The Role of Procrastination, Emotions, and Success
Anxiety may cause health problems in one person, but it may be the key motivator of another.
The fear of failure may paralyze one individual and for another be fuel in the tank on the way to success.
Negative emotions propel many people to success.
Mary Lamia, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, a professor at the Wright Institute at Berkeley, and the author of numerous books. Her latest is What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. In this book, she highlights the role of emotions and how our innate biological systems motivate us to achieve.
I recently talked with her about her considerable research and experience into the role of emotions and motivation.
Understand Negative Emotion
Motivation. Most people talk about positive motivation, but you carefully talk about negative emotions. Why are negative emotions often overlooked or discounted in the motivational literature?
Labeling emotions as positive or negative has little to do with their value, but instead involves how they motivate us through the ways they make us feel. Negative emotions like distress, fear, anger, disgust, and shame motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them, or they urge us to behave in ways that will relieve their effects. Although we can be motivated by anticipating the positive emotions associated with pride, such as enjoyment or excitement, often what motivates us to get something done has to do with our response to negative emotions, such as in the avoidance of shame or in an attempt to seek relief from anxiety about an uncompleted task. People who are successful in their endeavors have learned to make excellent use of the negative emotions they experience. Erroneously, my own profession has promoted the notion that only positive emotions motivate us. This is possibly a misconception based on the positive psychology movement which focuses on positive human functioning rather than mental illness, and has more to do with resilience than motivation.
You distinguish between a task-driven non-procrastinator versus a deadline-driven procrastinator. How do these two work together?
People with these different motivational styles can encounter challenges when working together, but motivational style differences can also be a great asset. Generally, deadline-driven procrastinators clash with task-driven non-procrastinators based on when something gets done. Unfortunately, task-driven people often don’t trust a deadline-driven coworker to complete something or to do a good job when the deadline is upon them. They also assume procrastinators reap the benefits of task-driven efficiency without having to help reduce the workload. Similarly, deadline-driven procrastinators have a difficult time understanding the urgency of task-driven people. It appears to them that this urgency is impulsive, interferes with setting priorities, and compromises outcome. They may assume a task-driven co-worker is trying to make them feel guilty about not immediately participating in a task or is always too busy to interact. Recognizing stylistic differences enables the people involved to strategize, organize, and find creative solutions to handle the completion of a project. For example, task-driven people often submit work that could benefit from further revision (task-driven people are motivated to get something off their plate as soon as possible to be relieved from anxiety or any other negative emotion they experience). Since they have time to make revisions, often they do so later and then submit revised documents. This can be very annoying to a deadline-driven co-worker. I note in my book, if you receive an e‑mail with the subject line “Read this one instead,” the sender is likely task driven. Conversely, if you receive an e‑mail with an attached document very close to the deadline, it’s probably from a procrastinator, since deadline driven procrastinators are highly efficient and accurate at a deadline. If they work as a team, one solution would be for the task-driven person to write an initial draft and for the deadline driven procrastinator to ensure accuracy and the inclusion of important details. When working in a team, deadline-driven procrastinators are best at putting together all of the contributions from their teammates. An effective strategy to help people with different styles work together effectively is to provide deadlines for sections of the work within the time period for project completion—having short-term deadlines within a long-term project. This process artificially creates a deadline for those who need one and focuses attention on a particular task for those distracted by many other things to do. Thus, productivity can be increased when managers recognize motivational styles and set goals accordingly.
When Opposites are Together
If these two are a couple, what are the symptoms?
Task completion differences rank high on the list of agitating things that create conflict between people. Often these conflicts involve anger, shame, guilt, and distress. Task-driven people assume their deadline-driven partners will forget to do something, since task-driven people tend to have a “fear of forgetting.” Given their own attention is drawn to uncompleted tasks, they just get things done, rather than rely on remembering. Therefore, they tend to issue reminders to a partner who procrastinates or they may, with resentment, complete the task themselves. A deadline-driven partner may be offended by the constant reminders about pending tasks, since he or she always knows what is on his or her mental list and how long it will take to get done. When deadline-driven partners begin to take action, often a task-driven partner is then compelled to provide reminders about other uncompleted tasks. Intense emotions and corresponding thoughts may lead each party to make inaccurate assumptions and accusations regarding the other person’s behavior. Task-driven non-procrastinators find themselves negatively commenting about messes and uncompleted tasks that are the responsibility of a procrastinating partner, while deadline-driven procrastinators who feel shamed for their style of organization perceive their task-driven partners as unable to relax or to trust their efficacy. The central focus of both task- and deadline-driven people should be to evaluate the task‑completion situations in terms of meeting deadlines and putting one’s best efforts into the work. In intimate relationships it is important to recognize the impact of another person’s behavior on you and address situations of conflict with interest rather than with shaming the other person or yourself.
