Have you ever sat down to complete an important task — and then suddenly discovered you were up loading the dishwasher or engrossed in the Wikipedia entry about Chernobyl? Or perhaps you suddenly realize that the dog needs to be fed, emails need to be answered, your ceiling fan needs dusting — or maybe you should go ahead and have lunch, even though it’s only 11 a.m.?
Next thing you know, it’s the end of the day and your important task remains unfinished.
For many people, procrastination is a strong and mysterious force that keeps them from completing the most urgent and important tasks in their lives with the same strength as when you try to bring like poles of a magnet together. It’s also a potentially dangerous force, causing victims to fail out of school, perform poorly at work, put off medical treatment or delay saving for retirement. A Case Western Reserve University study from 1997 found that college-age procrastinators ended up with higher stress, more illness, and lower grades by the end of the semester.
But the reasons people procrastinate are not understood that well. Some researchers have viewed procrastination largely as a failure of self-regulation — like other bad behaviors that have to do with a lack of self-control, such as overeating, a gambling problem or overspending. Others say it’s not a matter of being lazy or poor time management, as many smart overachievers who procrastinate often can attest. They say it may actually be linked to how our brain works and to deeper perceptions of time and the self.
Most psychologists see procrastination as a kind of avoidance behavior, a coping mechanism gone awry in which people “give in to feel good,” says Timothy Pychyl, a professor who studies procrastination at Carleton University, in Ottawa.
It usually happens when people fear or dread, or have anxiety about, the important task awaiting them. To get rid of this negative feeling, people procrastinate — they open up a video game or Pinterest instead. That makes them feel better temporarily, but unfortunately, reality comes back to bite them in the end.
Once the reality of a deadline sets in again, procrastinators feel more extreme shame and guilt. But for an extreme procrastinator, those negative feelings can be just another reason to put the task off, with the behavior turning into a vicious, self-defeating cycle.
Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, created an amazing and funny (if layman’s) explanation of what may happen inside the brain of a procrastinator. Urban calls himself a master procrastinator — he didn’t begin writing a 90-page senior thesis until 72 hours before it was due. Urban recently gave a TED Talk about his own extreme procrastination tendencies, in which he used some of his own cartoons to explain how life is different for an extreme procrastinator.
First, he describes the brain of a non-procrastinator, in which a “rational decision-maker” has a firm grip on the wheel:
The brain of a procrastinator looks similar, except for the presence of a little friend, which Urban labels the “instant gratification monkey.”
The monkey seems as though he will be fun, but in fact he is a lot of trouble, as Urban’s comics illustrate.
This continues until things get really bad — the prospect of the end of your career or your schooling looms. Then something that Urban calls the “panic monster” kicks in and finally spurs you into action.
People can be various kinds of procrastinators, Urban says. Some procrastinate by doing useless things, such as searching for cat GIFs. Others actually accomplish things — cleaning their homes, working their boring jobs — but never quite getting to the things they really want to accomplish in life, their most important, long-term goals.
To illustrate this, Urban uses a concept that is known as an Eisenhower Matrix, a graphic that was included in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It’s named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the famously productive president. Eisenhower thought that people should spend their time on what was truly important to them — the tasks in Quadrants 1 and 2 below.
Unfortunately, most procrastinators spend little time in those quadrants, Urban says. Instead, they mostly hang out in Quadrants 3 and 4, doing things that may be urgent, but are not important.
Occasionally, when the panic monster takes over, they take a very brief detour to Quadrant 1.
Urban says this habit is disastrous because “the road to the procrastinator’s dreams — the road to expanding his horizons, exploring his true potential and achieving work he’s truly proud of — runs directly through Quadrant 2. Q1 and Q3 may be where people survive, but Q2 is where people thrive, grow and blossom.”
This is Urban’s own personal explanation of how and why he procrastinates — but his account actually corresponds with psychological research on the topic.
Pychyl discusses the idea of the “monkey mind” — that our thoughts are constantly darting all over the place, preventing us from concentrating. And psychologists agree that the problem with procrastinators is that they are tempted to give in to instant gratification, which brings people the kind of instant relief psychologists call “hedonic pleasure,” rather than staying focused on the long-term goal.
Important goals (the kind that occupy the first and second quadrants above) are more challenging but in the long run bring longer lasting feelings of well-being and self-satisfaction that psychologists call “eudaimonic pleasure.”
Present Homer vs. Future Homer
Psychologists have some other fascinating models to understand the forces behind procrastination. Some believe that procrastination is so intractable because it’s linked to deeper perceptions of time and the difference between what they call “the present and future self.”
