Lying and Procrastination

They are never far apart.

Posted Jul 30, 2012

Lying to ourselves & others

Like all vices, procrastination has built in mechanisms to ensure its own survival. You want to stop putting stuff off until later, you want to have the motivation to get started now, but you don’t. This puts all of us procrastinators in an uncomfortable dilemma. By our own standards, our world would often be better if we finished many of our project and tasks sooner but we still we don't get started. Guilt and inner conflict arises. And one way out is lying.

I’ve lied to myself plenty and you probably have a few favorite self-deceiving go-to's. My favorite three were:

  1. ‘‘I work best under pressure. The adrenaline rush that happens at the last minute is helpful.’’
  2.  ‘‘I always do my most creative work when there’s time pressure to get it done.’’
  3. ‘‘I’m putting this off because I’m a perfectionist, and I just can’t get started.’’

And as Jeanne Farrington systematically confirms in her piece “Myths Worth Dispelling: Procrastination—Not All It’s Put Off to Be,” all three reasons were mostly me lying to myself. In truth, I wish I could have motivation when it was convenient to me, that my energy was under my control. But it wasn’t. It always appeared just before the deadline that typically someone else set, essentially put my work habits under someone else’s external control. Lying to myself always seemed preferable to accepting this.

That procrastination involves self-deception is actually one of the first findings from the science of procrastination. Back in 1981, Silver and Sabini noted that there is a “procrastination field,” where we try to convince others and ourselves that we are working or just about ready to work. How many times did I say “Just after this I will get started,” but there was always one more “this.” For another point of view of lying, I’ve asked a professor of communication and a colleague, Dr. Rebecca Merkin, to give her take on the topic. Here’s what she had to say.

Why Do We Lie to Ourselves?

Often we lie to ourselves in order to preserve the face or self-image we want to maintain. We block out face-threatening messages, especially when they require backing down or changing our original position. Fear of embarrassment motivates many not to face reality, where we don't want to admit we goofed up, were selfish jerks, or lacked self-control. In short, we lie to ourselves to avoid an ugly truth. In confirmation, defense-mechanism researchers Paulhus, Fridhandler, and Hayes point out, self-deception is a mental process that operates unconsciously to reduce painful emotions.

Another reason we lie to ourselves is because its adaptive. Evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers argues that in order to deceive others, we often must deceive ourselves first. To lie to others, we hide our intent to deceive and the details of our deception, then, we selectively recall information and bias our arguments. So good lying can be helpful, like pleading to the judge, "Really, your honor, I was nowhere near the scene of the crime, and besides, he fired first." Lying about our procrastination can be helpful to avoid the consequences of leaving everything too late and doing a second rate job because of our delay. Thus, our lies help us to sell to others a crooked reality.

Consequences of Lying

Which of these two reasons tend to dominant? Is lying to oneself adapative, helping to manipulate others, or maladaptive, where we just start living in an increasing distorted world? Typically, when we believe falsehoods, they often comes with a cost. Research on the consequences of lying to oneself shows that this urge has had, and continues to have, negative effects, undermining everything from academic endeavors and air safety to economic markets and international relations. Here's just one example. Tony Simons, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, asked more than 6,500 employees at 76 U.S. and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. He found that after being lied to, staffers were more likely to be less engaged in their work, less receptive to new ideas, and less willing to follow the leader on the next offensive.

When we lie about our procrastination, the harm here is that we perpetuate it. Procrastination is putting off until later what we believe we should do now. We really should have got to the dentist, dealt with our marriage, paid those taxes earlier. But if we lie to ourselves about procratinating, everything can continue on just as before. As I said, procrastination has a built in defense mechanism itself.

How can we stop lying to ourselves?

In order to stop lying to ourselves we need to open the channels of communication around us. Essentially, we are allowing other people to catch us in a lie so we can self-correct. In order to do this, we first need to use principles of active listening. We need to start observing the reactions of those we communicate with and really pay attention to what they’re saying. For example, as communications consultant Glen Morgan points out, we sometimes create communication blocks when we use lines such as “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine” or “do it my way” with an implied threat. We prevent other people from telling us that things are getting out of hand.  

Part of opening the lines of communication is helping people share their feelings. For example, Morgan’s Coach Technique involves using the words, “go on” or “I see”. In addition, “Mirroring” allows one to reflect back on what the other person is saying so that you can do a reality check to make sure you understand them. For example, you can articulate your synopsis of how you understood the other person’s message by prefacing your remarks with, “it seems to me that you are saying things aren’t working because things are disorganized” or whatever. The key is that the other person gets to straighten you out if you haven’t understood them. One final way Morgan suggests opening the lines of communication is by responding to others’ “nonverbal cues”. So, for example, you could say, “You don’t seem like yourself today. Is everything alright?” or “You seem to be hitting that keyboard rather hard” to start the other person talking. Opening other people up and being responsive to others’ perspectives is the best way to do a reality check and not lie to oneself.

This is hard to do, mostly because we have so much of our ego wrapped up in "Not Being A Procrastinator." We don't like to admit it that we do put off irrationally, so we hide the fact. But procrastination isn't really something to be ashamed of. We all do it, at least to some degree. Accepting that it is something we all struggle with allows us to face it head on, instead of hiding it behind a web of lies.

Have a detailed procrastination assessment either online or with this complementary The Procrastination Quotient iPhone app.

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About the Author

Dr. Piers Steel

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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