Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Think about your future and you'll have a more productive present.

“I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.”

How often have you said that?

What you mean, in other words, is that my present self doesn’t feel like doing it today, but certainly my future self will tomorrow. But is this ever true?

This discrepancy between present and future selves is important in terms of understanding procrastination. Our delay today provides relief to our present self but only at a cost to our future self, who will eventually have to get the task done. That could be OK if the benefits today outweigh the costs tomorrow, but we know that they rarely do. The problem is the unwillingness on the part of our present self to do what’s required now. It’s easier to simply put it off. Our present self, then, is very much like my six-year-old when he repeatedly says, “I don’t feel like it."

Our present self feels a little better by delaying action now. This is mood repair that reinforces the avoidant coping strategy. But the strangest part of this is that we really do believe we’ll feel more like it tomorrow. Why?

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As Dan Gilbert of Harvard University has explained, we rely on our present to predict our future, so when we feel positive today, we predict our future self will as well. If I keep my focus narrowly on the present, it’s all good, right? Not really. The problem: We conveniently forget that our future self will also have the added burden of whatever we're delaying today, but with even more stress or time pressure. This, too, is something we understand from psychological research.

So why do we do this? I think research done by Hal Hershfield of New York University's Stern School of Business explains it best. Hal and his colleagues have done a series of studies exploring the strange ways we think about our present and future selves. Let me give you a brief sample of a few of these:

Students were asked how much time they were willing to spend tutoring others. Their willingness varied in terms of whether it was their present self or their future self who would do the tutoring. Specifically, they offered up less time now but were willing to commit to more time in the future. They were similarly generous with their other classmates’ time. This shows how much our future self seems like a stranger to us—different from our present self.

When Hal and his colleagues used brain-scan technology to explore the neural correlates of these choices, fMRI scans revealed that different areas of our brains are active when we think about our present versus our future self. In fact, as in the tutoring study, the scans showed that our future self seems more like a stranger.

Hal has done some interesting other studies too that show that we’re more likely to make better decisions about our future self, like save for retirement, if we can imagine future self more clearly—like actually seeing a digitally-aged picture of ourselves. So, we can bridge the gap between present and future selves with some sort of time travel, but it’s not easy, and most of us don’t do it easily or habitually.

What all this means is that we have to recognize “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow” for what it is—an example of how we treat our future self like a stranger. Of course, our future self is our present self, so this is clearly a self-sabotaging behavior. In fact, we do know this, at least nonconsciously, because we know that the most common emotion reported as associated with procrastination is guilt. 

I find this interesting because our emotions reveal that our brain activity of the pre-frontal cortex (the part that Hal studied in his brain scans) is only part of the story. Our emotions reveal that we have a pretty good understanding of the relation between our present and future selves—we just don’t seem to care enough.

Play now, pay later. We see that in advertising every day. Those clever marketing types know exactly how to take advantage of this discrepancy.

So, what have you done for your future self lately?

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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