Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Forgive Yourself to Stop Procrastinating

Self-forgiveness today may reduce procrastination tomorrow

ForgivenessOne of our research papers that will soon appear in the journal Personality and Individual Differences explains how self-forgiveness may reduce subsequent procrastination. I'm revisiting this issue with this short post featuring a couple of our Carpe Diem cartoons.

Forgiveness is not something we do for other people.
We do it for ourselves to get well and move on.

I've written about this research twice already, but I'm posting again for two reasons. First, our paper has finally been published, so it's available for interested readers (reference below). Second, with 160 posts on my blog, it's likely that new readers may not have seen this post. I think it's worth thinking about.

Today, I'm just going to focus on the results. You can go to my previous post to read the details of the method and the theory behind our assumptions. In sum, we studied students' procrastination on their preparation for two consecutive mid-term examinations.

The results of our study indicate that:

  1. Forgiving oneself for procrastinating on a given task is related to less procrastination on a similar task in the future.
  2. This relationship is mediated by negative affect, such that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination by reducing negative emotions.
  3. The presence of this relationship depends on the extent to which the individual procrastinated on the first task. In our study, only at high levels of procrastination on the first exam was self-forgiveness negatively related to procrastination on the second exam.

It seems that procrastination may need to make us feel badly about our choices, and that we have to forgive ourselves for this transgression thereby reducing the negative emotions we have in relation to the task so that we'll try again. If we don't forgive, we maintain an avoidance motivation, and we're more likely to procrastinate.

Forgiveness is not something we do for other people.
We do it for ourselves to get well and move on.

Forgiving ourselves helps us "move on" by removing the avoidance motivation that is associated with negative emotions related to a task.

Concluding thoughts . . .
I'm still surprised by these results. I think we could find the opposite effect for some people. If they forgive themselves for procrastinating, it would be just part of their "forgive and forget" strategy with "business as usual" (i.e., procrastination) on studying for the next exam. I discussed this as one strategy we commonly use to reduce the cognitive dissonance created when we procrastinate.

Carpe Diem Cartoon (copyright Pychyl & Mason)

This also reminds me of Fuschia Sirois' research on counterfactuals. Students who said things like "well, it could have been worse" after procrastinating on their exams or assignments were less likely to learn from the experience (but they felt better about the situation). These people know how to take care of their immediate emotional experience (immediate mood repair as we "give in to feel good"), but seldom learn anything new. Certainly, they don't acknowledge that something went wrong or won't feel guilt this way, so self-forgiveness may not even be necessary.

Carpe Diem Cartoon (copyright Pychyl & Mason)

In the end, perhaps it's just about being a little kind to ourselves so that we can focus our energies on trying again and not on beating ourselves up. That's worth thinking about it.

Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

More from Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today