Emotion Regulation and Procrastination: Managing How You Feel Can Help You Get Things Done

There is an important relationship between emotion regulation and procrastination, which many people are unaware of. This lack of awareness can cause various issues, the most notable of which is that people fail to solve their procrastination, because they don’t understand what causes it in the first place.

The following article can help with this, by explaining how procrastination relates to regulating emotions. As such, it will help you understand procrastination better, which in turn will help you overcome it.


What is procrastination

Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, a person is procrastinating if they postpone starting a task until right before its deadline for no good reason, despite intending to do it earlier.

Procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students. It’s associated with various issues, such as lower productivity, worse academic performance, worse financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting help for issues.

There are many different types of procrastination, which can occur for different reasons and lead to different outcomes. Nevertheless, the following are the key defining features of procrastination, which characterize most of its types:

  • It involves unnecessary delay.
  • The delay generally leads to predictable negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator’s performance or emotional wellbeing.
  • The delay is often—but not always—unintentional, meaning that it occurs despite the procrastinator’s intent to do things on time.


Emotion regulation and procrastination

Issues in regulating emotions (or managing feelings) can cause procrastination. For example, this is the case if someone is afraid of doing badly on a task, so they postpone the task to avoid facing their fear, even though they would be better off dealing with it as soon as possible.

This aligns with the emotion-regulation theory of procrastination, which states that procrastination occurs when people prioritize their short-term mood over long-term goal achievement. This primarily happens when people postpone aversive tasks, to avoid negative emotions that are associated with those tasks (e.g., fear if a task is scary), a behavior commonly described as “giving in to feel good” (or mood repair). In addition, this can also happen when people postpone tasks to avoid the absence of positive emotions (e.g., if a task isn’t exciting), or to create, increase, or prolong positive emotions (e.g., when a more appealing alternative is available, such as digital entertainment).

This behavior is considered to be a maladaptive coping strategy, since it hinders long-term progress, and can paradoxically decrease people’s emotional wellbeing overall. For example, this can happen when someone postpones a task that they’re averse to, and consequently worries about the task at the back of their mind for a long time, while also suffering from added negative emotions (e.g., as guilt and shame) due to their procrastination.

The emotion-regulation theory ties in to other models of self-regulation and self-control, where hedonistic impulses and desires are pitted against long-term goals. However, it focuses on procrastination as a form of misregulation, where people procrastinate because they mistakenly believe that this will make them feel better, rather than underregulation, where people procrastinate because they fail to exert necessary self-control, though both issues can lead to procrastination.

Issues with regulating emotions can also lead to problematic procrastination cycles. For example, this can happen if someone feels ashamed over past procrastination on a task, so they postpone the task to avoid dealing with these emotions, which increases their shame, and causes them to keep procrastinating.

In addition, certain issues—such as depression, ADHD, and lack of sleep—can make it harder to regulate emotions. For example, when someone is exhausted because they didn’t get enough sleep, they may find it harder to exert self-control and regulate their anxiety, which in turn can make them more likely to procrastinate.

Finally, other issues, which don’t necessarily have to do with emotion regulation, can also cause procrastination. This includes, for example, motivational issues, such as difficulty in associating outcomes with tasks, and time-management issues, such as underestimating the time that it will take to complete a task due to a failure to understand what it involves.

In summary, issues in regulating emotion can cause procrastination. Furthermore, issues like depression and lack of sleep can make it harder to regulate emotions, and people who struggle with regulating emotions often get caught in problematic procrastination cycles. However, other issues, such as difficulty in associating outcomes with tasks, can also cause procrastination.


Positive and negative emotions in procrastination

Both positive and negative emotions can cause procrastination:

  • Negative emotions primarily cause procrastination by deterring engagement with necessary tasks, especially since people generally want to postpone negative emotional states. For example, this can happen when a student feels that an assignment is frustrating, so they postpone it in order to postpone the point in time when they’ll need to deal with the unpleasant emotions that are associated with it. This type of behavior can be broadly characterized as anxious procrastination.
  • Positive emotions primarily cause procrastination by encouraging engagement with tempting activities, especially since people generally want to experience positive emotional states. For example, this can happen when a student is enjoying watching TV, so they postpone an assignment that they should be doing to postpone stopping the enjoyable activity that they’re currently engaging in. This type of behavior can be broadly characterized as hedonistic procrastination.

People can be driven to procrastinate by a mix of both negative and positive emotions. For example, this is the case when someone postpones a task both because they find it aversive (e.g., boring), and also because they’re currently engaging with more enjoyable alternatives (e.g., a social activity).

The relationship between emotions and procrastination is often complex. For example, although fear can sometimes cause procrastination, it can also reduce it, for instance if someone is afraid of failing on a task, so they work on it as soon as possible, to make sure they have enough time to do it well. Similarly, although positive emotions can sometimes lead to procrastination (e.g., when people delay working on something aversive to prolong current positive emotions), they can sometimes also help people avoid procrastinating, for instance by increasing their energy levels and motivation. Furthermore, emotions can have a multifaceted simultaneous effect on procrastination, for example when guilt serves as a motivator to act, while also prompting cognitive patterns that increase procrastination (e.g., rumination).

