Stop procrastinating tomorrow

A drawing of a person at a desk with a clock in the background and stacks of books, a coffee mug, and laptop on the desk.
JiWon Lee | Daily Trojan)

Among the ash and smoke of USC student burnout wafts another familiar scent, one that has haunted students, workers, writers, homemakers and everyone in between for centuries. The Romans called it procrastinat, “deferred until morning,” which has a sort of poetic legal ring to it.

It refers, of course, to procrastination: the sordid sensation responsible for all-nighters and last-minute deadline extensions every year around this time.

While generations prior might have found it markedly more difficult to find semi-interesting tasks to busy their wandering minds, these days it takes little more than a glance at our pocket clocks. One minute we are reading an email and — oh look, a Boomerang of a puppy licking a hula hoop — suddenly three hours have whizzed by, and we are no further along than when we started.

It is not an uncommon occurrence: Between 15-20% of adults are chronically affected by procrastination, with further studies suggesting between 80-95% of college students “engage in procrastination to some degree.” 

So, what exactly is procrastination, and what’s its origin story, so to speak?

Despite uneducated guesses penned thoughtlessly by bad armchair experts, procrastination is not a result of poor time management nor another word for inherent laziness. It is a symptom of an inability to regulate emotion.

Drs. Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois conducted a study on procrastination and short-term mood regulation in 2013. They wrote, “[If] we have a great deal of self-discipline … we may exert the self-control necessary to engage in the task in a timely manner … [despite] the negative mood that the task elicits … Procrastination is the self-regulatory failure of not exerting the self-control necessary for task engagement.”

When faced with an unpleasant task, we experience unpleasant feelings. They can range from “Ew, dirty dishes are gross” to deeper feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and anxiety.

As a result, we become more concerned with the immediate threats — these terrible feelings within — and less concerned with our longer term goals, such as academic success and personal fulfillment.

Now that we know what wakes the procrastination dragon, how can we slay it?

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is absolutely vital that every procrastinator cultivate a modicum of self-compassion.

This is not hippy-dippy advice born out of blissful naivety. It is hard science.

Pychyl and Sirois posited, “[Research] on ego-depletion has also shown that with rest or particular types of intervention, such as positive mood induction or self-affirmation, self-regulatory capacity and thus the ability to regulate mood in an adaptive manner is restored.” 

Many procrastinators get lost in the woods of self-critique. Realizing that not every attempt will be met with thunderous applause and shiny awards, and becoming proud of our efforts in spite of that, is a great place to start.

Next on the docket: moving indulgences farther away, literally. If the fresh pot of gingerbread coffee on the countertop is too tempting, take the work elsewhere. Being someplace unfamiliar, where old vices are impossible to reach, makes it all the easier to zone into time-sensitive tasks.

Lastly, consider working alongside someone. Personal trainers have created whole empires around the idea that it is much harder to back out of a workout session when someone else is already at the gym waiting for us to arrive.

Mental work can be just as exhausting as physical work. Make it easier to show up and get started by inviting a buddy along whenever possible.

It is mid-November. The semester’s end is within reach; then, we will be free to frolic through snow or spend hours watching puppy-hula hoop Boomerangs. Let’s just finish up whatever remains and call it a night.