Procrastination: Oops, Where Did the Day Go?
We fool ourselves in the minute-by-minute choices we make.
By Timothy Pychyl published September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on August 5, 2020
When it comes to self-sabotage, procrastination is king. Why? Because procrastination is the gap between intention and action, and it is in this gap that the self operates. The undermining behavior lies in not closing the gap.
We make an intention to act, the time comes, but instead of acting we get lost in our own deliberation, making excuses to justify an unnecessary and potentially harmful delay. Who makes this decision? We do. The self, in fact, sabotages its own intention.
You would think life would be easier, that the reasons and desires that motivate our intentions would also be sufficient to motivate action. But they're not. If they were, we would be machines and there would be no such thing as volition. The self must choose to act. As conscious beings, we can not escape the self choosing what to do.
We think of procrastination as an irrational delay because our reasons for action simply aren't sufficient to motivate action. More accurately, procrastination is a-rational, without reason—because the real issue is emotional. Although we may know intellectually what we ought to do right now, we don't feel like doing it. So we focus on short-term mood repair: Feel good now, worry about that intention later. Short-term gain, long-term pain.
With procrastination, we delay taking action longer than we know we should. In the case of chronic procrastination, we waste time that we can't afford to waste. We can actually wind up wasting our whole lives.
There are three basic reasons we procrastinate. We most commonly procrastinate on things we find aversive. We put off things we don't like to do or that upset us in some way. Which makes sense—except that in life, we regularly face tasks we'd rather not do but really have to do. So the first thing we need to do is recognize that our procrastination is all about what psychologists Dianne Tice and Ellen Bratslavsky have called "giving in to feel good."
A challenging or aversive task at hand makes us feel uncomfortable. We don't want to tolerate the negative emotions. We want to feel good now. So we give in to feel good by putting off the task. In the end, however, the delay sabotages our long-term goals.
Second, we often procrastinate because our intentions are anemic—vague and weak. Of course, for some, ill-defined intentions are part of the problem, part of the self-sabotage. We don't really feel like doing the task, so we make vague declarations like "I'll get to that this week" or "I'll do that later." It's impossible to regulate behavior against such a poorly defined standard.
Third, we're easily distracted, and some of us are highly impulsive. "It will take me only a minute to check my email, update my Facebook page, find the recipe, read that blog...." Oops, where did the day go?
In a world dictated increasingly by the economics of attention, we have to be careful where we invest ourselves. There are only so many minutes in a day, in a lifetime, to which we can give attention. The whole world is competing for our attention with marketing designed especially for each of us. It's personal, seductive, and distracting.
Self-deception is the handmaiden of procrastination. We don't feel like acting now, but we don't like the tension or dissonance it creates in us. So, we deceive ourselves—or try to (the guilt of procrastination indicates that self-deception isn't always effective).
We tell ourselves, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow" or make anemic intentions, or don't remove distractions that we know undermine our work. We create little white lies as we wait for the muse to inspire us or the right mood to motivate us. But deep down we know they're excuses. To end the self-sabotage of procrastination, it's essential to stop the self-deception.
One of the simplest and most effective solutions is to just get started—anywhere on a task. The moment you think "I'll feel more like doing this later" or "I work better under pressure," recognize that you're just about to procrastinate—to give in to feel good.
Don't think too far ahead. Just aim for a little progress. Research indicates that establishing a low threshold to task engagement fuels motivation and changes perception of the task. You'll find it's not as bad as you thought, and "a task begun is a task half done!"
How to transform feeble intentions into effective plans for real action? We need to move past general goal intentions to specific intentions for action: "In situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve sub-goal Z."
Such predecision to act increases success by shifting the cue for action to the environment. When situation X arises, we don't have to rely on further thought and planning; it's more about responding. Tell yourself exactly when and where you will act.
The solution to distraction lies in recognizing what distracts us and then either deciding to eliminate the menace ("Shut off Facebook while I'm at the computer") or declaring an intention to indulge it at a specific time once some work gets done. Again, research indicates that a little strategic planning helps "pre-empt that which tempts!"
Acting in a timely manner on tasks requires active choice and the exercise of will. Recognize the enemy within and you'll move forward doing what you intended, becoming the person you want to be.