Why the brain loves Procrastination
For many people, a little procrastination isn’t harmful — like 15 minutes lost on Facebook or putting off doing the laundry for a few days.
Tax Day is a horror for many procrastinators
And, for all the people who keep meaning to start saving for retirement but never do. And people with obesity or diabetes who constantly tell themselves, “I’ll start eating right tomorrow” — but never do. And for those that know they need to start exercise but they also keep saying, I’ll do it tomorrow and never do. For some people, procrastination creates huge problems at work, at school, and at home.
Roughly 5 percent of the population has such a problem with chronic procrastination that it seriously affects their lives.
None of it seems logical. How can people have such good intentions and yet be so totally unable to follow through?
Conventional wisdom has long suggested that procrastination is all about poor time management and willpower. But more recently, psychologists have been discovering that it may have more to do with how our brains and emotions work.
Procrastinators are less compassionate toward themselves
Procrastination, they’ve realized, appears to be a coping mechanism. When people procrastinate, they’re avoiding emotionally unpleasant tasks and instead doing something that provides a temporary mood boost. The procrastination itself then causes shame and guilt — which in turn leads people to procrastinate even further, creating a vicious cycle.
But getting a better understanding of why our brains are so prone to procrastination might let us find new strategies to avoid it. For example, psychologist Tim Pychyl has co-authored a paper showing that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on a previous exam were actually less likely to procrastinate on their next test. He and others have also found that people prone to procrastination are, overall, less compassionate toward themselves — an insight that points to ways to help.
Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, has been studying procrastinators for some 19 years. Interviewer Susannah Locke, talked to him about why people procrastinate and how they can learn to stop.
Susannah Locke: What are the biggest misconceptions about procrastination?
Tim Pychyl: When a procrastinator thinks about themselves, they’ll think, “Oh, I have a time management problem,” or, “I just can’t make myself do it. There’s a problem with my willpower.” And when other people think about procrastinators, they use that pejorative term: “They’re lazy.”
“Psychologists see procrastination as a misplaced coping mechanism”
Tim Pychyl says, psychologists see procrastination as a misplaced coping mechanism, as an emotion-focused coping strategy. People who procrastinate are using avoidance to cope with emotions, and many of them are unconscious emotions. So we see it as giving in to feel good. And it’s related to a lack of self-regulation skills.
I can simplify that and say that psychologists recognize we all have a 6-year-old running the ship. And the 6-year-old is saying, “I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it!”
Hal Hershfield has done some really great research on looking at how we think about “future self” He’s shown that in experimental settings if someone sees their own picture digitally aged, they’re more likely to allocate funds to retirement. When the researchers did the fMRI studies, they found our brain processes present self and future self differently. We think of future self more like a stranger.
“If someone sees their own picture digitally aged, they’re more likely to allocate funds to retirement”
I think the most surprising thing I’m still grappling with is that for many people, the experience of procrastination doesn’t match the definition that most of us are working with: a voluntary delay of an intended action despite knowing you’re going to be worse off for the delay.
If you speak to people, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t feel voluntary: “I feel like I have no control over it.” For some people, it feels totally involuntary, like they can’t help themselves.
Whenever we face a task, we’re not going to feel like doing it. Somehow adults believe that their motivational state has to match the task at hand. We say, “I’m not in the mood.”
Our motivational state rarely matches the task at hand, so we always have to use self-regulation skills to bring our focus to it. So at first it will be, “Okay, I recognize that I don’t feel like it, but I’m just gonna get started.”
I guess I’m a living case. When I was younger, I procrastinated a lot. I was lucky though because I loved most of my classes, especially the sciences. So when I had to study for a test and left it for the last minute, I still did well, I did not suffer the consequences too much back then. And now that I understand procrastination, I just have no room to wiggle. I don’t want to take that chance anymore. It try to get it done as soon as I can. It also feels good. I’m a list maker, and I love crossing off tasks from my list. Feels really good to accomplish it, even if it’s only one thing.
Also, through my past experience, I know I’ll think about it all night (because that’s what I’ll do, and end up having a terrible night sleep)
It’s all about self-deception — you aren’t aware that it’s going to cost you, but you are. When there’s no more self-deception and you face yourself, you either shit or get off the pot. You’re either going to do it, or you’re not going to do it.
I really like my life, and I like to make time for the things that are important to me.
Robert Pozen, who’s written a book on extreme productivity, has the OHIO rule: only handle it once. And I’m like that with email. I look at that email and say, “I can reply to it now, or I can throw it out,” but there’s not much of a middle ground. I’m not going to save it for a while, I’m going to follow up because I think it’s important for my future success and my relationships.
I used to procrastinate, and now I don’t, because I got all these wicked strategies. And it’s every level: some of it’s behavioral, some of it’s emotional, and some of it’s cognitive.
“Procrastinators squander the most precious asset a human can have: time”.
Our time on earth is limited. Every moment is an opportunity we’ll never have again. Procrastinators act as if they had all the time in the world. But deep down, they know they’re wasting parts of their life. The trouble is, most of us don’t know how to free ourselves. That’s why, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, most people “live lives of quiet desperation and die with their song unsung.”
I want you to sing your song before you die.
Moving forward can change your life. So take a moment and ask yourself: “What kind of life do I want to live?” Do you want to live a small life, limited by your fear of moving forward? Or a big life in which you free yourself of your petty fears and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead?
The choice is entirely yours.
Wishing you the best in Life and Success
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length. It was originally published on December 8, 2014.
Theo Tsaousides Ph.D. Smashing the Brainblocks
- Pychyl’s book from 2013: Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change
- “Why wait? The science behind procrastination,” a review of the contemporary research by Eric Jaffe
Pychyl also hosts a podcast, called iProcrastinate, which often features interviews with other psychology experts in related fields and is also heavy with tips and tricks for overcoming procrastination.