Emotional Avoidance: Why We (Really) Procrastinate


One of the greatest ironies of life is perhaps the human tendency to choose a seemingly irrational course of action over an apparently more rational one. Doing what feels right instead of what we know to be right is itself a romantic notion, and might itself even be advantageous in many different situations (like in relationships.)


Sometimes, though, it’s just plain self-sabotage. Even when presented with all the necessary facts, data, and evidence, it seems, some of us are simply likelier to act based more on our emotions than anything else. Procrastination, however, isn’t typically linked to this preference for irrationality–or to emotional management at all–yet this is precisely what makes it so debilitating.

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Popular explanations for procrastination


Of course, most of us would concede that habitually putting off your work is irrational behaviour; we know very well that the more we procrastinate, the worse the consequences of it further down the road.

If we were entirely rational creatures, we would never procrastinate. Yet we do, again and again, no matter how many times we have to face the music for it.


Still, we don’t usually think of the act of procrastinating as something we do because it feels right. Instead, we generally tend to attribute it to individual character or personality traits.

In other words, more often than not, we chalk procrastination up to a perceived lack of a sense of urgency, self-control, conscientiousness, or plain laziness. In fact, this is probably the kind of self-talk you engage with when you find yourself clamouring to meet a deadline after having put something off for too long (again).



Procrastination: A Strategy For Emotional Escapism


Recent research on procrastination, however, flies in the face of this: as it turns out, procrastination isn’t a personality trait at all, but an “emotion-focused coping strategy to deal with negative emotions.”

People who procrastinate don’t do so because they’re just lazier or more scatterbrained than others—they do so because they want to avoid feeling bad about themselves and their situations.


Studies have found, for instance, that procrastinators tend to be more prone to negative thoughts about themselves and their work. The process of working on something often elicits feelings of shame and self-doubt, fear of failure and uncertainty, and of course, stress. When the task itself is particularly challenging or demeaning, then, these negative thoughts are amplified.

Procrastination, though, offers a way out of this: by avoiding your work, you’re also avoiding the onset of these negative feelings. If you don’t get to work, you don’t need to feel so bad about yourself.


In other words, procrastination isn’t about the work itself at all; it’s about the need for emotional escapism. You might even say that it’s a means of self-preservation. When the work we do threatens to undermine our sense of self, procrastinating allows us to run away from that perceived threat instead of engaging directly with it.


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