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Why Procrastination Is About Managing Emotions, Not Time

Like many writers, I’m a supreme expert at procrastination. When I ought to be working on an assignment, with the clock ticking towards my deadline, I’ll sit there watching pointless political interviews or boxing highlights on YouTube (cat videos aren’t my thing). At its worst I can almost begin to feel a little crazy – you need to be working, I say to myself, so what on Earth are you doing?

According to traditional thinking – still espoused by university counselling centres around the world, such as the University of Manchester in the UK and the University of Rochester in the US – I, along with my fellow procrastinators, have a time management problem. By this view, I haven’t fully appreciated how long my assignment is going to take and I’m not paying enough attention to how much time I’m currently wasting on ‘cyberloafing’. With better scheduling and a better grip on time, so the logic goes, I will stop procrastinating and get on with my work.

Increasingly, however, psychologists are realising this is wrong. Experts like Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada and his collaborator Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield in the UK have proposed that procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time. The task we’re putting off is making us feel bad – perhaps it’s boring, too difficult or we’re worried about failing – and to make ourselves feel better in the moment, we start doing something else, like watching videos.

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