Here is why you should procrastinate more to find Flow.
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This article was written by Flow Lab’s Head of Content and MSc. psychologist Eva Siem. She studied at the University of Groningen (NL) and is specialized in the area of performance and motivational psychology. In her articles, she combines findings from psychological research with practical tips from her experience as mental fitness coach and workshop trainer.
Can you relate to the 70% of college students who procrastinate on a regular basis (Klingsieck et al., 2013)? Be it your work, preparing taxes, household chores or saving for retirement – procrastination can occur in various areas of life (Kroese & de Ridder, 2016; Sirois, 2015).
We usually think of procrastination as something negative. Something that makes us less productive. Or as a sign of laziness and a lack of self-control.
But it is not as clear-cut as it may seem. There is increasing evidence that procrastination can also be adaptive. Stay tuned to learn when procrastination is useful and how it helps you find more flow!
Procrastination is not as bad as you think
When discussing procrastination, we may think of all the studies and articles arguing that it leads to poorer performance (e.g., Isaak et al., 2006; Kim & Seo, 2015) or increased depression and anxiety levels (Beutel et al., 2016; Klein et al., 2017).
What’s not on our radar, however, is the positive side of procrastination. (And yes, research says it indeed exists). In a qualitative study, for example, students reported that procrastination helps them to work and manage their time more efficiently as well as to lower boredom (Schraw et al., 2007). In fact, it seems to make us more productive in some cases…
Procrastination and Flow
Counterintuitively, we can use procrastination as a vehicle to find more Flow! Why? Well, as a refresher, flow requires an optimal balance between perceived challenges and skill set. With a boring or very easy task, however, we may want to make it more challenging. Time pressure and the thrill that comes with a higher risk of failing may be the answer for procrastinators. They report to feel a greater challenge and have more peak experiences right before taking exams (Lay et al., 1989). Other researchers found that students who crammed were more in flow and performed better (Brinthaupt & Shin, 2001).
When lacking a proper challenge, procrastination can be used as a vehicle to find more Flow. Click To Tweet
So one take-away is that procrastination and flow states aren’t mutually exclusive. In some cases, procrastinating may be worthwhile – but only when lacking a proper challenge. You could also set strict deadlines for yourself, find an accountability partner who supervises your progress or make a game out of your tasks.
"Procrastination can make a task more challenging, thereby triggering Flow."
We need to be cautious, however, not to use that as an excuse for other root causes of procrastination…
Two types of procrastination
The key is to know which procrastination type you are. Active procrastinators choose to work under pressure because they hope for more positive outcomes. The researchers Kim and Seo (2013) explain that flow predicted active procrastination in their study, resulting in better academic achievement.
Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, rather feel paralyzed and more driven by the fear of negative outcomes (Chu & Choi, 2005). In having put off something they ought to have done, they get caught up in an avoidance cycle. The more they avoid it, the bigger the tension and the harder it becomes to do it. Webb & Rosenbaum (2018) put it like this: “Avoiding something, reifies its status as something anxiety provoking or overwhelming and so not doing it only drives up the stakes.” (pp. 527-528).
So if passive procrastination is so unpleasant, how come that we’re still ending up stressed, working frantically the night before our deadline? To a certain extent, procrastination is in our genes:
Procrastination and the brain
The limbic system is an ancient and quite dominant part of the brain which is responsible for many automatic behaviors and the processing of emotions. It wants us to feel good in the moment by, for example, creating the urge to escape uncomfortable emotions. The prefrontal cortex, in contrast, is a newer part of the brain. It’s in charge of more complex and rational processes such as planning, decision-making and goal-setting. So it’s: limbic system versus the prefrontal cortex. Feeling good in the moment versus feeling good later. Procrastinating versus reaching our long-term goals. Because the limbic system is much more dominant, it often wins the battle so that we find ourselves delaying our most important tasks again.
Procrastination is a battle between the limbic system (which wants us to feel good in this moment) and the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for rational thinking, planning and goal-setting). Click To Tweet
You can imagine a rubber band around your two index fingers. One index finger is your current self, the other represents your future self. The greater the distance between your fingers, the greater the tension of the rubber band. This is the tension you might feel when procrastinating. You know that you are moving away from your goals and your ideal future self. Or as author James Clear puts it: “Procrastinating on something important is choosing to delay a better future”.
"Procrastinating on something important is choosing to delay a better future." (James Clear)
In order for you to beat harmful procrastination and find more flow, let’s go through its potential sources and what you can do to overcome them!
Less procrastination, more Flow: How to cope with…
… self-regulation failure
The probably most popular source of procrastination is self-regulation failure (e.g., Wijaya & Tori, 2018). Everything else suddenly seems much more interesting. So we give in to our impulses and put off that dreary task.
Here are a few things you may try to counteract these tendencies and muster up the motivation you need:
Recall your Why
Take a moment and ask yourself: What motivated you in the first place to start the task, this work, or your studies? And how does it help your future self if you put yourself to just do it? Observe which feelings will arise when you imagine that you have successfully completed the task.
Visualize the consequences
The more distant the reward of completing a task, the harder it becomes to overcome the urge of procrastination. In more psychological terms, we may fall prey to a cognitive bias called “delay discounting”. It means that we choose short-term and lesser valued outcomes over our important and more valued long-term goals (Kirby & Marakovic, 1996; Howell & Watson, 2007).
