that you'll likely want to procrastinate—reframe your thinking of the task by attaching meaning to it.

"It's about reappraising," Sirois explained to Science Focus. "Seeing something as more meaningful. And when you create meaning, you create a connection to the task. Finding meaning in the task, whether it's in relation to yourself or other people, is really, really powerful. And it's a great way to start that reappraisal process and dial down some of those negative emotions or at least make them more manageable."

Also, you're more likely to get the task done and mark it off your to-do list.

So if you're dreading having to do the dishes, first be kind to yourself, and remind yourself that it's totally normal to hate doing the dishes. Then, make the task feel for meaningful, such as thinking about how happy having a dish empty of dirty dishes will make your partner. And for more great tips you can use, check out The Single Most Effective Way to Work Out Every Day, Say Psychologists.

William Mayle
William Mayle is a UK-based writer who specializes in science, health, fitness, and other lifestyle topics. Read more
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