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I'll Feel More Like It Tomorrow

A new study reveals how biased we are about future intentions to exercise.

It’s a great time of year at the university, at least in terms of research. Our senior honors students are wrapping up their thesis projects. Long-awaited data are at my fingertips. I’m particularly excited about a study conducted by Mariam Hanna exploring how affective forecasting relates to procrastination.

Affective forecasting is predicting how we expect to feel in the future or the emotional consequences of future events, just as weather forecasting is predicting future weather. The interesting thing about affective forecasting is that we’re biased in our predictions, and these biases contribute to procrastination.

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Let me say a little more about affective forecasting and one of the specific biases we experience: Think back to the last time you went grocery shopping when you were hungry. Now compare this to a time you went grocery shopping when you ate just before you shopped. Were the experiences and your grocery cart different? You bet they were. Typically, when we’re hungry, we predict we’ll be hungry all week, so we purchase more food than usual. Conversely, when we’re satiated, we unrealistically believe we’ll feel this way all week, so we don’t need as much food. See the pattern here? We rely on the present to predict our future. Dan Gilbert of Harvard University calls this “presentism.” We think this presentism bias contributes to procrastination.

When we procrastinate, we do so to avoid an unpleasant or aversive task. Putting off this aversive task saves us from the unpleasant emotions associated with it. We feel better, at least for the moment. And, typically, when we put off a task, we make some new intention related to the task for the future, such as saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Mariam was interested in exercise procrastination specifically, and she predicted that we could see this pattern of experiences and emotions over time. She conducted a retrospective study in that she asked participants to think back to a point in time when they needlessly put off exercise. Her participants provided her with information about how they were feeling when they put off their intended exercise, as well as their experienced levels of motivation for and commitment to their exercise intention. Her results were striking.

Not surprisingly, at the time when participants were supposed to exercise but procrastinated instead, they reported having few positive emotions (e.g., good, energized, excited), many negative emotions (e.g., lazy, tired, burdened, guilty, resentment), low motivation, and low commitment. However, on making a new intention to exercise in the future, their mood recovered, as did their motivation and commitment. Their ratings reflected a strong belief that their future self would be more motivated and committed to exercise, and this was associated with them feeling good again. Whether you think of it as bias or self-deception, it is clear that our predictions about the future are overly optimistic.

In effect, the preliminary results of this study document something that I think we all know well: Hope springs eternal. I’ll feel more like it tomorrow . . . and we believe this.

Although our present self isn’t feeling like exercising, our future self will, and this makes us feel better. These data also reveal a strong relation to feeling good about the revised intention and how we predict we’ll feel when it comes time to exercise. In other words, presentism plays a role in our procrastination. I feel good now about my future intention, so I predict I’ll feel good in the future.

There are many biases in human thinking that psychologists have documented. We are overly optimistic, and this seems to serve us well by helping us cope. Unfortunately, with procrastination in particular, when future self becomes present self, and we once again needlessly delay our exercise, putting it off yet again to a new future self, even we have trouble believing it. It is a common story, and it can become a downward spiral of the procrastination habit.

A first step to overcoming this bias that can lead us astray is to recognize that we are biased in this way and to challenge two beliefs. First, am I really too tired and unmotivated to exercise today? Second, will I really feel more like it tomorrow? The answer to both of these questions is “No!”

Motivation follows action. So the trick is to find a low threshold entry point to action. When it comes to exercise, this can simply mean putting on your sneakers and stepping outside or up onto the exercise machine. No expectations. No promises for how long. It’s just a simple action that gets you started.

The irony and predictably irrational aspect of being human is that we can bootstrap ourselves by getting started like this, and then a few minutes later, we think we’re really quite ready for the Iron Man. Where a moment ago I may have been too tired to even think about going for a run, once I get started, I’m sure I could run forever. As I said, hope springs eternal, and it’s human nature to be overly optimistic. It’s an adaptive bias in some ways, but one which we have to be aware of so that we don’t fall prey to the self-deception so common to procrastination.

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