The idea is that, even though we know that the person we will be in a month is theoretically the same person that we are today, we have little concern, understanding or empathy for that future self. People are far more focused on how they feel today.
Pychyl points to a clip from “The Simpsons” as a pretty good illustration of the different ways we think about our present and future selves. In one episode, Marge scolds her husband for not spending enough time with the kids. “Some day, these kids will be out of the house, and you’ll regret not spending more time with them,” she says.
“That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy,” Homer says while pouring vodka into a mayonnaise jar and then downing the concoction before collapsing on the floor.
“When making long-term decisions, [people] tend to fundamentally feel a lack of emotional connection to their future selves,” says Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA Anderson School of Management who studies the present and future self. “So even though I know on some fundamental level in a year’s time, I’ll still be me, in some ways I treat that future self as if he’s a fundamentally different person, and as if he’s not going to benefit or suffer from the consequences of my actions today.”
Hershfield’s research supports this idea. Hershfield has taken fMRI scans of people’s brains as they thought about themselves in the present, a celebrity like Natalie Portman or Matt Damon, and then themselves in the future. He found that people process information about their present and future selves with different parts of the brain. Their brain activity when describing their self in a decade was similar to when they were describing Natalie Portman.
Emily Pronin of Princeton University led a study with somewhat similar findings in 2008. She presented people with a nasty concoction of soy sauce and ketchup and had them decide how much they or another person would have to drink. Some people choose for themselves, others chose for other people and a third group chose for themselves in two weeks. The study showed that people were willing to commit to drinking a half-cup of the nasty concoction in the future but committed to only two tablespoons that day.
Pychyl’s latest research suggests that those who were more in touch with their future selves — both two months and 10 years down the line — reported fewer procrastination behaviors.
However, research also suggests that procrastinators might be able to get more in touch with their future selves — a change that could help make them happier in the long term.
In one study by Hershfield, some subjects used virtual reality to look at digitally aged photographs of themselves. Then all of the test subjects were asked how they would spend $1,000. Those who saw the aged photo chose to invest twice as much in a retirement account as those who did not.
Interestingly, insurance companies have latched onto these findings to try to drum up more business. Bank of America Merrill Lynch launched a service called Face Retirement, in which you can upload a photograph of yourself and see it digitally aged. Allianz also created a similar tool with the help of its own team of behavioral scientists.
How to return to the land of the productive
Beyond trying to be kinder to our future selves, what else can people do about procrastination?
Tim Urban points out that the typical advice for procrastinators — essentially, to stop what they’re doing and get down to work, is ridiculous, because procrastination isn’t something that extreme procrastinators feel as though they can control.
“While we’re here, let’s make sure obese people avoid overeating, depressed people avoid apathy, and someone please tell beached whales that they should avoid being out of the ocean,” Urban writes.
But there are some simple tips, those who study the subject say, that can help procrastinators get down to business.
Interestingly, research suggests that one of the most effective things that procrastinators can do is to forgive themselves for procrastinating. In a study by Pychyl and others, students who reported forgiving themselves for procrastinating on studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less for a second exam.
This works because procrastination is linked to negative feelings, the researchers say. Forgiving yourself can reduce the guilt you feel about procrastinating, which is one of the main triggers for procrastinating in the first place.
But the best thing that Pychyl recommends is to recognize that you don’t have to be in the mood to do a certain task — just ignore how you feel and get started.
“Most of us seem to tacitly believe that our emotional state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. But that’s just not true. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.”
Instead of focusing on feelings, we have to think about what the next action is, Pychyl says. He counsels people to break down their tasks into very small steps that can actually be accomplished. So if it’s something like writing a letter of reference, the first step is just opening the letterhead and writing the date.
Even if it’s an extremely small action, a little progress will typically make you feel better about the task and increase your self-esteem, which in turn reduces the desire to procrastinate to make yourself feel better, he says.
Pychyl believes that teachers and parents should teach kids to deal with the temptations of procrastination from a young age. “A lot of teachers think that kids have time-management problems when they procrastinate. And they don’t have a time-management problem. … What they have is an emotion-management problem. They have to learn that you don’t feel good all the time, and you’ve got to get on with it.”
“Mark Twain is quoted as saying, ‘If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first,’” Pychyl says.
Urban basically says the same thing in a different language.
“No one ‘builds a house,’” he writes. “They lay one brick again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries — they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built — but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”