Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Procrastination, moods, and emotion

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Procrastination, moods, and emotion:
What role do emotions and moods play in procrastination?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case Study

As part of his university course Zac had to write a book chapter. There was plenty of work to be done, however there was also plenty of time available to do it. Despite this abundance of time, Zac decided not to complete it until the last minute, and completed more enjoyable tasks (such as playing video games, watching television and going out with friends) instead as he felt anxious when working on the task. This is an example of procrastination. This case study will be used throughout the chapter to help explain some concepts.

Procrastination is 'the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort' (Soloman & Ruthblum, 1984)
Learning outcomes

These are the learning outcomes that the following chapter aims to address:

  1. An understanding of what procrastination is and why it can be a problem
  2. An overview of a number of emotions and moods related to the process of procrastination
  3. An understanding of various theoretical explanations of procrastination
  4. An outline of a number of things that you can personally do to help combat procrastination habits

What is procrastination and why is it a problem?[edit | edit source]

Procrastinators pay on average $400 extra in taxes (Kasper, 2004)

Procrastination is an all too familiar phenomenon for many students, as well as adults. According to Soloman and Ruthblum (1984), procrastination refers to 'the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort'. This is believed to be a result of a self-regulatory failure (Steel, 2007). About 70% of university students procrastinate, furthermore 50% of students consider their procrastination habits to be problematic (Steel, 2007) and 32% display chronic procrastination (Day, Mensink, & O’Sullivan, 2000). For many people this problem persists into adulthood, with about 20% adults experiencing chronic procrastination (Harriott & Ferrari, 1996). This is an issue as procrastination is likely to lead poor outcomes in various areas of life. For example, it is likely to lead to poorer grades for students, poorer task performance and has also been linked to negative health outcomes (Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Furthermore, procrastinators pay $400 extra[where?] in taxes due to last minute rushing resulting in errors, based on a survey by H&R Block (Kasper, 2004). This chapter focuses on emotion-related problems with procrastination, information on motivational causes of procrastination can be found here and here.

What is emotion and mood?[edit | edit source]

Emotion and mood are two slightly different concepts, as such a definition for each will be given.

Emotion is a difficult construct to describe. According to Reeve (2014) emotions are 'feeling states that lead to feeling in a particular way', however they are much more than this. They also have a biological aspect that readies the body to behave in a certain way, depending on the situation. Furthermore they also have the ability to motivate action as well as a component of social expression. Emotions also generally have a known cause, or antecedent, such as a significant event (Goldsmith, 1994).

Moods are slightly different to emotions. Unlike emotions, their cause is often unknown; they just happen (Goldsmith, 1994). Furthermore, moods mostly affect thought process in contrast with emotions which direct behaviour (Davidson, 1994).

As a side note affect is a similar construct to mood, however presents a more simplistic view of either being positive or negative. The terms mood and affect are used interchangeably.

Emotions and mood during procrastination[edit | edit source]

Key Research - 5 days of emotion

Research by Pychyl et al. (2000) investigated underlying emotions of students whilst procrastinating. They gave 45 undergraduate psychology students a pager. When paged the participants had to respond with information that could be used by the researchers to determine if they were procrastinating or working on intended tasks as well as reporting their affect and levels of guilt. This occurred 8 times a day for 5 days. It was found that students evaluated the tasks they were doing while procrastinating as being more pleasurable than the task they were procrastinating from. Interestingly, however, their affect was not heightened by this pleasurable task. Furthermore, higher levels of guilt were reported whilst procrastinating. The researchers asserted that the improvements in affect, which should be expected from completing a pleasurable task, were effectively cancelled out by the guilt of not completing the more important task.

Thinking critically
  • Is it possible that paging the students reminded them that they were procrastinating and as a result induced guilt and negative affect that wasn't already present?

