Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Intention-update vs. Intention-failure: What's the difference?

Not every delayed intention is procrastination

Not every changed intention is a failure of self-regulation. As one astute reader posted in a comment, we have to differentiate between updating an intention based on new information from simply failing to act on an intention. Let's take on this thorny philosophical issue.

The problem of intentions
There's a great deal of philosophy written on the conceptual components of intentional action. Unfortunately, very little psychology is informed by this literature. So, I tread lightly here on a great many issues which do not share a common cross-disciplinary vocabulary or even agreement about concepts. Such is life, really.

I suppose the best I can do is note that: 1) I'm speaking of intentionality as the property of actions that make us say that they are purposeful, 2) Intention is our mental state that precedes its corresponding action, and 3)  I'm assuming that intending implies believing that we will act accordingly.

I know that theses have and will be written on each of the assumptions above, but at least you know my starting point. I'm interested in purposeful action, goal pursuit and the breakdown in this action known as procrastination. Consequently, I have to deal with intentions, no matter how complicated the task.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Delay vs. Procrastination: Intention-update vs. Intention-Failure
I've said this over and over in this blog, not all delay is procrastination. Another way to approach this is the notion of an intention update. What does this mean?

Take for example our now well-used example of the evening intention to go for a run the next morning at 5 a.m. You set the alarm for 5 a.m. and go to bed (probably feeling quite good about your "possible self" as a runner - but make no mistake about it, your actual self is just someone with a good intention tucked comfortably between the sheets!).

The alarm goes off at 5 a.m., and now you're not feeling so good about your intention to run. In fact, you don't feel like it at all, and you shut off the alarm thinking, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow" (or something like this). Your revised intention maintains some sense of well-being and self, but your original intention remains unfulfilled.

So, have you simply updated your intention, changing the date by one day?

While it's comforting to self to believe this, the issue to consider is whether new information has been taken into account now on the basis of which you made this update. For example, had you not slept much that night, unexpectedly interrupted by a noisy neighborhood, your sick child, or simply a restless night, the new information might be your unexpected exhaustion. Given this unexpected physical state, you might reasonably update your intention to tomorrow.

Of course, it could be you got your usual amount of sleep (albeit a little shorter with the 5 a.m. alarm), and now it's simply your own awareness of your mood. Yes, your mood is new information. You certainly didn't have this mood when you thought about a run the night before and made the intention. But now, the mood is quite obvious. You don't feel like running. On the basis of this new information, isn't it also rational to postpone the run?

Yes and no.

Yes, of course, this mood or feeling you're having is new information. You don't feel like running. A delay is rational in this case.

No, we can only accept this mood as new information if we accept a very naïve perspective the night before. Isn't it reasonable, rational, to expect that at 5 a.m. the next day we won't feel like running? Shouldn't we have expected this mood when we made the intention? Who are we trying to kid? Ourselves, unfortunately.

This is the key issue I think in terms of procrastination. We're unsuccessful at acting on our intentions because we don't anticipate future mood states accurately when we make the intentions. I don't believe that it's because we're unable to do this, we simply don't focus on it. In fact, when people are prompted to make an implementation intention where they anticipate possible obstacles to successful pursuit of a goal, they are more likely to act on the goal as intended. Our negative mood the next day is one such obstacle to action that we can anticipate. If we did, I think we would be more likely to get out of bed.

So, what's the difference between intention-update and intention-failure? It's not an easy question to answer for any individual on the outside. It involves a fair bit of subjective understanding of the individual's thoughts and feelings. The key issue seems to be that the individual truly bases an update on new information that makes acting on the intention later a sagacious (wise) delay.

The problem with moods
In the case of procrastination, as I've written before, we often use mood as this new information and give in to feel good. This undermines our long-term pursuit of our goals. The ironic and sad thing here is that progress on our goals actually increases our happiness (in a way that staying in bed instead of running will not, I argue - unless, as I've said repeatedly, you're actually exhausted).

Another thing here is that we have the irrational belief that our mood state must match the task at hand. "I don't feel like it." "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." Actually, once you begin a task, you'll often find that your feelings follow your activity, much as attitudes follow behaviors.

Please remember, this is a blog posting, not a philosophical treatise. I think this topic deserves very careful analysis philosophically, and if I did that here, no one would read it long enough to get the gist of the idea!

What I hope you take away in terms of my distinction between a wise delay (intention-update) and procrastination (intention-failure) is that a key issue is that we have new information on which to base our update. I'm arguing that mood is a poor, even irrational, basis for this decision, as we "give in to feel good"  - this involves a long term consequence based on some short term feelings.

I delay all the time. We all do. I may have an intention to do "X" tomorrow at 10 a.m., but around 9:30 I learn that "Y" is happening. With this comes new information about priorities for the day, so "X" has to be delayed. This is not procrastination. It's an intention update.

The trick to successful goal pursuit, I think, is to be honest enough with one's self to know that "Y" is really new information and important in relation to your goals. There's always some alternative intention available and other forms of new information, but is this "new information" really cause for an intention update or an excuse to abandon an aversive task at hand?

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.

more...

Subscribe to Don't Delay

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.