Do you procrastinate? How to gain the upper hand, with psychologist Adam Grant

“I CAN’T!  I just can’t work on it, right now,” complained the daughter of a lifelong friend: “The deadline is still a week away. I’ll feel more like it, tomorrow,” she said, thwarting her mother’s efforts to get her to work on a major school project. 

My friend recently confided that “the hardest part of raising teenagers is getting them motivated to do their homework.” She described her efforts to discipline, cajole, even bribe her teens into staying seated, reading, thinking and doing the homework set before them.

Of course procrastination for everyone, and for teenagers in particular, has been exacerbated by our pandemic times: repetitive school closings, barriers to online learning, the effect of social isolation, and lack of a clear “end in sight” to Covid-19 could undermine the motivation and energy of the most diligent.

Procrastination, as discussed by psychologists for generations, is the crutch of people whose standards are too perfectionist to let them straightforwardly “get their work done.” While putting off work may seem to be an issue of time management, psychologists tell us that it’s really a striving to avoid unhappy emotions that arise from our work. By putting off work, procrastinators hope (delusionally) that the problem will go away or somehow later get easier to manage.

And of course that rarely, if ever, happens.  As Wharton psychologist Adam Grant wrote last spring, in The New York Times (NYT), procrastination is really a failure to manage our pain.

Grant cites the case of the sci-fi humourist, Douglas Adams, who in the early 1980s struggled mightily to progress with writing the fourth installment of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He took repeated baths, where he sometimes found that inspiration struck; and in desperation, went on a solo writing retreat at a country manor (where he got very little done). Eventually, his fourth book was only finished when his editor booked a hotel suite and sat with him, watching him type, day-by-day, until “after a couple of weeks, the manuscript was done.”

Psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fushia Sirois have published their findings that procrastination is about “avoiding negative emotions” and not about being “lazy” or “avoiding work,” as people often assume. A task can stir up feelings of anxiety, confusion, even boredom. Escaping it may make one feel better today, but the task inevitably looks even worse tomorrow, “along with  the unshakeable (and accurate) sense that one is “falling behind.”

Procrastination is ultimately self-sabotage. Negative feelings are never dispelled by fleeing what triggers them. Grant refers to different strategies that people use “to end self-inflicted pain.” Douglas Adams, in Grant’s estimation, suffered from “neurotic perfectionism,” being his own “harshest critic,” editing and evaluating his writing as he composed it, throwing out drafts in production phase (although writers such as Daphne Gray-Grant have analyzed that practice as another process of self-sabotage).

Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, whom Adam Grant interviewed for his NYT article, has similarly allowed procrastination to take over. He writes: “For three years, she could not mark a page or screen when thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale,” telling Grant that its premise seemed to be a “mad idea” and that her avoidance was mere “laziness.” And the book became an international bestseller and secured Atwood’s reputation as one of the world’s leading novelists.

Grant distinguishes these “neurotic perfectionists,” from “productive perfectionists.” Why? The latter “aim high, based on their own standards, not out of concern about what others will think.” He writes that “when a draft disappoints [them], instead of beating [themselves] up,” they try “self-compassion: They remind themselves that they are human and that everyone procrastinates sometimes.” (I recommend psychologist Kristin Neff’s

groundbreaking work on self-compassion, discussed in an earlier posting.) Forgiving ourselves for our imperfections, and for escaping to procrastination in the first place, makes it easier to get back to work and to avoid recurrences of procrastination.

Grant teaches us two additional coping strategies, for when procrastination kicks in:

(1) We can be productive by working with our circadian rhythms (“night owl” or “morning lark”), so we tap into our most productive times of the working day. We’re better able to handle challenges when our minds are sharp.

(2) It can also help to ask a friend or relative to assist, even if they do no more than sit nearby and do their work. Grant reports that working close to a productive person has been shown to intensify one’s own productivity “by as much as 10 percent.” Part of the pain we flee when we procrastinate is that working alone can feel lonely and the work, deeper and greater than we are. Sitting near or imagining one’s reader, viewer, or interlocutor nearby “can bring focus and meaning.”

Trying to efface procrastination altogether is not, however, realistic: “There will always be undesirable tasks that conjure unwanted emotions,” Grant says. But “avoiding those feelings is a habit we can work on breaking.”

Shortly after my friend lamented her teenage daughter’s procrastination, her daughter asked her to sit with her, while the daughter started that school project–simply to listen to some of her ideas. Within about 20 minutes,  her daughter had found her own productive vein of thought that was far more interesting than the momentary distractions of Spotify and TikTok.

And now it’s your turn: When has procrastination gotten the better of your creative work?

Do you think Grant’s insights could help you to cope with the negative emotions we aim to avoid?