Repulsion - A Step Towards More Successful Self-Regulation?

Does procrastination repulse you?

Posted Jun 26, 2009

A pediatrician who reports being helpless against the forces of a chocolate chip cookie has something to teach us all about self-regulation.

In a recent New York Times interview (June 22, 2009 by Tara Parker-Pope), Dr. David A. Kessler argues that we can learn to stop overeating if we can have a "perceptual shift" in our attitudes about food. Just as many people now view cigarette smoking as repulsive (knowing that it's harmful to us), it may be possible, and necessary, to develop a perceptual shift where we see overly processed foods or large portions as repulsive.

Can we experience this perceptual shift in relation to procrastination? Does procrastination repulse you?

As readers of the Don't Delay blog know, I write about procrastination as one manifestation of self-regulation failure. So, what we learn about problems like over-eating, problem gambling or compulsive shopping, are relevant to our understanding of procrastination. Given this focus on self-regulation, Dr. Kessler's new book The end of overeating: Taking control of the insatiable American appetite, also speaks to the self-regulatory problem of procrastination.

Dr. Kessler argues that food makers tap into the brain's reward system by combining fats, sugar and salt in ways that make food more irresistible to us. These foods stimulate our desire to eat, leaving us wanting more. This is the gist of his book in many ways, as he describes how our brains have been "captured" by food.

Hmmmm . . . does this sound familiar to procrastination in relation to new social-networking technologies (Facebook , Twitter, even just plain old email) and their effect on our ability to self-regulate our behavior? I think so.

Dr. Kessler offers a number of strategies that can help us all control our "conditioned hypereating." These strategies include things that I expected such as planned and structured eating and understanding your personal triggers for eating. This is all similar to issues I have raised here in the blog in relation to procrastination. For example, we need to structure our goals and tasks well and recognize our own cues for procrastination.

Perceptual shifts and self-regulation
The comment that interested me most in Dr. Kessler's approach is related to perception, more specifically perceptual shifts that may help us self-regulate our behavior. Just as many of us have had a perceptual shift about cigarettes - where we once might have seen the habit as masculine or "hip" or even sexy - many now see it as a disgustingly dirty habit that harms our bodies.

The smoking example is personally salient. My father began smoking around the age of 11 years, and he smoked heavily. When I reached the age of 11 or 12, my father took me aside and said, "If I could stop smoking, I would, but I can't. I would recommend you don't start." This was good advice. I never did. In effect, he had created that perceptual shift for me. My father did finally quit smoking in his 60's when the health effects were more obvious. This too was a perceptual shift of sorts, where he saw smoking causing problems, not solving them (like reducing stress).

In any case, the perceptual shift that Dr. Kessler writes about with the example of smoking is also applied to food. We can learn, he argues, to see fat, sugar, salt, overly processed food and excessively large portions as repulsive or disgusting. When we do, it will facilitate our self-regulation about eating.

Procrastination - A disgusting habit?
Do you find procrastination disgusting? As I read this brief interview with Dr. Kessler, I realized that I do.

Don't get me wrong. I don't find delay disgusting. I delay things all the time. These delays are deliberate and strategic. I don't find other flavors of delay disgusting. Only the needless, irrational delay that we call procrastination is disgusting or repulsive to me, because it undermines my life (see my blogs about the regrets of the dying or Viktor Frankl's thoughts on getting things done, or even Professor Randy Pausch's wisdom about our use of time).

It may seem overly strong to say that procrastination is "repulsive" or "disgusting" but it's really no stronger than saying that processed food is repulsive. It's a perception, or as Dr. Kessler puts it, it's a perceptual shift.

I find procrastination repulsive, as it's a type of delay that wastes precious time in my life - the most limited resource that I have. This disgust for wasting my life fuels my willpower when self-regulatory resources are failing me. To avoid engaging in a habit that I truly find repulsive, I "just get started" on the task at hand, and that makes all the difference.