Do people ever completely switch from one to the other over the course of life?
Typically, people do not completely alter their approach, but some modification occurs along the way. As we grow, the emotional memories we accumulate tend to alter our approach to life, including our timing in completing tasks. After all, we become who we are based on our personal warehouse of emotional memories, what activated those emotions in the first place, and how we responded to them. In addition, to some extent we can consciously alter our approach. A task-driven person might remind herself, for example, that something can wait, just as a deadline-driven person can conjure up a reason to be motivated ahead of schedule. Emotions provide us with information and motivation, but we are still in charge of how we respond to them.
Use Shame Anxiety as Rocket Fuel
What is shame anxiety? Your view of anxiety is that it can be used as a positive fuel. How do you tame it and use it to your advantage versus ending up with a panic attack?
Understanding anxiety and how it works for you is critical to using it to your advantage, which is why I devoted a chapter to this emotion in my book. To date, anxiety has been studied primarily in terms of how it impairs thinking rather than as an adaptive mechanism that can narrow and focus attention. Actually, anxiety is your friend because its aim is to help you pay attention and to provide you with energy. I see it like a niggling parent who constantly reminds you about something and knows you’ll both be relieved when you deal with the situation. Yes, there are times when normal anxiety can lead us to feel a bit unhinged, so we disregard its function to alert and protect us. When you have limited time or a lot to do, for example, you might describe anxiety as a feeling of stress or tension. Technically, feeling “stressed out” is the result of distress that has been activated in response to fear, which is one flavor of what we refer to as anxiety. A second “flavor” of anxiety is worry. Worry is the cognitive side of distress, and it magnifies the distress component of anxiety. Professionally successful people, regardless of their task completion style, on average appear to worry similarly about uncompleted tasks but the action they are compelled to take based on that worry differs considerably.
In the narratives I collected, worry, as a cognitive magnification of distress or fear, created stress immediately for task-driven participants, and lay in the back of the minds of deadline-driven participants until they were motivated by a deadline. Worry creates immediate stress for task-driven people who tend to be more continuously stressed than their deadline-driven counterparts. After all, procrastinators are able to relax, and for a time, put aside a task. Nonetheless, worry does reside in the back of their mind until they are motivated by a deadline. Even so, to their task-driven counterparts, they may seem unperturbed until the deadline is on the horizon. Fear and distress also activate and comingle with the emotion of excitement. When this occurs, you may feel aroused, stimulated, or in the zone. For procrastinators, time pressure can create such arousal. For task-driven people, the stimulus that causes such arousal may be the need to complete multiple tasks, or it may accompany intense focus. If you are grumpy and agitated in the process of getting something done, your unique blend of anxiety may include anger along with fear and distress. Both deadline-driven procrastinators and task-driven people commonly experience agitation, an agitated depression, or an angry urgency—they become such a grouch—in the process of getting things done. Since anxiety results in highly focused attention on a task, interrupting them may trigger an eruption.
Another version of anxiety, one that is very familiar to successful people, occurs when both shame and distress meld with fear to produce shame anxiety. Shame anxiety is usually accompanied by thoughts of potential failure and humiliation. The cognition associated with shame anxiety is often described as a fear of failure. Experiencing this intense emotion signals that action must be taken at once to diminish its intensity. Anticipating a negative evaluation or judgment from yourself or others—like the thought of being embarrassed which is a derivative of shame—can focus your attention on accurately and efficiently completing whatever it is you need to get done. Thus, if you are compelled, or eventually compelled, to do something or get something done in order to get rid of the effects of shame anxiety, then the combination of emotions has served its purpose. If there is an optimal level of shame anxiety that helps people to complete tasks, it would be up to each individual to determine that level for him- or herself. This is because any emotion a person might feel at a given moment has been modified by the individual’s culture, experiences, and response to situations where that same emotion was activated. As a result, there are people for whom a fear of failure greatly contributes to behaviors that ensure their success, and there are others whose response to the co-mingling of distress, fear, and shame has led them to fail. As a result, they tend to withdraw from or avoid a task rather than exert effort that leads to relief and success.
A deadline-driven procrastinator often is “working” on something, you indicate, long before others realize it. Talk about that.
