"Tomorrow - A mystical land where 98% of all human productivity, motivation and achievement is stored." (Unknown) Ah, tomorrow, what promise it holds . . . at least that's what we want to believe.
Below is something I've heard from research participants in studies we've conducted when they talk about their procrastination. Are you familiar with this way of thinking?
"It can be just about any task. There’s no particular characteristic of the task except perhaps that I don’t feel like doing it, at least not right now. I had intended to do it now; it was my intention a few days ago.
That’s the thing about my good intentions, they seem like a real plan — then. But, the time comes for action, and I find myself sorting through my email inbox, tidying my desk, alphabetizing a playlist on my iPod, channel surfing, anything really.
It’s not like I won’t get the task done. Eventually, I do. I’m up late or sometimes really early, “pulling it off” so to speak. Sometimes, I even get a rush from it; a rush from finally getting it done, that monkey off my back.
The thing is, I don’t like living this way, but I can’t seem to change. I don’t understand it. I only work under pressure, living deadline to deadline. Why can’t I just do it?"
As a psychologist who has specialized in the study procrastination for the past 15 years, I have heard this and similar stories often. We seem to become our own worst enemy at times, and this fascinates me. Why do we procrastinate?
The answer to this question has occupied my blog for the past three years, so I can’t provide a complete answer to this question in one blog post, Today, I want to focus just on that one thought:
“Tomorrow, I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow!”
It’s probably true for many of us that we will get the task done tomorrow. For some, it’s because a good night’s sleep restored reserves of willpower and we actually do feel more energy for the task at hand, no matter how aversive. That’s one thing about our future self, it may have qualities that differ from our present self. Present self is tired, fed up and not up to the task. Future self, well, he or she has a fresh start, right? In terms of renewed willpower and self-regulatory energy, that may be true. If we use that restored willpower strategically and tackle the task first thing, we may in fact get it done as intended, albeit a day later than originally intended.
For others, the task will get done not from some exercise of renewed will, but from adrenaline-filled panic. Sure, it’s motivating, but it’s not the most autonomous sense of our own being. If we find ourselves acting like this often (aka chronic procrastination), it can also lead to deep feelings of self doubt.
Why in the world do I always wait until the last minute to get anything done?
Again, there are many answers to this question. Let me focus on two.
First, task avoidance has probably become a habit. When we faced aversive tasks in the past, we avoided them to seek short-term mood repair. In other words, our avoidance was rewarded. We felt better, at least for the moment, when we pushed the task off (to tomorrow). This is known as negative reinforcement. The negative stimulus—that aversive task and the feelings the task stimulated within us—was removed, and this is rewarding. Rewards, as we learned from behaviorist psychology, reinforce behavior, and behavior that is reinforced is repeated.
A habit is formed. The next time we face an aversive task, we avoid it, and we do this again and again until there is no time left. At that last minute when we’re left with the task, we may regret it, but that’s the nature of bad habits. We regret them when their effects bite us, but until they do, they’re quite unconscious in nature. We don’t think about it consciously, we just act from habit. The prepotent response is to procrastinate. This is the procrastination habit. It’s a bad habit, a self-defeating habit.
The second reason some people offer up for their chronic last-minute efforts is that they like the arousal. Just as often as I hear, “I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” I also hear “I work better under pressure.
Actually, in our research, we have heard these statements when procrastination was occurring, but not at the last minute when the work was finally getting done. At the last minute when people were finally working on the previously avoided task, we more often heard statements like, “this isn’t so bad, I actually like this, I wish I had more time to do a good job.”
In any case, as I’ve written previously, our research also indicates that arousal-based personality traits are not highly correlated with procrastination, and they account for very little variance in scores on measures of trait procrastination. In sum, arousal doesn’t seem to be strongly associated with procrastination, and it is more likely that we say we like working under pressure, because the habit we have formed has left us only working under pressure. We explain this behavior, to ourselves and others, not as a bad habit, but as a conscious choice.
Given that experiments have shown that we make more errors under pressure, we don’t really work “better” under pressure. We work under pressure because we habitually and needlessly delay our tasks, and it’s the only kind of motivation that seems to work for us.
So, what’s the bottom line here? As depicted in the internal dialogue where I began this post, few chronic procrastinators are really happy with their chronic delay, even when they pull it off. In fact, many people who procrastinate confide in me that they are fed up with this delay and confused about why they continue with such a maladaptive way of being.
There are three main points I think we can take away from all of this.
- We procrastinate in order to feel good now. It’s short-term mood repair that is immediately reinforcing and this sets up a long-term habit.
- Once we have a habit, we don’t even stop to think about what we’re going to do. It’s unconscious. When we face an aversive task, something that is boring, frustrating, low on enjoyment or something we don’t know how to do, we put it off. That’s the procrastination habit.
- Breaking the procrastination habit requires that we first recognize the short-term gains that we’re seeking with the avoidance, and how specious this reward is in our lives. Once we bring that into conscious awareness, we then need to do the hard work of habit breaking. We have to act against the prepotent response of avoidance, put aside the negative emotions, and just get started as we had intended.
It is a precipitous moment in which even a little action will begin the self-change which we seek. Just get started. Don’t over think it. Just pick a place within the task, anything, and get started. Progress fuels well-being, well-being fuels motivation, and there is habit-breaking power in this process.
Habit-busting takes mindful, conscious effort, strategic use of energy and it takes time. It’s a habit after all. If we take it one moment at a time, one intention or task at a time, we’ll soon build a new habit, the habit of the possible self who just gets stuff done.
Maybe I should have just entitled this post, the Zen of Procrastination. If you get that, you get the notion that mindful practice is key here. Is your dinner done? Then wash your dishes. Don’t make it more than it is, that’s enlightenment, and freedom from the procrastination habit.