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The Secret Reason Why You Never Get Anything Done, Say Psychologists

To beat procrastination, you don’t need a better to-do list. You need to practice more self-compassion.

We've all been there. Work deadlines are looming, the to-do list is ballooning, and the clock begins to tick so loudly you can practically hear it, yet we continue scrolling for new clothes online, running our thumbs over Instagram, or cruising ESPN for sports scores—all while our anxiety and stress start to ramp up.

It's procrastination, the age-old habit of putting things off, and what makes it so insidious in our daily lives is that we're aware of it, say psychologists. "It's self-harm," Piers Steel, Ph.D., a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary, once explained to The New York Times. "This is why we say that procrastination is essentially irrational," Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, added in the same article. "It doesn't make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences."

But according to research conducted by Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., an expert in procrastination at Carleton University, in Canada—as well as other procrastination experts—there's one thing you need to do to begin taking action against your procrastination to beat it once and for all, and it has nothing at all to do with your to-do list or your workflow. Read on for more, and for more on the fascinating psychology of the human mind, check out why Men Who Wear This Clothing Are More Likely to Cheat, Says New Study.

Why Exactly We Procrastinate

Bored Tired Girl Working From Home on Her Laptop. Remote worker procrastinating and being bored in front of PC

According to Pychyl, people don't procrastinate to actually avoid the task at hand. They're trying to avoid the "negative feelings associated" with that task.

"I argue that procrastination is an emotion-focused coping response," he writes. "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."

It Creates a Vicious Cycle

Shot of a young woman suffering from depression in her bedroom

Let's say you have something pressing you need to do and you're dreading doing it. So you procrastinate, and set the task aside because you're avoiding the negativity associated with that task. Though you may feel good at first having kicked the can down the road, you've actually begun a vicious cycle, where you then create self-blame, stress, anxiety, and foster feelings of low-esteem. All of that actually leads to more procrastination.

"This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit," observes the NY Times. And for more psychology news, see here for The Amazing Side Effect of Screaming at the Top of Your Lungs.

You Have to Focus on Your Emotions—Not the Task

happy woman after a workout

In a study published last year in the journal Anxiety Stress & Coping, researchers from The College of New Jersey looked deeper at the relationship between feelings and procrastination in a study of college students who procrastinate, and they discovered that negative feelings today were in fact a predictor of procrastination of tomorrow. The researchers also note that we're taught the wrong things for overcoming procrastination, such as implementing productivity hacks. Rather, we should focus on our emotions.

"Fostering acceptance and tolerance of negative emotions among college students could help students better regulate [negative affect] . . . and, in turn, improve their productivity," the study says.

Practice Self-Compassion

woman sad on the mountain

How can you focus on your emotions? You can practice more self-compassion. The NY Times story references a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that 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.

Other studies note that enhanced feelings of self-compassion lead to a number of amazing benefits. "Not only does it decrease psychological distress, which we now know is a primary culprit for procrastination, it also actively boosts motivationenhances feelings of self-worth and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative," writes the NY Times. "Best of all, self-compassion doesn't require anything external—just a commitment to meeting your challenges with greater acceptance and kindness rather than rumination and regret."

So look at any task ahead of you and imagine the positive. Be kinder to yourself, and honest with your feelings. If the task is annoying, don't kick the task to avoid those feelings. Simply acknowledge, "this is really annoying that I have to do this, but it'll only take 10 minutes, and I'll feel so much better afterward." Trust us: You will. And for more on the connection between your mind and your body, see here for The Single Most Effective Way to Work Out Every Day, According to Psychologists.

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