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Psychology: why some people struggle with procrastination (and no, it’s got nothing to do with being ‘lazy’)

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Lauren Geall
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Do you find it hard to resist the urge to put off important tasks until later? A new piece of research could explain why.

One of the most frustrating parts of dealing with procrastination is just how nonsensical it seems on the outside. It may seem like a good idea in the moment, but putting something off by doing the washing up or reorganising your entire wardrobe will only lead to more stress and discomfort down the line.

It’s a lesson many of us will have learnt countless times throughout our working lives. So why, despite all of this, do we continue to do it?

New research may have the answer. While the idea that procrastination is a sign of laziness has long been rejected by psychologists, a new study published in the journal Brain And Cognition reasserts the idea that procrastination is actually a tool we use to avoid negative or unpleasant emotions like a fear of failure or anxiety – and reveals why some people are more likely to rely on this tool than others.  

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According to the research, which was based on the experiences of over 200 participants, the ability to practise ‘expressive suppression’ – that is, the capacity to regulate how you’re feeling and ‘push through’ negative emotions – makes someone less likely to procrastinate. 

Indeed, in the MRI scans of those participants who procrastinated less, the brain region associated with this ability contained more grey matter (an indicator of how effective a brain region is) than those who procrastinated more. 

In short, those who are able to manage the intensity of their emotions and navigate negative or unpleasant feelings are better able to avoid procrastination and get things done.

A woman sat at her desk looking bored
The urge to procrastinate is closely linked to an inability to manage negative emotions.

It’s a bit of a confusing concept to wrap your head around – but could have ramifications for how we approach procrastination in the future. 

Instead of beating yourself up for being ‘lazy’ when you’re struggling to get something done, recognising that you’re struggling to manage negative emotions – and taking the time to acknowledge that fact – could make a big difference.

In fact, by simply taking the time to understand what’s going on when you get the urge to procrastinate and treating yourself with kindness, you could actually improve your ability to practise expressive suppression – making it easier to avoid procrastination in the future. 

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Indeed, as psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner writes in Psychology Today: “Cultivating self-compassion may help us regulate negative emotions more effectively to procrastinate less and enjoy other benefits to health and wellness.”

So, next time you’re faced with a difficult or anxiety-inducing task and feel the urge to procrastinate, sit with yourself for a moment. There’s a reason why you’re feeling the need to put something off – and being patient with yourself could make a big difference in the long-run.

For more tips and tricks for dealing with procrastination, you can check out this article

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.