The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a series of important conversations about the importance of our mental health in the face of adversity. Of late, the conversation revolved around the constant feeling of uncertainty and tiredness, which experts call ‘languishing'. Being in this mental state can make it harder for us to work on the tasks that we dread and can even make them seem more unpleasant than usual. Unsurprisingly, this means that more of us are turning to procrastination as we seek out different ways to deal with our internal turmoil, making it more of a coping strategy that speaks to our mental and emotional health rather than the typical assumptions of laziness. Here’s why.
Why are we procrastinating more?
According to the experts who study procrastination, it is characterised by “the irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences1”. Put simply, for those of us who are prone to procrastination, we are all too aware that the tasks that we are putting off will not go away, though we still let our emotions get the better of us nonetheless.
This battle between rational thinking and emotional satisfaction can also be explained on a more biological level. In our brains, specifically, the limbic system is linked to impulsive behaviour, fight-or-flight instincts, as well as the desire for instant gratification2. On the flipside, our prefrontal cortex enables us to make informed decisions for more effective long-term planning3. Being in a constant state of languishing has intensified predominantly negative emotions such as fear, stress, and anxiety, which in turn heightens our survival instincts and the desire for instant gratification. The limbic system is therefore more likely to win out over rational considerations of future consequences as determined by our prefrontal cortex, making us more prone to procrastination.
How is it affecting our health and wellbeing?
Even before the pandemic, procrastination had proved to be a prevalent problem that many of us struggled with. Often, it meant that we had to deal with a host of ill effects ranging from poor productivity to unhealthy lifestyle habits attributable to long-overdue health screenings and skipped workouts. Procrastination can also lead us down a slippery slope of worsening mental health concerns as we continue to experience more pressure and stress while trying to play catch up. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, things only seem to be getting harder.
Our need to work and live in this socially distanced new normal has disrupted the habits and structures that previously made it easier for us to stay on top of our tasks. Having to stay home during lockdown periods, for instance, has blurred the boundaries of work and leisure, making it more difficult for us to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This perceived lack of control has recently led to the rise of a new phenomenon known as ‘bedtime procrastination’ or ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. When we say that we are ‘bedtime procrastinating’, we are pushing back our sleep times in order to indulge in more leisure activities, almost as if we are taking revenge on the workday by staying up just to have fun. While having this extra ‘me time’ might seem liberating in that moment, it ultimately comes at the cost of our sleep and, in the long run, our health. In fact, these detrimental effects of sleep deprivation are not dissimilar to those that we discussed in our previous article on coronasomnia.
What can we do to overcome pandemic procrastination?
- Practise mindfulness and self-compassion
The main thing that these two practices have in common is the intention of rising above negative feelings and behaviours. For instance, we know that having a clearly delineated and organised work area that is separate from our leisure spaces can keep us in the moment through the removal of potential distractions. In the same vein, engaging in mindfulness activities grounds us in the present so that it is easier for us to stay on task. Studies have also found that those of us who are able to acknowledge our mistakes and subsequently be compassionate enough to forgive ourselves for them are also less likely to procrastinate in the future4.
- Reinforce accountability in ways that best work for you
For some of us, simply keeping a well-organised to-do list is sufficient to keep ourselves accountable. For others, however, there may be the need to add in more incentives via a personalised reward system for when we finish our tasks. Research has shown that being able to look forward to even relatively small rewards like a quick food break can motivate us to be more focused while doing work5. Perhaps what may work even better for those of us who dislike working alone is to find an accountability partner in our family, friends, or co-workers. Having a buddy like this will not only make it easier to keep each other on track, it can also reduce our sense of isolation and make it easier for us to seek help when it is needed.
- Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps
Facing daunting goals and massive projects are common triggers of stress and anxiety, which may then cause us to seek out relief in the form of procrastination. As such, rather than burdening ourselves with these long-term objectives, it may be more beneficial to work out some smaller steps to keep our mental threshold low. This practice effectively tricks our brains into focusing on the practical tasks that we can take on, rather than the overwhelming emotions that the objectives may be associated with.
Over to you
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted our usual way of life, making it necessary for us to rethink and readjust the new habits that we have picked up over the course of the last two years. Whether it is to procrastinate less or to work on other similar concerns, remember to be compassionate with yourself and to seek help whenever it is needed. After all, our health and wellbeing is a journey rather than a destination, and the journey is ultimately our own - be it the pace, the steps, or the goals. No matter what it may be, we are together with you - all the way.
1. Prem, R., Scheel, T., Weigelt, O., Hoffmann, K., & Korunka, C. (2018). Procrastination in Daily Working Life: A Diary Study on Within-Person Processes That Link Work Characteristics to Workplace Procrastination.
2. Gersema, E. (2019). Can’t stop putting your hand in the candy dish? Scientists may have found why.
3. Tanji, J., & Hoshi, E. (2001). Behavioral planning in the prefrontal cortex.
4. Wohl, M., Pychyl, T., & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination.
5. Garaus, C., Furtmüller, G., & Güttel, W. (2016). The Hidden Power of Small Rewards: The Effects of Insufficient External Rewards on Autonomous Motivation to Learn.