Guilt[edit | edit source]

Guilt plays a role in the procrastination process, however it is unlikely to be an underlying cause of the problem, but rather a byproduct. According to Fee and Tangney (2000), guilt "is an emotion that focuses on a specific act or behavior and is often accompanied by motivations toward reparation and atonement". Research by Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau and Blunt (2000) investigating moment to moment measures of affect and the emotion of guilt found that while students were procrastinating, from studying for exams, they reported high levels of guilt. This guilt was also believed to counteract the increases in affect, which should be expected from completing more pleasurable tasks than the task which one is procrastinating from. More information on this research can be found in the key research - 5 days of emotion box. Research by Fee and Tangney (2000) found that people who are prone to feel guilt are not significantly more likely to engage in chronic procrastination. This does not suggest that suggest that guilt isn't part of the procrastination process, but rather that it may not be the cause[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Shame[edit | edit source]

It is possible that shame is an underlying cause, or contributor to procrastination behaviour. According to Fee and Tangney (2000), shame involves a "global negative evaluation of the self, as the perpetrator of the act or behaviour, often motivating a desire to hide, escape, or deny responsibility". The escape and avoidance motivation of this emotion is directly contrasted by the motivations for reparation associated with the emotion of guilt. Fee and Tangney (2000) found that those who are vulnerable to feelings of shame are more likely to have chronic procrastination issues.

This relationship between shame and procrastination could also explain the relationship between the personality construct of perfectionism. Perfectionist [missing something?] could perceive the task to be impossible to complete, at least to their high standards, and thus delay initiating the task due to avoid thoughts of their perceived impending failure (Fee & Tangney, 2000). But where does shame come into this? Well, failure on the task is likely to evoke emotions of shame, and as such so is thought of such a failure. Moderate support for these ideas where[grammar?] found in Fee and Tangney's (2000) research, with proneness to shame acting as a moderating factor of the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. That is to say, perfectionists who are more likely to experience shame are more likely to procrastinate than perfectionists who are less likely to experience shame.

Anxiety[edit | edit source]

Anxiety has been shown to be a predictor of procrastination behaviour. Those with higher levels of underlying anxiety are significantly more likely to procrastinate than those with lower levels of underlying anxiety (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Research by Onwuegbuzie (2004) found that post-graduate students with high levels of statistic anxiety (a measure of anxiety relating specifically to statistics courses) were likely to procrastinate. As this research was not experimental, it is uncertain whether the relationship between anxiety and procrastination is causal.

Worry[edit | edit source]

Worry has been shown to have a relationship with procrastination. Research by Stöber (2001) found those that are likely to worry are also likely to participate in procrastinating behaviour, as measured by the Tuckman Procrastination Scale (TPS). Furthermore high worriers were found to lower their standards when under stress or anxiety. This could suggest that procrastination is a result of these high worriers lowering their standards and delaying the task as a result high levels of stress and anxiety.

Task aversiveness and fear of failure[edit | edit source]

It has been identified that procrastination can be a result of either task aversiveness or fear of failure (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Research by Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found two groups of procrastinators, those that procrastinate due to task aversiveness (process oriented) and those that procrastinate due to fear of failure (outcome oriented). The research indicated that a larger group of students procrastinate as a result of fear of failure, compared to the group that procrastinate due to task aversiveness. Those that procrastinate due to task aversiveness become anxious due factors relating to the process of completing the task where as those who procrastinate due to fear of failure become anxious due to factors relating to outcome of the task.

Theoretical explanations of procrastination[edit | edit source]

This section will provide a number of theoretical models, with a basis in emotion and or mood, which attempt to explain procrastination.

Theory of specious rewards[edit | edit source]

One theoretical construct that can help understand procrastination, and emotions role in it, is the theory of specious rewards. This was first proposed by Ainslie in 1975 (as cited in Pychyl et al., 2000). The theory is behavioural in nature and states that people are more likely to choose long term rewards over short term rewards, even when long term rewards are more valuable, or provide more utility, than short term rewards[Rewrite to improve clarity]. But how does this relate to procrastination or emotion? Working on an assignment, or any other important task, often causes anxiety; however, moving attention away from the important task temporarily reduces this anxiety (Pychyl et al., 2000). This temporary reduction of anxiety acts as a short term reward. However this short term solution, that is procrastination, is likely to lead to worse performance on the task and eventually much lower overall levels of affect. Therefore if the short term reward, temporary relief of negative affect and anxiety, had not been taken a greater longer term reward could have been achieved. This long term reward is lower overall levels of negative affect and better performance on the task.

