How to deal with procrastination

The day started off well – I had some ideas about how to continue with a client’s research that I had restarted yesterday, and I had the points in mind I needed to add to the report after yesterday’s fruitless search for convict records.

But when I actually sat down at my desk to do it…. nothing. I waffled around with email and volunteer tasks and other things. No good.

Here are my tips for when this happens to you:

  • Start the clock. I have a program that tracks my time on specific tasks, and sometimes it is enough to just start the clock for that task. It’s like making a commitment.
  • Put some music on. Not the radio, with talking, and not music that you would feel compelled to concentrate on. It has to be background music, or favourite music that you know well.
  • Move. Take the laptop and the paperwork and sit somewhere else. Sometimes the distraction at your desk is enough to put you off. Pick up only what you need and sit at the dining table, or out on the deck.
  • Start with a smaller task. Instead of jumping straight in to the report-writing, do something that’s related but not quite so involved. Something quick you can knock off easily. Like a blog post!
  • Walk. If it’s a concentration problem you may need to go for a quick walk around the block. Sometimes I walk up and down the stairs 5 or 6 times. Gets the heart rate going!

You may need to do all of these things, but you will get it done!

More about positive emotions

What else could positive emotions be for? Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes that positive emotions work differently than negative emotions. Whereas fear, anger, and disgust prompt us to fairly specific behaviours, positive emotions such as joy, interest and love make us feel safe and enable us to broaden our behavioural repertoire, so that we develop new skills and acquire knowledge that may be useful in the future. She calls this the broaden and build theory.

Her experiments have found that people who experience positive emotions have broader attention, greater working memory, enhanced verbal fluency and increased openness to information” (Peterson, 2006). We are better able to solve problems and accomplish tasks if we are “feeling good” than if we are feeling sad, or stressed.

Positive emotions also undo the effects of negative emotions, reducing stress in experimental subjects just by showing them a short film about puppies or waves on a beach. The subjects that got the sad films stayed stressed. This may explain the gallows humour shown by emergency workers under very stressful conditions.

Experiments outside the laboratory are rare at the moment, but you could try some yourself. You may have already done so. Try playing some of your favourite music when you are feeling stressed, or watch a favourite movie or TV show at the end of a long hard day. Play that favourite music before you need to perform some difficult task or when you are trying to solve a tricky problem. If you’ve been struggling with a problem all day, come back to it next morning when you are feeling more relaxed.

A mood is more like a state than a fleeting emotion. We might be in a good mood all day, or we maight have “got out of bed on the wrong side”. A mood is more likely to be described in behavioural terms such as cranky, chirpy, or good-natured, and do not usually have a specific object – something that has caused the mood. Moods are likely to influence what we do and think.

It appears that a person’s capacity to experience good moods or bad moods remains fairly constant. Difficult babies become crabby children and cranky old men and women. It also appears that mood stability remains constant, so moody children become changeable adults.

Good moods, or positive affectivity as the scientists would have it, are more likely to be shown be people who are happily married and enjoy their jobs. We don’t know whether the good moods cause the good marriages and jobs or whether it is the other way around. Religion is another factor in the lives of people with high positive affectivity, although again we do not know which comes first – the religion or the good moods.

It appears from studies of twins raised apart that positive affectivity is influenced in part by your genes. This means that to some extent we get it from our parents, but the glass is also half full – we can influence our general mood by knowing more about what affects our moods; by paying more attention to our actions than our thoughts, and by understanding that striving towards goals gives us more good cheer than achieving them (Watson, 2002).


Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Another big thanks to Chris’ marvellous book, which I am reading again as part of a course he is giving on Positive Psychology.

For your pleasure

Pleasure can be defined as positive subjective emotional states. There are different kinds of pleasure and different intensities, so that the pleasure you feel when you are getting a foot rub is different from the pleasure when your football team wins the grand final, and different again when your girlfriend agrees to marry you. There are individual differences and preferences as well. To each his own, as they say.

Why do we feel pleasure? What is it for? The so-called negative emotions are likely to be an aid to survival. We get angry when we are attacked so that we are better able to defend ourselves. We feel fear when threatened with something much bigger or more dangerous than we are. So perhaps the positive emotions – pleasure – are useful to survival as well. We enjoy eating, sleeping and having sex so we try to perform these activities as often as comfortably possible, thus ensuring our own survival and that of our genes. Children like to play and so learn and practice valuable skills for later in life.

We also get pleasure from memories of activities or situations that have given us pleasure in the past, although we are more likely to remember the high (or low) points and what happened at the end – the peak-end effect (Kahneman, 1999). We also tend to forget how long the experience lasted – duration neglect. These effects may be worth remembering when planning a holiday – it can be short as long as it ends on a high note.

We like what we are used to and we consistently overestimate how long we will feel good (or bad) after a good (or bad) event. If your boyfriends leaves you you think you will never be happy again, but eventually this devastation subsides. You may think that if you win the lottery you will live happily ever after, but studies of lottery winners show that they very quickly revert to their previous levels of happiness. We adapt to the pleasure. The first bite of that rich, dark chocolate is sublime, the second less so, and by the third or fourth it could be any old choclate that you are eating. This effect has led to the hedonic treadmill, where it takes higher and higher levels of pleasure to reach the same effect (Brickman and Campbell, 1971). That payrise just ends up being spent on stuff you didn’t really need and soon you need more money to buy the better stuff that you now think you need.

Perhaps this is a good thing. If our pleasures were prolonged and so distracting that we didn’t notice threats to our survival we wouldn’t last long. Further, this adaptation to pleasures allows our interest to wane and then to enjoy them all over again. You would enjoy a single square of that chocolate per day over a few days far more, and for far longer, than if you ate the whole lot in one go.

What can we learn from all this? Enjoy your guilty pleasures in small doses more often, and hold off buying that bigger TV – it will seem too small soon enough. When bad things happen try to remember that they won’t last as long as you think they will.


Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.