Some of the pandemic habits we’ve acquired are good to keep — washing hands! Cooking more! — but there’s one holdover from 2020 we could all use a lot less of: procrastinating. It takes many forms, and none are easy to shake.
Of course, it’s human to procrastinate, especially if a task is boring or complicated. However, the lack of structure due to working from home and/or having fewer in-person commitments — plus the simmering unease of the past 15 months — has created the perfect petri dish to put off just about everything.
According to Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist who studies time management at the University of Sheffield in England, anxiety is the ringleader of these forces. “Procrastination is such an easy thing to do, and, in essence, it’s a coping strategy,” she explains. “Unfortunately, it’s immediately reinforcing, because if you’re having unpleasant feelings about a task, the minute you put that task aside, you feel relieved and better.” Once you’re on that slippery slope, it’s even harder to return to the task at hand.
One of Sirois’s Ph.D. students recently conducted a survey to find out how procrastination habits have changed since March 2020. According to the findings, a “significant” number of people reported procrastinating more frequently, especially if they’d already been prone to procrastinating prior to the pandemic. Sirois sums it up: “When you’ve got this backdrop of stress and safety [being] very uncertain, it’s hard to muster enough motivation to do anything you find unpleasant, and it dials up the perceived unpleasantness of a task.”
Even if you’re normally resilient and never had trouble with procrastination before (and if this describes you, please teach me your ways), a change or lack of structure can torpedo your productivity levels. “For some people, an office or workspace environment gives us the motivation we don’t have internally,” says Dr. Tim Pychyl, who studies procrastination at Carleton University in Canada. For example, external cues — like needing to make it out of the house in time for a meeting — can give you the motivation to push through a mundane or unpleasant task, but a sea of video calls may not be enough to keep you focused.
Pychyl notes that there’s quite a few reasons for not starting or finishing a task, and procrastination is only one of them. For example, one is “purposeful delay,” which is when you put a task off because you need something before you can complete it, like more details about what has been asked of you. Then there’s “inevitable delay,” like a work call being interrupted by a fussy child. And then there’s emotional delay, where you put off a task because you’re afraid of how it might make you feel — like a difficult conversation. Another example of emotional delay is putting something off because you’re too upset or anxious to focus on it, and your brain wants the comfort of something easier and more fun. (Enter the recent phenomenon of “revenge bedtime procrastination.”)
In contrast, regular old procrastination is just putting something off because you simply don’t feel like doing it, but this does have a lot of overlap with emotional delay. “Procrastination is highly subjective, but if you’re not putting it off for emotional reasons and if you’re not using avoidance for coping, it’s probably procrastination and not emotional delay,” explains Pychyl.
Depending on whether you’re emotionally delaying or procrastinating for some other reason, your path out will vary. If it’s the latter, and you’re putting things off because they don’t engage you, Sirois has some advice. “Your immediate social environment can really facilitate your productivity — or do the opposite,” she says. “When your environment lacks the structure to keep you focused, it can bleed over to the tasks you’re working on.”
If possible, try to create a space in your home that’s just for work or politely ask roommates or family members to leave you alone at certain points of the day. “Working from home can be what we call a procrastogenic environment; it’s filled with tons of cues to remind you of other things that might make you feel good or to relax rather than work hard,” Sirois says. To that end, stashing your personal phone or laptop in another room, or working away from your TV or bed, might help.
Otherwise, make sure you’re getting clear instructions from your boss. “People often procrastinate on tasks where they’re slightly unsure of what to do or [that] are somehow confusing, so be sure you’re getting all the information you need,” she says. Daily to-do lists and schedules are also helpful, she adds.
Of course, it could just be anxiety — especially if you’re experiencing emotional delay. “It’s really important to have nonjudgmental awareness of your emotions,” says Pychyl. “This is why things like mindfulness-based therapies and cognitive behavioral therapies can be helpful. They teach you that just because you have an emotion, you don’t have to act on it or beat yourself up for it.”
Pychyl and his team did a study back in 2010 that showed that people who forgive themselves for procrastinating and showed self-compassion were less likely to procrastinate in the future. “You don’t have to correlate putting something off with being bad or lazy,” he says. “Just forgive yourself, set an intention to complete a small part of the task and get started, and you’re halfway there.”