Case Study

Applying this theory to the case study would assume that a short term reward for Zac for not starting the book chapter early was relief from the anxiety of thinking about the task as well as the inherent rewards of completing more enjoyable activities. However the long term reward is lower overall levels of anxiety and negative affect as well as a good grade on the assessment. Due to the fact that immediate rewards are more likely to be chosen over larger long term rewards he chose to procrastinate instead of completing the task.

Self-control and emotional regulation[edit | edit source]

Self-control and emotional regulation may also have a role to play in why people choose to procrastinate, despite its ill effects. Procrastination can be viewed as a failure of self-control, which results in allowing impulses to take over and postponing important work (Tice, 2000). It has been argued by Tice (2000) that this failure is a result of the prioritisation of mood regulation over the important task, which then results in lapses of self-control. Research has by Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice (1998; as cited in Tice, 2000) found that when people were experimentally induced into emotional states and then asked to prepare for an important task those who had positive emotions were more likely to prepare for the task, and avoid procrastination, compared to those who had negative emotions. These findings make sense considering those with depression as well as those with neurotic personalities are more likely to procrastinate (Steel, 2007). This could be a result of participants with already positive emotions not needing to prioritise regulation of emotion or mood so much, as they already have a heightened affect, however those in more negative emotional states need to prioritise this regulation in an attempt to increase affect. However, based on research by Pychyl et al. (2000) it would seem that this attempt to increase affect is unsuccessful.

Case Study

In Zac's case sometimes he felt it hard to start work on the task, however sometimes it felt easier to get started. These times that it felt easy he was generally in a positive emotional state, and when it was hard he was in a negative emotional state. Applying this theory to Zac's position, you could say that he prioritised emotion and mood regulation over completion of the task when he was in a negative emotional state, however when he was in a positive emotional state he did not need to prioritise emotion and mood regulation over the task as he already had a positive affect and thus the task was much easier to complete.

Appraisal-Anxiety-Avoidance theory[edit | edit source]

The Appraisal-Anxiety-Avoidance (AAA) theory suggests that cognitive appraisals, anxiety and avoidance all have a role to play in the procrastination of important tasks. This theory was developed by Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 (as cited in Milgram & Toubiana, 1999) and suggests that in a situation of threat if an individual perceives they do not have adequate resources to deal with the threat (cognitive appraisal) stress reactions (including anxiety) will occur and the individual will try to escape the threat (avoidance). People with a characteristic fear of failure or those who find certain tasks difficult will become anxious when called upon to perform certain tasks. As a result these people are likely to postpone these tasks as an attempt to relieve this anxiety (Milgram & Toubiana, 1999). This avoidance acts as a negative reinforcement, as it reduces in anxiety, and thus in the future this postponing behaviour is likely to reoccur.

Case Study

In Zac's case he found the task of writing a book chapter difficult and as a result became anxious when asked to write one as part of his assessment. As a result he avoided the task in an attempt to reduce this anxiety, by postponing it until it was almost due. This procrastinating behaviour was reinforced, by the initial reduction of anxiety, and is more likely to reoccur for similar future assessments.

Other (non-emotion based) theories and explanations of procrastination[edit | edit source]

This chapter aims to provide an overview of the emotion and mood related aspects of emotion. As a result a number of key motivation focused theories have been left out. These theories include temporal motivation theory and action control theory.

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Need a break?

Instead of procrastinating click here to watch this TedX talk about procrastination.

