The Doom of Procrastination

An article in The Atlantic points to research showing that procrastination is less about laziness and more about emotion and psychological state of being.

When scientists have studied procrastination, they’ve typically focused on how people are miserable at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, everybody recognizes, in the abstract, that it’s important to go to the dentist every few months. The pain is upfront and obvious—dental work is torture—and the rewards of cleaner teeth are often remote, so we allow the appointment to slip through our minds and off our calendars. Across several categories including dieting, saving money, and sending important emails, we constantly choose short and small rewards (whose benefits are dubious, but immediate) over longer and larger payouts (whose benefits are obvious, but distant).

In the last few years, however, scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination “really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

Instead, Ferrari and others think procrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future.

To make matters worse, putting things off leads to a vicious cycle, in which a looming deadline and / or the sense of being lazy or unproductive makes us anxious, guilty, and moody — and thus no where near the right state of mind to get started (I can attest to feeling this when it comes to my queue of blog topics to write about, both here and at my job).

The following chart from the article captures the sentiment well.

So how do we break this cycle of “loom, gloom, and doom”?

To hack your way to productivity, you could schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.

For pathological procrastinators, recognizing that we need deadlines to bind ourselves to our responsibilities is the first step. The second step is recognizing that our own deadlines are less effective than other people’s deadlines.

In one famous experiment, Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages. One group got a weekly deadline for each passage, a second group got one deadline for all three readings, and the third group chose their own deadlines. Readers were rewarded for the errors they found and penalized a dollar for each day they were late. Group II performed the worst. The group with external deadlines performed the best. “People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, “and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines.”

A more theoretical approach, from Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman writing in the new Journal of Consumer Research, aims to change “the way consumers think about the future.” Tu and Soman point out that people have a habit of managing goals and tasks in specific time categories—we plan activities by the day, expenses by the month, and resolutions by the year. This way of thinking can separate us from future selves. When we say “I’ll start that project next week,” or “I’m starting my diet next month,” what we’re really saying is “I hope that after an arbitrary amount of time, I will be in a better mood to bind myself to this task.”

One study in their paper asked consumers to open a savings account within six months. One group was given a December deadline in June and a second group was given a January deadline in July. Although each group presumably contained a similar number of procrastinators, significantly more people in the first group chose to open their account immediately. When the deadline was a calendar year away, people were more likely to rationalize that they could put it off.

Finally, procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. “Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation,” he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else.

I will definitely try putting these into practice. What are some ways you successful overcome (or at the very least cope with) procrastination?


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