Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Due Tomorrow. Do Tomorrow.

Why do we procrastinate?

Due tomorrow. Do Tomorrow.
The problem for some of us is that these mean the same thing. I'll do it when it's due.

Anyway, I'll feel more like doing it tomorrow.

Well, at least that's what we want to believe. In fact, there's good reason to think that we really will feel more like doing it tomorrow. Certainly we believe we'll feel more like doing it then as compared to doing it right now.

Here's how I think this story goes:

  1. There's lots of things we don't want to do, at least not in that intrinsically desired sense. In fact, just thinking about doing some tasks makes us feel awful (pick your flavor here — frustrated, sad, angry, depressed, etc.).
    Even when we have an intention to do something now, knowing that we'll probably be worse off for any delay, we still don't want to do it, and we feel negative emotions.
  2. We don't like negative emotions. We like feeling good. Freud called it the pleasure principle. Evolutionary psychologists think it's part of a "stone age brain in the modern world" sort of thing; much like we crave sugar and fat, we crave feeling good now. There's not much denying that we like immediate rewards. Skinner taught us that too.
  3. So, instead of feeling awful with the task at hand, we give in to feel good. We procrastinate. 
  4. The moment we put off the task, even though there might be some rumblings of guilt somewhere inside, we are feeling better. At least we're escaping that task for the moment. And, we've made a new intention; we'll do it tomorrow. 
  5. Now, put these two things together: feeling a little better (maybe a whole lot happier) about not doing the task now + the intention for tomorrow. When I focus on my current emotional state (a form of presentism) and think about doing the task tomorrow, I predict I'll feel more like it tomorrow, because I believe how I feel now is how I'll feel tomorrow. Research by Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson and colleagues have shown us this over and over again. We're just not good at affective forecasting, at predicting how we'll feel in the future. We often predict that tomorrow we'll feel like we do now, and putting off the task with the "good intention" of doing it tomorrow leaves us feeling pretty good.
  6. On top of all of this, we know we work best under pressure. We've done it a hundred times before. In fact, we can't remember doing it any other way. In any case, it's not due until tomorrow. We can do it then, no problem.

Oops, this is in fact the whole problem. We call it procrastination. It's really just a form of self-regulation failure. When we actually needed to exert some self-control at #1 above, we didn't. Everything after is just a sad rationalization of our weakness of will. 

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Oh, it's only human, that's for sure. We like immediate gratification. Some of us are terribly impulsive with a particular dislike for delayed gratification. And, we think in predictably irrational ways as Dan Ariely has so ably explained.

Let's not be fooled, however. Our irrationality is not what causes our procrastination. Many people exert the self control, they exert their willpower to act when they say they will act, when they intended to act, when they know it's in their best interest to act, even though they too are just as "irrational" as the next human being. It's not our irrationality that's the problem. It's an issue of willpower and weakness of will. Individuals who do act on their intentions don't necessarily dislike the task less. They just transcend the immediate emotions, exert self-control and act.

Due tomorrow - I'd rather not deal with it today. It's short-term gain. It's impulsivity when self-control is really what is required.

Do tomorrow? - You probably will because now your "back is against the wall." It will get done. Sometimes it might even seem like it's done well - at least the rush of positive emotions for finally getting it done (or something done) might have you think as much.

Due tomorrow. Yes, and it was completed yesterday. That's a life lived with a sense of agency. That's a recipe for real freedom and a happiness that only "taking the helm into your hands" can bring, as William James put it.

The choice is ours. It may not be an easy choice, but make no mistake about it, it's a choice. It's a choice that can get us out of the procrastination trap.

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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