Procrastination, Self-Compassion and You

by Lauren Rosen, LMFT
Director of the Center for the Obsessive Mind and OCD & Anxiety Specialist

An overwhelmed person stares at a stack of books next to their computer, procrastinating the work that needs to be done.
A person holds their hand gently on their heart, providing themselves with support and self-compassion.

Do you struggle with procrastination?
Self-compassion might be the key to overcoming your

tendency to put things off.

It would seem that self-compassion is the new black. As well it should be. The fact that self-kindness is such a foreign concept to most is troubling. I believe in it so strongly that I’m sure most of my clients are sick to death of me yammering on about it. Maybe you’re sick of it, too, given its popularity. 

That said, a lot of people are under some seriously misguided notions about what self-compassion looks like in practice. Many are afraid that self-compassion is going to turn them into a navel-gazer or perhaps a bump on a log.  But self-compassion is not complete and utter self-indulgence. Being self-compassionate doesn’t mean you’re always going to do the easy thing. Often it means you’re going to do the hard thing while being kind to yourself.  

So, what does self-compassion look like and why is it important? 

The case of the chronic procrastinator can help to illuminate what self-compassion is, what it is not and how it can help you. 

The Chronic Procrastinator

So who is this chronic procrastinator anyway? This is an individual who pushes off work.  They do so for several reasons.  For one, the procrastinator avoids work because with work comes the unkind, inner voice of perfectionism. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call that inner voice the “tyrant”.  “You’ll never amount to anything” and “You don’t know what you’re doing!” are the constant chant of this jerk.  Beyond that, the procrastinator avoids the work because it isn’t immediately gratifying.  However, the television, social media feed, or the procrastinator’s distraction of choice, provides instant enjoyment.  So, the procrastinator foregoes work both because it’s not the most fun and because their internal dictator is so scary that it drives the procrastinator into the arms of the internal “pushover.”  

So, what about this internal pushover? This is the part of the procrastinator that allows them to do whatever they please. This guy at least sounds nicer, right?  Well, unfortunately, the pushover does the procrastinator no favors in the long run.  The pushover says “just one more episode – you deserve it!” and that cunning voice sounds remarkably kind.  In this age of self-compassion, many think that the internal pushover is the voice they should listen to.  The trouble is by the time the night before the due date rolls around, the pushover’s constant encouragement to “just relax!” hasn’t gotten them any closer to the end goal. Doesn’t sound like the most compassionate thing to do to yourself, does it?  The work still needs to get done, and the pushover’s “kindness” has given the procrastinator immediate fulfillment while harming the procrastinator in the long run.  

What a predicament!

Where can the procrastinator go from here?

At this point, they have a couple of choices. They can go back to the tyrant or they can give up entirely. If they give up entirely, they’re capitulating to the “nihilist” – the voice that just can’t be bothered – who’s apathetic about the whole situation. They won’t turn in the work. Maybe they’ll ultimately lose their job or flunk out of school. 

If the procrastinator runs back to that tyrant, they will be at the whim of his whip and unyielding demands until the project finally is completed moments before it’s due.  

This constant dance between extremes is reinforced over time: the tyrant’s cruelty pushing the procrastinator into the arms of the pushover and the pushover’s lack of forethought forcing the procrastinator back to the only other voices they know – the tyrant and the nihilist.

This bind could feel very frustrating.  After all, these voices seem like the only options available.  However, there is a fourth voice – a middle of the road option. This is where self-compassion lives.  To illustrate, a brief detour into the world of parenting is in order.

Parenting and Self-Compassion

In a basic psychological conceptualization of parenting, there are four general parenting styles.  There is the Authoritarian parent who rules by force and aggression – think the rage-aholic parent who screams at their child for leaving the milk out.  Their expectations are high and their warmth is low. This character is the real-life embodiment of the tyrant.

There is also the Permissive parent, the one who acquiesces to all of their children’s desires – think the “cool” parent who lets their kid skip school all the time for exciting beach trips. They’re kind and responsive but they lack standards for the kid. This is, in essence, the pushover.              

What of the nihilist? These characteristics are demonstrated in the Negligent parent – the one who doesn’t have any standards for their child and doesn’t express warmth either. This is the absent parent who’s not present enough to be responsive or aggressive.

The key to the procrastinator’s dilemma – the “just right” bowl of porridge, if you will – lies in the fourth parenting style. The Authoritative parent is considered the gold standard within the realm of psychology.  This parent is kind, loving and supportive, and also has standards and expectations for their child.  It is this parenting style that puts the tyrant, the pushover and the nihilist out of work. 

Learning to Parent Ourselves

So we need to strengthen this fourth voice – the one who is kind though firm.  The one who thinks of our overall well-being rather than getting lost in short term enjoyment, but who, simultaneously, sees the value of play, fun and compassion.  We need to learn how to practice what I call compassionate self-discipline.

When speaking with clients about any behavior they’d like to change, we speak of holding both kindness for and expectations of themselves – to believe in and enact their capacity to change while holding all of the feelings that might come up for them in the process. 

Let’s go back to the procrastinator’s dilemma and consider what this looks like in practice.

The procrastinator has been given an assignment from work or school. They notice the urge to procrastinate. They go to start working on it when they hear the tyrant start mumbling. At this point, they desperately want to run to the pushover. They don’t want to deal with the unkind voice, nor do they care for the discomfort that comes in the pursuit of delayed gratification, i.e. the pursuit of things like work.

