Do Neurotic Extraverts Procrastinate More?

How individual differences may influence emotion-regulation.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

As readers of this blog will know, procrastination is not a time-management problem, it’s an emotion-management problem. Time management is necessary but not sufficient.

Most of us can schedule or plan to act on an intention, but when the time comes as noted in our schedule or plan we think, “I don’t want to” . . . “I don’t feel like it” . . . and even, “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.” It’s pretty clear that our “not doing” is about our feelings or emotions.

Given the centrality of emotions in understanding procrastination, it stands to reason that psychological factors that affect our emotion regulation will be very important in understanding our resilience to or risk for procrastination. Today, I want to focus on traits as a factor to consider.

Most readers of Psychology Today are probably familiar with the Big Five personality traits: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Extraversion (easy to remember as CANOE). If this is new to you, you could learn more from this early blog post where I summarized research that examined the relation between measures of these traits and procrastination.

Two of these super traits are very much related to how we feel: Extraversion and Neuroticism. Typically, extraverts report more positive emotions while those high in neuroticism (low emotional stability) report more negative emotions. The interesting thing is that these traits can co-exist in an individual. You can be both high in extraversion and neuroticism. These neurotic extraverts are also known to be high in “affect intensity.”

Affect is just another word that captures emotions in psychology. So, you can think about high affect intensity people as those who experience strong positive emotions as well as strong negative emotions. For example, when something happens to someone who scores high on a measure of affect intensity, he or she reacts strongly. It can be a roller coaster of emotions.

So, what does affect intensity have to do with procrastination?

To understand this, it will help to think about the usual flow of events in our lives that leads to procrastination. Let’s consider these as a series of steps.

  1. You face a task that makes you feel frustrated or bored or resentful or anxious or pick your typical negative emotion here. Your reaction is “I don’t want to!” “I don’t feel like it!”
  2. You don’t want to feel this way (that’s human nature, isn’t it?), and you certainly don’t want to do the task, that much is clear.
  3. You have learned that if you avoid the task you can avoid the emotion (at least temporarily).
  4. So, you put off the task for another day (“I’ll feel more like it tomorrow” “I work better under pressure”).

I will have more to say about why we think we’ll feel more like it tomorrow in a future post. For now, let’s just leave the process to this series of events. To recap, you face an aversive task, you don’t like the feelings associated with the task, so you avoid the task to avoid the feelings. This is very rewarding, and it can quickly set up a “procrastination habit.”

I argue that personality makes a difference to this process. If I experience my emotions intensely, then the negative emotions I experience when facing a negative task can feel overwhelming – “I can’t stand that task!” sort of thing. At the same time, the positive emotions I anticipate feeling when I put the task off and engage in some other temptation (YouTube, Social Media, etc.) are also strongly positive. The net effect is that those of us who are high in affect intensity are more prone to procrastination. At least that’s the theory and our hypothesis.

One of my graduate students is doing a study right now to test this hypothesis. As I await his results, I spend a great deal of time reflecting on how my inability to regulate my emotions as well as others I know may have everything to do with some basic personality traits. Yes, I’m a neurotic extravert prone to strong emotional responses. Life is never boring, and in fact, research shows that we neurotic extraverts who are high in affect intensity wouldn’t want it any other way. Our affect intensity keeps life interesting, and we can see others’ lives and response to them as sort of boring.

That said, there is a “ying and a yang” to most things (two edges to the sword is another way to think about it), and there are costs to strong emotional reactions as well. The classic example from the research literature is how frustration intolerance is related to procrastination. If you can’t tolerate frustration well, you’re more likely to procrastinate. So, if you experience emotions strongly and the emotion you’re having right now is frustration with the task at hand, well, you can see where this is going, you’re more likely to “give in to feel good.” You’re off to some other temptation and the task at hand can wait for future self.

Poor future self, if only we could develop some empathy for that guy! Oh, we can actually, and we have research that demonstrates that. Developing empathy for future self and mindful emotion regulation may well be the most important strategies for reigning present self in a bit and getting stuff done!