Time Traveling to Reduce Procrastination (and "Tough Love" for Procrastinators)
Being more realistic about the future to decrease procrastination
Posted March 30, 2009
We set the best of intentions for tomorrow with the belief that tomorrow will also bring the motivation to act. Some of these are new intentions, some "re-treads" as we procrastinate today. "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." Will you? Here are two strategies to help ensure you'll actually fulfill that intention.
As I wrote in my previous post, there is considerable evidence indicating that we are painfully shortsighted when it comes to predicting our mood in the future. This comes at a cost, including I argued, the tendency to procrastinate. Why? - because when tomorrow comes and we don't feel like we expected, that is we don't feel like doing the task at hand even though we intended to, we give in to feel good and delay action.
How can we prevent this shortsightedness?
I think we need a two-pronged approach to increase the likelihood that we'll act on our intentions. One strategy is "time travel." The other is a form of "tough love."
Strategy #1 - Time travel
First, as numerous psychologists who study affective forecasting have advocated, we need to use mental images of the future more often and more accurately. We need to represent the future as though it were happening in the present. For example, a person who is procrastinating on saving for retirement might imagine as vividly as possible living on his or her potential retirement savings. To make a future image like this more concrete and accurate, it may be important to set out some numbers for a budget and take into account the reality of the need for, and increasing expense of, health care in old age.
Unfortunately, I'm not that confident that this approach will work for many people. First, it's possible that we'll put this task itself off, a form of second-order procrastination. Second, even if we do this task, the initial emotional response (fear) will most likely wear off quickly, and, more importantly, the temporal distance to retirement may still result in us discounting its importance and delaying our savings further. (Note that although I don't think that temporal discounting is a major causal influence on procrastination, I do believe that it plays a role in our needless delay. In fact, my students and I were the first researchers to write about this explicitly in relation to procrastination research. My recurring point is that temporal discounting is secondary to the emotional factors that influence procrastination.)
Strategy #2 - Expect to be wrong and deal with it
This second strategy is more effective I think, but certainly a "hard nosed" approach. In this case, rather than trying to change what seems to be a deeply engrained bias in human thinking by improving our affective forecasts, I think we should simply learn to expect to be wrong, and go from there. We do this every day with respect to weather forecasts, and most recently we're learning to do this with a ridiculously inaccurate economic forecast. Given our ability to cope with inaccurate meteorological and economic forecasts, I have confidence we can cope effectively with our poor affective forecasting. This strategy, by necessity, takes two forms or approaches.
When we're tempted to procrastinate on a current intention (or task) thinking that "we'll feel more like it tomorrow," we need to stop and think, "no, that's a problem with my forecasting. There's a good chance I won't feel more like it tomorrow." AND, it's important to add the following, "My current motivational state does not need to match my intention in order to act." Much as I might prefer a sunny day to go out for a run or a bike ride, I can put on my rain gear and get outside. In fact, successful athletes do this every day. They are not "fair-weather" trainers.
Similarly, acknowledging that our motivational state is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure action, I can simply remind myself of my personal goals (a form of self affirmation) and "just get started" - progress will fuel well-being and enhance goal attainment.
When we set an intention to act tomorrow, and tomorrow comes, expect that you probably won't feel overly enthused to get started. Given that our intention was made yesterday (or much earlier) with the optimistic mood that comes with having a plan, we will probably feel less happy than expected with the reality of the task now at hand (again, this is all part of our biased affective forecasting).
Now, the thing to do is to remember that this is a transient mood, and think through all of the issues raised above with Approach #1 (e.g., your motivational state does not need to match the task for you to get started right now).
This is "tough love" with oneself, I suppose. Certainly many of us heard this advice before as we were growing up. It was couched in terms of "growing up" and "maturity" and the "responsibilities of adulthood." These were often expressions of tough love too. Advice from adults in our lives who were trying to nurture fortitude and realism with respect to willpower, so that we might succeed at the goals we set for ourselves.
Good advice, I'd say.
Although the science of affective forecasting may be new, the phenomenon is not, and successful people (people who are able to act on their intentions) have been aware of the mismatch between their forecasts and reality for as long as we've known that our weather forecasts weren't perfect either. Our ancestors may not have had a language to describe how they coped beyond the simple, "suck it up," but cope they did.