The internal compassionate disciplinarian might notice “Oh you feel uncomfortable right now. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. But no matter what that bully tyrant has to say you are very capable, and the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to start the project so that you can take it at a reasonable pace. I’m here with you and can hold the discomfort with you while you do the thing you don’t really want to do.” By approaching work in this way, the self-compassionate disciplinarian supports themselves in working steadily and manageably. This will help them to actually enjoy breaks from work in the knowledge that they will not be intensely stressed, as they would be after procrastinating. 

If the nihilist tries to get in on the action, you can also notice the desire to give into the “what does it matter?” of it all, while still bringing the voice of compassionate self-discipline to the table: “Oh, you want to dive into ‘the what’s it all about?’ If you really want to ponder that at the end of this task, we can make time for that but, for now, we’re not going to figure that out. It’s a distraction.”

The Research

Okay, so we know what self-compassion is, and the story of the procrastinator shows us why it might be helpful. But what does the research have to say? As it turns out, studies back up this intuitive understanding.

First, let’s consider the research about the types of parenting that best support children. Scientific studies show that authoritative parenting leads to the best outcomes (Luyckx et al., 2011).  To boil this down: leading with warmth and high standards helps kids to be successful. It seems reasonable that bringing such warmth and expectations to your relationship with yourself would be just as beneficial. 
And what about unkind self-talk?

As is hopefully clear by now, being unkind isn’t a helpful motivational strategy. To demonstrate – take a look back through your past and consider the teachers or bosses you have worked hardest for – who awoke in you the greatest passion to learn and grow. Chances are you’re probably going to think of someone who was understanding and who believed in you.  Someone who expected you to show up and work hard, but who was happy to step in and lend a hand when you needed help. And research supports the importance of this element of support. In the workplace, people are less productive, perform at a lower level and are less invested in their work when they’re not being supported (Pearson & Porath, 2005).  

The way we speak to ourselves impacts our emotional state, and, interestingly enough, our emotions inform our success. Research shows that people are better able to apply logical reasoning when experiencing positive or neutral emotions(Jung, Wranke, Hamburger, & Knauff, 2014). Studies have also found that people are better at problem-solving when they’re in a positive mood (Isen, Daubman & Nowicki, 1987), and people learn better when experiencing positive emotions (Kremer, Mamede, & van den Broek et al., 2019). All this to say, people learn and perform better when they aren’t experiencing “negative” emotions – like those we might expect when you’re at the mercy of the tyrant. Having some mean guy constantly chattering in your head seems highly unlikely to lead to result in the kind of emotional states that will support your growth.

Even general attitudes about our abilities can have an impact on performance.

Research shows that expectations alone can impact performance, even when those expectations aren’t directly communicated (Rosenthal & Jacobsen, 1968). Translation: whether or not a person tells you directly, you are more likely to perform well if someone believes in you. If expectations can impact people, even when they’re not expressed directly, wouldn’t it make sense that the very direct, negative messages the tyrant’s got about your capacity would lead you to do worse, not better?

Putting Self-Compassion into Practice

Many still struggle to stop engaging with the intense, unkind self-talk of the dictator/authoritarian voice.  Even when they know that this voice is ineffective, it’s ingrained. They don’t want to “let themselves off the hook.”  As we’ve discussed, there is a general, though ill-conceived, consensus that in order to learn and improve you must berate oneself. Unfortunately, we will often default to that voice and even defend it in the absence of any evidence that its helpful. If, however, you can cultivate awareness of that voice and practice meeting that voice with the voice of compassion, this can ultimately shift the way in which you speak to yourself and therefore support you in your work and in your well-being.

The voice might say “Oh, that’s not very nice. It’s okay. You don’t want to do the task. You’re worried it won’t be good enough. You’d rather be doing something else that’s more fun. We’re still going to do the task because that’s in keeping with what you want long-term. You can take a break after working for a bit and do that thing that you want to do.”


Ultimately, if you want to stop the procrastinating, the voice of the authoritative parent/compassionate self-disciplinarian is the way to go.  This voice acknowledges that you’d prefer not to be doing homework right now, while insisting that the homework be done. This is both warm and demanding. You can acknowledge your feelings and still take the run, or make the phone call, knowing that this will serve you best. You’re recognizing that you are essentially the same person now that you will be in an hour. You’re taking care of all of you (including future you) rather than only serving the you that’s demanding to watch TV or scroll on social media. The truly kind approach accounts not only for today’s self but also tomorrow’s.

What’s amazing about this process is that you learn that you don’t have to want to do something in order to do it and you can take the whole process a little bit gentler with a heaping dollop of self-compassion. Whether you’re trying to change the habit of procrastination or develop a new habit like a regular exercise routine, you can feel your feelings and take the action in the face of them – so long as you’re willing to let your inner toddler tantrum while you’re doing it.


 Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122–1131.

Jung, N., Wranke, C., Hamburger, K., & Knauff, M. (2014). How emotions affect logical reasoning: evidence from experiments with mood-manipulated participants, spider phobics, and people with exam anxiety. Frontiers in psychology5, 570.

Kremer, T., Mamede, S., van den Broek, W.W. et al. Influence of negative emotions on residents’ learning of scientific information: an experimental study. Perspect Med Educ 8, 209–215 (2019).

Luyckx, K., Tildesley, E. A., Soenens, B., Andrews, J. A., Hampson, S. E., Peterson, M., & Duriez, B. (2011). Parenting and trajectories of children’s maladaptive behaviors: a 12-year prospective community study. Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology : the official journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 5340(3), 468–478.

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