A key reason why emotions can cause procrastination is temporal disjunction, which means that people prioritize the needs and desires of their present self over those of their future self. For example, this can involve procrastinating on an important task in order to improve the mood of the present self, while minimizing or ignoring the consequences that the future self will have to deal with because of this behavior. This also explains why people postpone dealing with a task to avoid feeling bad right now, even though this can increase the total amount of negative emotions that they feel (e.g., by prolonging their anxiety, and adding shame to it).

In addition, other types of emotional considerations may also drive people to procrastinate. For example, people sometimes procrastinate due to sensation seeking (a phenomenon also known as arousal delay), when they postpone tasks until right before the deadline to make them feel more exciting.

In summary, various positive and negative emotions—including combinations of them—can cause procrastination. The relationship between emotions and procrastination is complex, and often involves temporal disjunction, as people prioritize the needs and desires of their present self over those of their future self.


Emotion-regulation techniques for reducing procrastination

The following are key emotion-regulation techniques that you can use to reduce procrastination:

  • Figure out what you’re afraid of and address your fears, for example by asking yourself what’s the main thing you’re worried about with regard to a task, and then considering what advice you would give to a friend on dealing with this concern if they were in your situation.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination, for example by saying “It’s true that I should have gotten started earlier, but the best thing to do now is forgive myself for delaying and focus on getting started as soon as possible, and also find a way to avoid making the same mistake again in the future”.
  • Increase your self-compassion, by developing its three components: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Increase your self-efficacy, by identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Engage in inquiry-based stress reduction, by identifying stressful thoughts (e.g. “I’m not capable of studying properly”), questioning the validity of those thoughts, reflecting on the nature of those thoughts and how they make you feel, considering thoughts that are opposite the original stressful thoughts (e.g. “I am capable of studying properly”), and finding evidence in support of those opposite thoughts.
  • Combine mental contrasting with implementation intentions, by (1) writing down a feasible wish, together with its most positive possible outcome and experiences that relate to it, (2) envisioning an obstacle standing in the way of attaining that wish, and elaborating on the experiences associated with it, and (3) identifying both when and where you’re likely to encounter this obstacle and what you can do to overcome it, using “if-then statements”, such as “if X happens, then I will do Y”.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes, for example by telling yourself that your first draft just needs to be good enough, rather than perfect.
  • Commit to starting with just a tiny first step, for example by deciding to only work on your projects for 2 minutes at first.
  • Add a delay before indulging your impulse to procrastinate, for example by counting to 10 before opening the social-media app that you use to procrastinate.

These techniques work in various ways. For example, some focus on reducing or modifying negative emotions (e.g., by addressing your fears), whereas others work by improving your resilience to such emotions (e.g., through increased self-efficacy). Generally, their goals are to help you cope with the presence of negative emotions (e.g., fear) or the absence of positive emotions (e.g., due to a non-exciting task), in an adaptive way (that leads to positive outcomes), rather than a maladaptive one.

Different techniques will be beneficial in different circumstances, so before deciding which techniques to use and how to use them, it can help to figure out why you procrastinate, as well as when and how you do so. If, when doing this, you realize that you suffer from a serious underlying issue that causes or exacerbates your procrastination—such as depression or ADHD, or lack of sleep—then you should generally aim to treat that issue first, using professional help if necessary, in order to overcome your procrastination.


Other anti-procrastination techniques

In addition to anti-procrastination techniques that focus on emotion-regulation, there are various other anti-procrastination techniques you can use, including the following:

  • Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this report next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “next week, starting Monday, work on this report every day from 9:00–11:00, and have a final draft ready to send out by Friday”.
  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you need to write a paper, you can break it down into tasks such as choosing a topic, drafting an outline, and finding five relevant sources.
  • Set intermediate milestones and deadlines for yourself. For example, if a large project involves just one major deadline at the end, setting additional intermediate deadlines for yourself can help you plan ahead, be more accountable, and feel more motivated.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
  • Visualize your future self, for example by imagining yourself having to deal with negative consequences if you keep procrastinating.
  • Focus on your goals instead of on your tasks, for example by thinking about how you want to get good grades, rather than about the homework assignment you need to do.
  • Make tasks more enjoyable, for example by listening to music while you work.
  • Improve your work environment, for example by removing distractions (e.g., by putting your phone in a different room) or by switching to a better environment (e.g., by studying in the library instead of your room).
  • Gamify your behavior, for example by marking streaks of days on which you successfully achieve your goals.
  • Reward yourself for making progress, for example by treating yourself to something nice if you manage to stick to avoid procrastinating for a week.

Although these don’t focus on emotion regulation, many of them can nevertheless help with it, so they’re worth using even if you want to focus on regulating your emotions. For example, time-management techniques such as breaking your work into manageable steps can help you feel more in control, and consequently reduce feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

As with emotion-regulation techniques for reducing procrastination, when choosing which of these anti-procrastination techniques to use and how to use them, it can help to first figure out what’s causing your procrastination, since understanding your procrastination problem can help you figure out how to overcome it.