Have you ever felt guilt or shame as another day passes without making a start on that assignment? Or have you avoided a task for as long as possible only to find yourself in a super-stressed state as the deadline looms? Procrastination is a pervasive problem with up to 50% of students affected to a chronic degree (Steel, 2007, cited in Sirois, 2022, p.21) and often leads to poor mental health and hindered success in academic study.
Whilst a cursory glance on an online book store shows that there is no shortage of self-help guides for procrastination, Procrastination : what it is, why it’s a problem, and what you can do about it (2022) is different. Professor Fuscia Sirois of Durham University is one of the world’s leading researchers on procrastination, having studied in this field for 20 years and publishing more than 30 articles. But now she has written this book to help readers better understand the causes of procrastination, its manifestations, and the role of mood and emotions in task avoidance.
Sirois presents procrastination as a personality trait characterised by ‘a form of self regulation failure that involves prioritising short-term mood repair over the long-term pursuit of intended actions’ (Sirois, 2022, p.36). But she emphasises that even though a tendency to procrastinate may be part of your personality, it doesn’t mean those behaviours can’t be changed. The key lies in acknowledging procrastinating activities, reflecting on your psychological processes that lead you to procrastinate and finding ways to challenge your thinking.
According to Sirois, rather than poor time management, procrastination concerns mood management. Task avoidance stems from dodging the negative emotions associated with a task we don’t want to do, be they feelings of anxiety or even boredom. We therefore are drawn to activities that stave off such emotions such as scrolling amusing TikTok videos (racoon videos are a current personal favourite!). These types of activities represent what Sirois terms a ‘hedonic shift’: a short-term pleasure-hit that is inevitably followed by a sense of guilt – not unlike surreptitiously eating a chocolate bar when you’re supposed to be following a diet!
But rather than berating yourself for poor self-control, Sirois advocates a compassionate self-talk. This doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook or being self-indulgent; it’s about changing the tone of your internal script. Just as you would if you were advising a friend in a similar position, Sirois encourages us to be similarly supportive of ourselves. Throughout the book, short exercises guide reflection on the effects of guilt-induced negative self-talk and help shift the emotional undercurrents of procrastinating behaviours.
Another central tenet to Sirois’ understanding of procrastination is our perception of the future, also known as our ‘temporal view’. When our temporal view is out of balance, we see the future as further down the line and far away making us more likely to delay important tasks. The part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation has a role to play here. In response to stress, our amygdala activates our fight or flight response to contend with the threat. This focuses our attention on the here and now, making the future appear more distant and as a result, we become prone to procrastination.
Facing up to your future self helps recalibrate your temporal view by thinking about the version of yourself that you will be in a couple of days, a week or a month. For instance, you might put off a task because you think the version of you sitting down to study in 3 day’s time will have more headspace or feel less tired. But Sirois uses exercises to help you question whether such crystal-ball thinking is realistic or whether 3-day future you is likely to feel exactly the same, only with even less time before the deadline…
It’s important to understand that Sirois’ book is not a source of snappy time management hacks which only act as a plaster over the causes of procrastinating behaviour. Instead, she fosters a shift in mindset making use of cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT). Sirois’ expertise ensures this approach is evidence-based and yet she writes in an accessible way, presenting findings of fascinating studies without feeling like you’re dredging through a tedious academic paper.
And as a chronic procrastinator myself (Dear reader – there was some pro-level procrastination involved in writing this very post), this book has helped me reframe my understanding of my own avoidance behaviours and provided some strategies I have been able put to use. And whilst I am by no means fully rehabilitated, I can say that Sirois’ book is a worthy investment of your time that could finally help you to tackle your procrastination tendencies.