Behavioural and emotional changes

Both procrastination and self-handicapping can be thought of as being related to our concept of self and the emotional responses that arise when we are presented with a task to complete.

Balance out negative and positive emotions

According to Dr Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, procrastination also occurs in the presence of negative emotions (such as the fear of not being able to compete the task or failing to achieve it in some other way). Sirois suggests that by balancing out these negative emotions (such as, 'I'm going to fail at this task') with constructive positive ones ('there's no reason why 1 should fail, but if I do, I have the personal resources to bounce back and try again’) we reduce the possibility of procrastination (Sirois, 2014).

But overcoming procrastination is also concerned with changing our attitude to the task itself, especially if the task involves some kind of academic endeavour. Changing our view of potential setbacks and seeing failure and struggle as necessary, can also help us to engage with more difficult tasks. Emphasising to students, perhaps through examples, that success is built on previous failures allows them to appreciate the important role played by setbacks and mistakes that occur along the way.

Forgive yourself

Another way to prevent procrastination is to forgive ourselves for our past procrastinations. Sirois and Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carlton University in Canada, describe procrastination as a transgression against social norms - we told ourselves we needed to complete a task, we intended to complete the task but, in the end, we failed to live up to our own expectations (Sirois & Pychyl, 2016). This can be followed by emotions such as shame, guilt and blame, which then lead to even more procrastination. If we forgive ourselves for our past procrastinations, we are less likely to suffer in the future.

This does, however, cause somewhat of a dilemma in school settings, in that failure to complete a task can result in sanctions. It's common to hand out detentions for non-completion of homework, yet such sanctions can provide an opportunity for focussed study in the absence of the usual distractions.

Adjust the way time is viewed

I mentioned this earlier when I looked at planning and scheduling, but it's worth mentioning again here in more detail. There is a tendency for people to categorise time as either present or future and this can have a very interesting effect on how we deal with goals and objectives. If a deadline is in the present (for example, our essay needs handing in by 4 p.m. tomorrow) we tend to start it sooner. However, if the deadline is further away (say, next week) we think of it in terms of the future and mentally place it in the someday box.

The way we categorise time is both inaccurate and illogical. For example, if a deadline crosses a calendar year we tend to place the activity in the future box (even if it's the last week in December and the deadline is the first week in January). But if the activity deadline is in the same calendar year, we place it in the present category. We may still have the same amount of time to complete the task, but because the deadline spans a calendar year, we think about it differently. Similarly, a Wednesday deadline given on a Monday is treated differently to a Monday deadline given on a Friday because Monday becomes next week, regardless of where we currently are in time.

To circumvent this curious cognitive dilemma, deadlines can be brought back into the present by setting tighter deadlines. In all probability, many students will procrastinate until the last minute anyway, so bringing deadlines forward shouldn't make too much difference. Alternatively, we can encourage older students to set their own deadlines and make a commitment to complete the homework at a particular time. Time and task management can also be useful here by encouraging students to become aware of the tasks that need completing and their respective deadlines and estimated completion times.

Past, present and future selves

Human beings are time travellers. Our imagination and propensity towards daydreaming allows us to recall our past (although not always accurately) and project ourselves into an infinite number of possible futures (psychologists call this future orientated cognition). Some people view their future selves as distinctly different to their present or past selves, while others have stronger feelings of future-self continuity. If we only have a weak connection to our future selves we leave the task undone because of the belief that it is a job for our disconnected future self rather than our present self. If, however, we feel our future self to be intricately intertwined with our present self (that person competing the task in the future is me) we are much less likely to delay the task.

This is the model proposed by another Carlton University academic, Eve- Marie Blouin-Hudon. Blouin-Hudon studies the principle of future-self continuity by creating custom scripts and asking volunteers (all students) to engage in different types of visualisation to identify those techniques that were more likely to reduce procrastination (Blouin-Hudon & Pychyl, 2015). Students who visualised their future selves reported more overlap between who they were in the moment and who they'd soon become. They also reported fewer incidents of procrastination. Using visualisation techniques require us to be specific about what we need to achieve. For example, picture yourself doing the type of thing you procrastinate over. Also, recognise the consequences of not completing the task. Use a third person perspective. By seeing our future self in a more objective way, we reduce the emotional connection, allowing us to be more rational about what needs to be done. The technique is summarised in Box 7.1.

Box 7.1 The future self technique

Imagine events in as much detail as you can, even down to smells and sounds. For example, what is your future self wearing? What is the lighting like in the room? What can you smell and hear? How does your future self feel?

Choose a limited number of concrete steps to progress forward towards the ultimate goal. Sirois suggests chunking time or breaking larger tasks up into small ones, each with a realistic and time managed deadline.

The key is to regularly practise the technique; Blouin-Hudon suggests every day The script used in the study (and available online) incorporates aspects of mindfulness and relaxation techniques and could easily be adapted to support specific groups of individuals.

Main points

  • • Procrastination and self-handicapping can derail our goals by reducing motivation and raising levels of fear of failure.
  • • Procrastination is related to putting things off until later while selfhandicapping involves the placing of obstacles in the way of goal pursuit or pre-empting outcomes as means of protecting self-esteem.
  • • Both procrastination and self-handicapping or common amongst students at all levels.
  • • Procrastination is linked to both the task and internal characteristics of the individual.
  • • Self-control is an important contributory factor of procrastination and raising levels can have reduce it.
  • • Procrastination is also related to a person's concept of time and decisionmaking abilities.
  • • Defensive pessimism is when students self-handicap by lower their expectations, while defensive optimists set unrealistically high expectations.
  • • Procrastination and self-handicapping can be reduced using several methods, including increasing self-control, prioritising and adjusting the way time is viewed.


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