How to stop procrastinating?[edit | edit source]

For those who enjoy social contact, study groups are a good example of fusing

Fusing[edit | edit source]

The process of fusing, first discussed by Murray (1938, as cited in Steel, 2007) is a possible way to reduce procrastination. This involves satisfying multiple needs through a single action. Sleel (2007) provides the example of a study group. People with a preference and enjoyment of social interaction are likely to benefit from the social aspect of the group, however also satiate the need to study. This offers a solution to the problems related to Ainslie's (1975, as cited in Pychyl et al., 2000) theory of specious rewards, where immediate rewards are chosen over larger long term rewards, as behaviour is rewarded in the short term, through social interaction in the case of a study group, and progress is still being made to long term goals. Another example could be if you are procrastinating from starting an exercise program and enjoy listening to music, you could listen to music while you exercise. This could work for studying as well, if you are not too distracted by the music.

Use positive moods and emotions to your advantage[edit | edit source]

Based on self-control and emotional regulation understandings of procrastination, an effective way to combat procrastination could be to utilise the times when you are in positive affective, emotional and mood states to work on a task. This is based off the research finding by Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice (1998; as cited in Tice, 2000) that people are less likely to procrastinate when in positive emotional and mood states compared to when they are in a negative emotional and mood state. However, what can you do if positive emotional and effective states are a rare occurrence for you, or perhaps you're having a bad day but still need to get work done? Well luckily there are a number of techniques you can employ to help improve your affective and emotional state. Although, it should be noted that if you are experiencing persistent negative mood it would be advisable to contact a psychologist or another health professional.

These techniques include:

  • Listening to music that is related to positive emotions. This has the effect of increasing affect as music relating to positive emotions is likely to increase valence (high valence equals positive affect)(Yang, Lin, Su & Chen, 2008). As listening to music is a subjective experience it is up to you to choose which music you consider 'happy' music, as what is considered 'happy' music for one person may not be for another and is subjected to individual differences.
  • Physical exercise is also known to induce positive mood states (Anderson & Brice, 2011). This effect can be so strong that some have recommended physical activity as a treatment for depression (Nyström, Neely, Hassmén & Carlbring, 2015).

Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past[edit | edit source]

For many aspects of life dwelling on past missteps and failures does not help, and procrastinating is no different. Research by Wohl, Pychyl and Bennett (2010) found that when students were encouraged to forgive themselves for previous instances of procrastination they were less likely to procrastinate in the future. This is likely to be due to an increase in affect, which was found in individuals who forgave themselves. This makes sense based on self-control and emotional regulation explanations of procrastination, as procrastination is less likely to occur when in positive emotional and mood states due to emotional regulation no longer being a priority (Tice, 2000).

Process focus and goal focus[edit | edit source]

It was mentioned earlier in this chapter that some procrastinators procrastinate as a result of a fear of failure and others procrastinate as a result of task aversiveness. As such methodologies tailored to the type of procrastinator would be beneficial. According to Krause and Freund (2014) moving the focus from the goal of the task to the process of the task is likely to reduce procrastination in those with high fear of failure. The opposite is true of those with high task aversiveness. Moving focus away from the process of completing a task to the benefits of completing the goal is likely to help those with high task aversiveness. As their model has not been extensively test there is little information on specific techniques to move this focus.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Procrastination is a problem affecting both students (Day, Mensink & O'Sullivanl, 2000; Steel, 2007) and adults (Harriott & Ferrari, 1996) alike. It results in poor performance on academic assessments and other tasks, poor health outcomes (Tice & Baumeister, 1997) and even overpaying of taxes (Kasper, 2004). Various emotions and moods can be observed during the process of procrastination, including guilt (Fee & Tagney, 2000: Pychyl et al., 2000), shame (Fee & Tagney, 2000), anxiety (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984) and worry (Stöber, 2001). Furthermore, there appears to be two types of procrastinators, those who are task aversive and those who exhibit a fear of failure (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). The theory of specious rewards (Pychyl et al., 2000), self-control and emotional regulation perspectives (Steel, 2007: Tice, 2000) and AAA theory (Milgram & Toubiana, 1999) are all emotion related theories and explanatory models that attempt to explain why procrastination occurs. But how can you stop procrastinating? The phenomenon known as fusing is one way you can avoid procrastination, by bypassing the effects outlined in the theory of specious rewards (Steel, 2007). You can also take advantage of positive mood states, or use a number of techniques to induce positive mood states, to make getting to work easier (Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice 1998; as cited in Tice, 2000). Forgiving yourself for procrastination that has occurred in the past is also likely to lead to less procrastination in the future (Wohl, Pychyl and Bennett, 2010).

