Procrastination & Avoidance as Mood Regulators

I recently listened to a TED podcast hosted by Adam Grant, noted researcher & behavioural psychologist, that focused on the topic of procrastination. I’ve always been interested in this because I have found myself at its mercy over the years, but have recently made some strides in overcoming my blocks to starting something. In reflecting back on this, I wanted to note down some of the things I’ve learned and also remain aware of the things I’m still working on.

I’ve always recognized that procrastination is my way of distancing myself from discomfort, from some activity that would otherwise trigger me. This could be a small task like cleaning out the fridge or something larger like doing my taxes. What Adam Grant mentions in the podcast episode, that procrastination is a mood regulation device, really hit home for me and gave me a deeper understanding & appreciation for what is happening below the surface.

Procrastination helps us regulate our moods and is an approach that provides immediate feedback, which is why we find it so easy to do. We want to feel better and so we choose an activity that feeds that desire. I might not start on that important presentation, but instead open up a web browser and surf to some of my regular sites. That diversion immediately changes my mood and I feel the “reward” – as a result, it becomes easier for me to default to that learned behaviour in the future.

Here are some of the strategies I use and continue to develop in order to not fall into the trap of procrastination.

My first technique has taken some time to develop and helps me to take a quick step back to look at the bigger picture. I refer to it as my “Matrix” hack. There’s a question in the movie, “The Matrix”, that Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus asks of Neo – “do you think that’s air you’re breathing?”. That line helps me to remember that my perceptions and my emotions are guiding me in ways that are not always obvious or objective. It reminds me that I can become aware of my motivations & reactions and that I am not merely a passive actor in my experiences. That movie may not resonate with you, but the idea is this – to find some way to remind yourself that you are aware of why you are acting in a certain way. A reminder like that can help to give confidence that you can make choices. It helps me feel that I’m peeking behind the curtain of reality and that I can be more objectively aware.

Next, I try to take advantage of small habits that can add up to larger results. I learned this from James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits”. There are many techniques that he covers in his book but the ones I’d like to focus on as they relate to procrastination are “habit stacking” and changing how attractive and easy habits appear.

Habit stacking is the process of joining or “stacking” habits so that it becomes easier to move from one success to another. Here’s one that will sound mundane & obvious but it’s one that contributes to my overall health. When I finish drinking a glass of water (which is easy), I immediately fill the glass again. That way, I always have a full glass of water ready for me to drink and I can stay well-hydrated all day. In the past, it was easy to forget to drink and by the time I felt thirsty, I was already becoming dehydrated. By combining habits you can leverage the success you have with the completing the first task and carry that over into your next task. Read his book for more examples, but this is one way I can overcome procrastination with time.

Sometimes, the things we do to procrastinate are just really darn fun or attractive or really easy to do. Like scrolling on our phones, turning on the TV, or going to the bag of chips in the cupboard. James Clear advises that we make these ineffective or bad habits less attractive (e.g. put a dollar in jar every time you check your phone) or less available (e.g. hide the TV remotes at the beginning of the work day). The environments we create for ourselves can help us avoid the things that are easy or attractive and instead focus on the things that are meaningful to us achieving our goals.

When we talk about “mood regulation”, we can see how procrastination can affect our mood positively right now. We often don’t consider our “future selves” when procrastination creeps in. Being mindful & present in order to keep the balance between our “present selves” & “future selves” can help us avoid the procrastination trap, but admittedly I can find this challenging. It takes a special combination of pragmatism, acceptance, restraint and mindfulness to defer to the well-being of our future selves. This does require some balance of course – only considering the future can take you out of the present where spontaneity and flow can exist. So, be kind to yourself when you try to balance these sometimes opposing viewpoints.

There are some moments when I can feel that I’m about to divert my attention from an important task. When this is about to happen, I try to catch myself in the act, then pause and count backwards from 5 down to 1. It’s a technique popularized by Mel Robbins and is incredibly effective. It interrupts your thought pattern enough to cause a bit of a “reset”. It’s similar to other techniques like snapping an elastic band around your wrist – in this case, it’s a mental process that you need to focus on which can help you break out of the procrastination cycle.

Related to the tips from James Clear, I try to make the emotional reward for diving into a hard task greater than the reward I feel from procrastinating. Again, this one comes down to your perception and your values and can take some time to work up to. I imagine not only the satisfaction of completing a challenging task, but also the pride of knowing that I’m closer to being the type of person who regularly achieves those things. It contributes to my sense of identity.

And lastly, I will often ask for help to keep procrastination at bay. Sometimes, not knowing where to start, or acknowledging that I don’t want to appear that I don’t know what I’m doing can help me break out of my shell and ask someone for help. Being honest with myself makes a huge difference in combatting procrastination. Another way I seek assistance from people is just to be a public audience to a commitment I make to complete something. Sometimes all we need is to commit to another person in order to stay on track. They can help keep us honest and we don’t want to let them down.

This was a really valuable exercise for me to dig into the topic of procrastination and see how my own tactics have been working. I hope that you will try some of these approaches. Thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this and I hope it has resonated with you in some way.