I’m not advocating that having guilt is a good thing. Far from it. That said, the fact that we experience guilt when we procrastinate reveals something very important about needless delay.
Since the very first study I completed which included the construct of procrastination (Pychyl, 1995), I understood that guilt was a key emotional component of our needless delay. In truth, I knew this from personal experience years earlier, as do most of the readers I would imagine!
In subsequent research, my students and I learned that guilt is one of the few emotions that is consistently experienced with procrastination at the time of procrastination (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau & Blunt, 2000). We argued that this was the reason that we don’t see people reporting on the emotional benefits of procrastination at the time of procrastination. Although they may be avoiding an unpleasant task, which is rewarding and perhaps pleasant, a nagging feeling of guilt often (but not always) undermines the good feelings that task avoidance may bring.
Recently, as I reflected on this emotional experience that has emerged in many of our studies, I realized that the experience of guilt has something to teach us about competing theories that have been used to explain procrastination. On the one hand, the experience of guilt clearly supports the notion of procrastination as a self-regulation failure. We recognize our weakness of will, and we feel guilty for not doing what we know we ought to do, what we intended to do earlier. We recognize that we’re “giving in to feel good” with short-term reward, but long-term pain. Ironically, guilt signals our awareness of this specious strategy for short-term mood repair.
On the other hand, the experience of guilt is contradictory to the behavioral-economic explanation of procrastination most recently expressed in Temporal Motivation Theory (Steel, 2007). As summarized at the Wikiversity website (adapted below)
Temporal Motivation Theory posits that behaviour is driven by “utility,” and the central assumptions are that 1) the individual will always choose to engage in the behavior with the most utility, and 2) that the utility of behaviors will change over time, thus influencing behavior (Steel, 2007).
According to this theory, we would choose to engage in an alternative behavior (procrastinating) because it has more utility. Only later on, closer to the due date of an intended task, does the utility of the intended task increase, eventually to a point where it surpasses the alternatives. Thus procrastination ends when the utility of the intended task meets or exceeds the utility of distractions, and we finally get started on the intended task.
It’s all very rational, isn’t it? The graph of the preference reversal that these theorists present makes intuitive sense as well. At some point, we do stop engaging in alternative choices that serve our procrastination, and we do usually get down to the work, albeit with a last-minute effort.
The thing is that if it’s a rational determination of utility, why the experience of guilt? I think guilt reveals that it’s not about utility, necessarily. In fact, just the opposite might be argued.
When we face competing choices such as an important but difficult assignment, or an off-task alternative such as watching YouTube videos or updating our Facebook, it’s not so much that the utility of the latter actually outweighs the former. If it did, I could happily engage in my online diversions without any guilt.
Of course, we all know this from experience. Brief forays off-task with online diversions rarely evoke guilt if we are only taking a short e-break and our attention and our commitment still lie with the intended task.
However, when we know what we ought to do, and we fail to move from intention to action – what we commonly know as procrastination – we experience guilt. Why? It’s because we recognize the true utility of sticking to our intentions, but we feel unable to do so. We are unable to muster the willpower or exert the self-control to move from intention to action.
Procrastination is not an issue of utility and preference reversal, it’s an issue of self-regulation failure. The research findings with guilt underscore procrastination as a self-regulation failure that is inextricably tied to our emotional regulation and executive function.
What does guilt have to teach us?
Although behavioral economic theories may model the temporal switch from alternative task to intended task, and although it is human nature to discount future rewards, this theory does not explain procrastination.
More importantly for each of us daily is this lesson: the experience of guilt is a signal that we are falling short of our ought self, and that the solution lies in the exertion of self-control. There are strategies for doing this. In fact, I’ve been blogging and podcasting about this for the past 7 years.
If you’re struggling with procrastination, your focus needs to be on the strategic exercise of self-regulatory skills – skills that can be learned. Now, there’s an idea with some utility!
Pychyl, T. A. (1995). Personal projects, subjective well-being and the lives of doctoral students. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (12), 7080B. (UMI No. NN02961)
Pychyl, T. A., Lee, J. M., Thibodeau, R., & Blunt, A. (2000). Five days of emotion: An experience sampling study of undergraduate student procrastination (special issue). Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 239-254.
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin,133, 65-94.