I am currently reading the November/December 2013 edition of Scientific American Mind in which the focus is research and insights about the Seven Deadly Sins. One that struck a chord with me as I read the magazine instead of doing other things such as writing this blog is the article entitled “Prodding Our Inner Sloth” by Sandra Upson. I flirt with sloth every day as I think about exercising, working on that case with the overdue project, meditating, making that phone call to someone that won’t be pleasant, or numerous other items on my To Do list that seem like attractive candidates for procrastination. Can I summon up the will to do them? Sloth is also a challenge in our cases as parties or professionals commit to tasks and then fail to perform them in the expected time frame, sometimes causing significant tension or conflict by their lack of action.
In her article, Upson described research which showed that procrastination is a method of neutralizing negative emotions. By distracting ourselves in some way (surfing the internet, eating our favorite food, doodling, taking a nap, or one of my favorites – playing Words with Friends), we can avoid unwanted feelings. In some cases, the distraction may be an unconscious move to repair a bruised sense of self. In our work with people in conflict, negative emotions may very well be fueling procrastination.
Upton suggested several strategies to move out of procrastination. One is to reconnect your thoughts and feelings so they align with your highest goals by reframing the task in a larger context of self-improvement, because humans are highly motivated when we connect to our deepest goals and values – cognitive reappraising by “a deliberate move to change the meaning of the situation by altering our emotional response to it.”. One study showed that people who first wrote about a personal value of great importance later had more persistance at a boring activity. Another strategy is to give yourself a break and forgive yourself when you have procrastinated rather than compounding negative feelings with guilt. Research showed that people who forgave themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate in the future. A third strategy is to shape your environment to reduce obstacles to exercising willpower, thus eliminating the chance for a negative emotion to arise.
In our work, we can help ourselves with procrastination by examining how a task connects to our goals or values (e.g. writing those meeting minutes immediately meets our goal of serving our clients well by helping them to remember the key points of the meeting and reminding them of tasks they need to accomplish.) We can help colleagues or clients with procrastination by discussing with them how tasks fit into the larger context of accomplishing their goals consistent with their values (e.g. paying child support in a timely manner meets the goal of providing for your children and maintaining a positive relationship with the other parent for the benefit of the children.) We can give ourselves and others a break by forgiveness when we procrastinate to reduce the negative emotions evoked by the procrastination and then we can brainstorm together how to reduce the obstacles to accomplishing the task or set up a mechanism to encourage us to do the task.
Whew, now that I have finally written this blog, I’m going to go take a nap…or perhaps I’ll exercise.