The secret to pulling off excellent work at a deadline has to do with procrastinators’ capacity to hold subject matter in mind and deliberate (they often refer to it as letting things marinate or incubate). Even so, others may perceive them as being distracted and doing nothing. They can delay and remember well, in contrast to their task-driven counterparts who do not want to be burdened with having to remember or are afraid they’ll forget if they don’t do it now. Task-driven people rationalize their need for immediate action by speculating that some unforeseen eventuality may interfere with getting the task done. People vary in their capacity to hold something in mind, although many other factors may influence a person’s comfort level about needing to remember something. Cognitive scientists refer to working memory as the system by which the brain temporarily holds and processes information. Researchers studying this process have speculated that some people are willing to expend extra effort when they have a strong desire to get things off their mind. Procrastinators might have a hard time grasping why someone would actually choose to put out extra effort just to get something done and dismissed from their mind. What motivates task-driven people to do so, while procrastinators decline, seems to be related to anxiety that they will forget—a “fear of forgetting.” Holding information in their mind until a deadline appears, then, less bothersome to procrastinators. When they are not tangibly working on a task prior to the deadline, they are often thinking about it and passively planning their approach prior to taking action. A news columnist explained that he absolutely cannot complete a story until the exact words of the ending appear in his mind, which is always at the deadline. He mentally constructs the story as time passes, recognizing that others may perceive him as doing nothing. Similarly, an entrepreneur explained his style of getting things done, claiming, “I look like I’m lazy and unmotivated, but I’m always thinking about it in the back of my mind.” Likewise, a successful deadline‑driven research analyst reported that when he tries to complete tasks ahead of time, he “can’t get anything done.” However, he noted he is always “actively thinking about it.” Thus, while procrastinators are contemplating their projects, task-driven people are seeking relief from having the task on their mind. Task-driven people consider themselves to be highly organized and efficient, and as such, they generally express the importance of getting things done as soon as possible. Only when a task is put behind them can they move on to potentially enjoyable other things; that is, unless another task appears.
Guidelines for Procrastinators
Would you share a few of your tips for helping procrastinators get going?
Since a lifetime of learning determines how people get things done, I’d be self-defeating if I tried to change anyone who is successful at task completion. Instead, there are ways to upgrade a motivational style. Most important is to understand the emotions that drive you and the thoughts that accompany them—learning how to interpret your emotions and use them wisely. Some of the guidelines I provide for deadline-driven procrastinators to optimize their motivational style include:
- Request a deadline, or create one yourself, in circumstances that do not have definite cutoff points.
- Use a to-do list that you resolve to get through by the end of the day. Or create a list of tasks every evening, along with a commitment to yourself to complete them by a specific time the following day.
- Set a timer for a certain interval, or commit to a specified length of time, and then challenge yourself to complete various tasks within that time frame.
- Narrow the time available to complete certain tasks. Schedule a task around other work or activities giving you less available time to get a task done. Challenge yourself to get something done prior to leaving the house for a meeting or activity. Create a time crunch by interjecting other tasks that you also want to get done within a certain time frame.
- As a commitment incentive, tell another person your target date for a project.
- Be aware of when you perform optimally.
- If you are short on sleep, recognize you have mistakenly learned to include your sleeping hours as available time to complete tasks. Your bedtime is a deadline you must always try to meet.
- Do not take seriously your thoughts of extending a deadline or withdrawing from a project.
- Recognize extension fantasies as fleeting fantasies.
- Do not assign a negative value to the intense emotions you feel around a close deadline. When intense emotions emerge, view them as a signal of energy coming your way.
- As your motivation is building, be mindful of any tendency to attribute what you feel to negative or irrelevant sources. Defer such thinking until after the task is completed. Simply make a promise to yourself that you will reconsider your circumstance or career at that time and accept your intense emotion as motivation to complete the task.
- Talk with people who live or work with you about your style, requesting they not take personally your emotional unavailability when you are immersed in completing a task.
What do most people find surprising from your research and findings?
There are two primary conclusions that seem to provide relief or insight. One is that procrastination does not necessarily interfere with success, and early action does not inevitably result in a favorable outcome. Thus, procrastination should not be linked with failure, just as early action should not be tied to success.
Another is that emotional memories influence our decisions and how we govern our lives. Task-completion styles, or the failure to adequately complete tasks, illustrate how our lifetime of responses to our innate motivational system can script our behavior in different ways. Both deadline-driven procrastinators and task-driven non-procrastinators who are successful in their endeavors or careers make use of the emotions they experience. Therefore, if you learn to interpret the messages your emotions convey and understand your reactions to them, you can make the most of the system that not only motivates you to get things done but also motivates everything you do.
For more information, seeWhat Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.