To counteract this bias, you can take some time to visualize the consequences of your behavior in both directions: What will you lose if you maintain this avoidance cycle and keep procrastinating? And what happens if you braced yourself up and just do it? Which feelings will arise in these scenarios?
Identify distracting “just a minute” habits
Unsurprisingly, impulsiveness correlates with procrastination (Gropel & Steel, 2008). Which automatic and impulsive behaviors that “take just a minute” knock you off course? Maybe quickly checking your WhatsApp notifications? Or scrolling through your Instagram feed? Perhaps the habit of letting your mind wander? The more aware you are of these tendencies, the faster you can overcome them. For example, have a go at our Flow Session “Grounded” to train your impulse control.
Identify the Frog
The “frog” is the most inconvenient aspect of the task. What exactly is it that you are trying to avoid? If you know the “frog”, it’ll be easier to deal with it and tackle it one step at a time. Ideally, “eat the frog” in the morning. That means, tackling that (sub)task will be the first thing you’ll do in the morning. And you’ll see – you’ll be glad for the rest of the day that you finally did it.
Follow the four minute rule
Of course it’s not about finishing it all at once, but rather about getting started. Studies have shown that this is much harder than keeping the ball rolling afterwards.
To make this first step a bit easier, you can set a timer and work for only four minutes on the smallest next step. Devote your full attention to the task during this time. Four minutes sounds doable, doesn’t it? This mental trick helps you to create momentum. So in the end, it often turns into much more than four minutes. And even if you decide to quit, you’ve taken the first and most difficult step!
Set implementation intentions
Another classic intervention to regulate behavior are so-called “implementation intentions”, also “if-then-plans”. They work by formulating in advance how to behave in tempting situations. For example: “If I catch myself scrolling through Instagram, then I set my phone on flight mode and put it in a different room” or “If I notice that I’m distracting myself, then I recall my “Why” and set a timer to work for at least 4 minutes on my task”. This way, we eliminate procrastination beforehand and automate productive behavior.
Self-regulation is, of course, not only a matter of regulating one’s behavior. To beat procrastination and find flow, it’s also necessary on an emotional level.
… uncomfortable emotions
Procrastination can arise when we doubt our abilities or believe that worry can be a useful driver (Balkis & Duru, 2018; Haycock, McCarthy, & Skay, 1998; Spada, Hiou, & Nikcević, 2006). Perhaps we’re anxious about what others may think when we fail. Or perfectionism is standing in our way: The goal to complete a task perfectly can be paralyzing – also called “The Paradox of Perfectionism”.
And in order to escape this discomfort, master procrastinators become very creative when it comes to defending their behavior: Perhaps adding color to your schedule was crucial to work productively afterwards? Or cleaning the kitchen counter was absolutely necessary because “otherwise there was no chance you managed to focus on your task”?
If this sounds familiar to you, you may give the following tips a try:
Strengthen your self-awareness
When catching yourself procrastinating, take a step back for a moment and explore your emotions. What is it that is actually holding you back? Is there fear of failure? Maybe anxiety that you cannot live up to the expectations of others, or of yourself? Confusion about how and where to begin? Perhaps you can also notice how these feelings express themselves in your body. No matter what you’re discovering, try to observe them with a non-judgmental attitude. Try this, for example, with our Flow Session “Rock Steady”.
Question your thoughts
Uncomfortable emotions can go hand in hand with difficult thoughts. What goes through your mind when you think of tackling your tasks? Are there any “what if”-thoughts where you picture possible worst-case scenarios? If so, try to question these thoughts. Most of them don’t coincide with reality and only exist in our mind. So what if, for example, all goes well? If you like, you can practice a more optimistic perspective with the Flow Session “What if”.
Appreciate your accomplishments
Which goals have you already achieved? Which challenges have you risen up to? And which strengths helped you achieve that? Take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments (for example, with our Flow Session “Mountain Top”).
Visser and colleagues (2017) also encouraged their participants not only to recognize their strengths, but also actively use them to overcome procrastination. Perhaps you can use curiosity to approach your monotonous task with a different mindset? Or creativity to make a game out of it? If you like, formulate self-affirmations that remind you of your potential in your everyday life such as “My curiosity helps me to motivate myself”. For a guided reflection on your strengths, check out the Flow Session “Core Strength” in the Flow Lab app.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes
Sometimes we think we have all eyes on us and need to perform perfectly. We often forget that high performance is preceded by a learning process – a process of trial and error, of obstacles and new insights – a process that is absolutely essential for success. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes, be kind to yourself, and take a shot at your current challenge.
… concentration difficulties
Psychologists believe that low attentional control is related to unintentional procrastination (Fernie et al., 2017). Perhaps we made it to our desk (or wherever we’re completing that task). But our mind keeps wandering and we distract ourselves (sometimes without even noticing it). So it all comes down to mental fitness training:
Train your focus for less procrastination and more flow
Gain the upperhand on your attention and let go of distracting thoughts. For example, find a focus point and try to hold your attention as long as possible there. This can be your breath, a sound, a visual focus point or also a thought (such as a mantra). To do so, explore our focus sessions if you like: We’ve got you covered, for example, with “Tame it” (mental focus point), “Quite Eye” (visual focus point), “Push Up Routine” (breath as focus point) and many more.
Alright, that’s the end of the article – no excuses anymore. Go ahead and kick that procrastinator within you (the only exceptions are the active procrastinators ;)).