Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Just Get Started

Just get started, it will change your outlook

If you're reading this, chances are you're procrastinating right now. At least that's what readers tell me. The topic has personal relevance.

Given that your reading may be motivated by a desire to procrastinate less, I thought it would be wise to say a little more about my mantra, "just get started!" It all began with some interesting research using pagers to track procrastination over time.

In a series of studies, my students and I used electronic pagers to gather what is called experience-sampling data. We paged research participants randomly throughout the day over a week or two. Each time we paged them, we asked things like "What are you doing?" "Is there something else you should be doing?" "How are you feeling?" "What are you thinking?" In addition, depending on the study, we got participants to rate what they were doing and what they were suppose to be doing on things like how stressful they perceived the task to be. A rating of 10 indicated extremely stressful, while a 0 meant not stressful at all (and all points in between reflected the variability).

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This type of data allows us to take a sort of snapshot through time of what the participants were doing. Importantly, we also got a real-time glimpse of what they were thinking and feeling as well. Some of our findings were expected. Some surprised us. I'll summarize these findings by simplifying the research as a Monday-to-Friday process and focus mainly on the task avoidance.

As expected, on Monday when participants were avoiding some task(s) in preference to others, we found that they typically said things like, "I'll feel more like doing that tomorrow" or "Not today. I work better under pressure." We rationalize the dissonance between our behaviors (not doing) and our expectations of ourselves (I should be doing this now). Later in the week few, if any, participants spontaneously said things like "I feel like doing that [avoided task] today" or "I'm glad I waited until tonight, because I work better like this."

More surprisingly, we found a change in the participants' perceptions of their tasks. On Monday, the dreaded, avoided task was perceived as very stressful, difficult, and unpleasant. On Thursday (or make that in the wee hours of Friday morning), once they had actually engaged in the task they had avoided all week, their perceptions changed. The ratings of task stressfulness, difficulty and unpleasantness decreased significantly.

What did we learn? Once we start a task, it's rarely as bad as we think. In fact, many participants made comments when we paged them during their last-minute efforts that they wished they had started earlier - the task was actually interesting, and they thought they could do a better job with a little more time.

Just get started. That's the moral here. Once we start, our attributions of the task changes. Based on other research, we know that our attributions about ourselves change too. First, once we get started, as summarized above, we perceive the task as much less aversive than we do when we're avoiding it. Second, even if we don't finish the task, we have done something, and the next day our attributions about self are not nearly as negative. We feel more in control and more optimistic. You might even say we have a little momentum.

Of course, this simple advice is not the answer to our procrastination problems, but it will take you a long way towards decreasing procrastination. When you find yourself thinking things like, "I'll feel more like doing this tomorrow," let that be a "flag" to recognize that you're about to needlessly delay the task, and let it be the stimulus to "just get started."

As with everything from obesity to problematic gambling, the etiology of procrastination is tremendously heterogeneous as is effective treatment. There is a great deal to take into account to understand this self-defeating behavior including emotions, self-regulation, the role of personality interacting with situation and how we perceive reward. That leaves me (and you) lots more to write and think about. In the meantime, give it a try. Just get started.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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