Clearly, we’ve been misunderstanding the problem of procrastination all this while. Since we’ve traditionally thought either thought of it as a character flaw (as explained earlier), the strategies we employ to kick the procrastination habit tend to focus largely on self-motivation, time management, and self-control.
These remedies, however, only provide a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
Motivation, after all, has its ebbs and flows—some days you just wake up feeling more driven than others. Self-control strategies depend heavily on willpower, which itself is a finite resource. Good time management depends on keeping to particular systems and schedules, yet the compulsion for emotional avoidance is often much stronger than the compulsion to conform to established systems.
But why exactly is it that procrastination is such a hard habit to kick?
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Chronic procrastinators often find it particularly hard to break the habit, since it has become so ingrained in them. As with any habit, the more time you’ve spent engaging in a particular behavioural pattern, the more your mind attunes itself to the very particular rewards that you get from those habits.
Charles Duhigg, in his New York Times bestselling book, “The Power Of Habit” explains that the reason why bad habits are so hard to kick is because our brains have been programmed to behave and anticipate in certain ways, and once this happens, it never really forgets that particular programming. In his view, every habit has a specific cycle (called “the habit loop”) consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The habit loop for procrastination as an emotional avoidance strategy is as follows:
After a while, your brain comes to anticipate the reward of emotional escapism the minute you encounter a so-called “threatening” task, even before you’ve actually decided to procrastinate.
You might still say, though: no matter how strong the pull of emotional avoidance can be, there should logically come a point where we’d realise how self-sabotaging the procrastinating habit can be in the long term. This, subsequently, should be enough reason in itself to stop procrastinating so much.
Enter the “present bias”. Given a choice between receiving immediate but short-lived rewards and delayed but lasting rewards, the human mind is biased towards choosing the former. This also explains why we consistently choose to procrastinate for the sake of emotional avoidance, despite knowing that it makes more sense to forego that emotional reward for the sake of greater personal and professional success in the future.