Test yourself[edit | edit source]


1 According to the theory of specious rewards procrastination is a result of?

Cognitive appraisals that induce anxiety, leading to avoidance behaviour
Emotion regulation taking priority over completion of the task
The fact that humans, and other animals, are inherantly more likely to chose smaller short term rewards over larger long term rewards.
Eating too much chocolate

2 In the research paper 'procrastination 5-days of emotion' Pychyl and colleagues (2000) found that while procrastinating students experienced?

Positive affect and low guilt
Positive affect and high guilt
Negative affect and low guilt
Negative affect and high guilt

3 What percentage of students experience chronic procrastination?


4 Forgiving yourself for procrastinating in the past is likely to lead to?

Decreased procrastination in the future, due to increase in negative affect
Increased procrastination in the future, due to increase in negative affect
Decreased procrastination in the future, due to increase in positive affect
Increased procrastination in the future, due to increase in positive affect

See Also[edit | edit source]


Procrastination: Why it happens, and how to beat it

Time Management

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, R. J., & Brice, S. (2011). The mood-enhancing benefits of exercise: Memory biases augment the effect. Psychology Of Sport And Exercise, 12(2), 79-82. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2010.08.003

Davidson, R. J. (1994). On emotion, mood, and related affective constructs. The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions, 51-55.

Day, V., Mensink, D., & O'Sullivan, M. (2000). Patterns of academic procrastination. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 30(2), 120-134.

Fee, R. L., & Tangney, J. P. (2000). Procrastination: A means of avoiding shame or guilt?. Journal Of Social Behavior & Personality, 15(5), 167-184.

Goldsmith, H. H. (1994). Parsing the emotional domain from a developmental perspective. The nature of emotion, 68-73.

Harriott, J., & Ferrari, J. R. (1996). Prevalence of procrastination among samples of adults. Psychological Reports, 78(2), 611-616.

Kasper, G. (2004). Tax procrastination: Survey finds 29% have yet to begin taxes. Retrieved October, 19, 2015.

Krause, K., & Freund, A. M. (2014). How to beat procrastination: The role of goal focus. European Psychologist, 19(2), 132-144. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000153

Milgram, N., & Toubiana, Y. (1999). Academic anxiety, academic procrastination, and parental involvement in students and their parents. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(3), 345-361.

Nyström, M. B., Neely, G., Hassmén, P., & Carlbring, P. (2015). Treating major depression with physical activity: A systematic overview with recommendations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44(4), 341-352. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1015440

Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2004). Academic procrastination and statistics anxiety. Assessment & Evaluation In Higher Education, 29(1), 3-19.

Pychyl, T. A., Lee, J. M., Thibodeau, R., & Blunt, A. (2000). Five days of emotion: An experience sampling study of undergraduate student procrastination. Journal Of Social Behavior & Personality, 15(5), 239-254.

Reeve, J. (2014). Understanding motivation and emotion. John Wiley & Sons.

Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 31(4), 503-509. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.31.4.503

Stöber, J. J. (2001). Worry, Procrastination, and Perfectionism: Differentiating Amount of Worry, Pathological Worry, Anxiety, and Depression. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 25(1), 49.

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65.

Tice, D. E. (2000). Giving in to Feel Good: The Place of Emotion Regulation in the Context of General Self-Control. Psychological Inquiry, 11(3), 149-159.

Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological science, 454-458.

Wohl, M. A., Pychyl, T. A., & Bennett, S. H. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality And Individual Differences, 48(7), 803-808. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

Yang, Y. H., Lin, Y. C., Su, Y. F., & Chen, H. H. (2008). A regression approach to music emotion recognition. Audio, Speech, and Language Processing, IEEE Transactions on, 16(2), 448-457.

External Links[edit | edit source]

Why we procrastinate by Vik Nithy @ TEDxYouth@TheScotsCollege