Wednesday, 26 August 2009


One of the main challenges faced by our Career clients is getting through the homework. Although self reflection is tough, there's no substitute for doing this, and a substantial portion of this must be done alone. But almost without exception, people put the work off.

Why is this? An article at Psychology Today helps explain.

When people procrastinate it's often because the task they're facing (avoiding) is difficult, and this creates bad feelings like anxiety . Putting off the task at hand is an effective way of avoiding this mood and psychologists have called this "giving in to feel good" (Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000). We give in to the impulse to walk away from the task in hand in order to feel good right now, and we do feel better which reinforces our behaviour.

I should point out at this stage that our clients are the brave ones. Many people hate their career yet do not even find the courage to address the problem so there are levels of procrastination!

Of course, the short-term gain of procrastination has long-term costs. For a start, it's been shown that the last-minute efforts that become necessary when we put off the task usually mean a sub-standard job overall (although not always, and this is a classic reward to the procrastinator and very memorable). More importantly, as Tice and Bratslavsky explain, "the final and overall level of negative affect is likely to be even greater than if the person has worked on the task all along". But a task like a career decision can be postponed indefinitely. We can literally waste our lives because the moment is never quite right to change it.

The message of Tice & Baumeister's research is clear. Putting off a task to control immediate mood results in problems later. They demonstrate this across a number of domains as I noted earlier, including eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, shopping and procrastination. When we give primacy to addressing our emotional distress, we usually do so at the cost of self-regulatory failure. They summarize this key idea with,

"People will engage in behaviors that may be self-destructive (gambling, excessive shopping, overeating, smoking, procrastinating) if the behaviors make them feel better in the short term. Thus, emotion regulation may have a special place in the field of self-control, because emotion regulation takes precedence over other self-control behaviors and even undermines other self-control efforts" (p. 154).

The message to each of us should be clear as well. If we focus on our feelings in the short term, we'll undermine ourselves in the long run.

In fact, we may spend a lifetime rationalizing it to ourselves: 'I don't feel like it', 'I need to feel better in order to act' etc.

No you don't.

In fact, your feelings will follow your behaviours. Progress on a task will improve your mood.

For now, the message is, don't give in to feeling good, get going instead - don't delay!

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