Many Americans are tasked with navigating multiple long-term goals within any 168-hour week. Time becomes the great equalizer for all that work blue-collar and white-collar jobs as well as the stay-at-home parent and campus student. As one task awaits accomplishment, another task arouses attention and catches our thoughts. For many, procrastination can be likened to a strange and opposing force similar to bringing like poles of a magnet together. It can cause its victims to fail out of school, perform poorly in the workplace, put off saving for retirement, and prevent the pursuit of medical treatment among many other life scenarios. A campus study from over two decades ago found that college-age procrastinators are more likely to experience more illness, higher stress levels, and more likely to drop out by the end of their fall semester. Blogger of Wait but Why Tim Urban engages this theme of extreme procrastination, and you can view his Ted Talk. Some perceive procrastination as a mode of failing to self-regulate behavior - bad behaviors that are an outcome of the lack of self-control. Others have stated that procrastination is not a matter of poor time management or being lazy, but a deeper reflection of how the brain works and perceptions of the self. Psychologists tend to see procrastination as an avoidance behavior, and it becomes a feel-good mechanism that attempts to alleviate the procrastinator’s negative feelings related to fear, dread, and/or anxiety of the task at hand with simple avoidance. Yet, the deadline might be more convicting and attacking for the procrastinator’s conscience, and it turns into a self-defeating cycle of shame and guilt. Rather than remaining focused on the long-term goal, this instant gratification gives the procrastinator “hedonic pleasure” and releases a form of immediate relief. In contrast, the long-term goals that are more challenging to realize but once achieved produce long-lasting satisfaction and emotional well-being, now termed as “eudaimonic pleasure.”
“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 both 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.” Those who are emotionally connected and in touch with their future selves report fewer procrastination behaviors. Getting in touch with the future self can produce more long-term positive emotions about the present self. In one of Hershfield’s studies, those that were better emotionally connected with their future selves through virtual reality and digitally-aged photographs of themselves were twice as more likely to invest in retirement accounts than those who did not. Assisting the procrastinator to get in touch with the future self can support long-term vision and promote overall long-lasting happiness and satisfaction.
DePaul University psychology professor, Joseph Ferrari, states that there are typically two distinct types of people that have problems completing chores on time: chronic procrastinators and task delayers. Underlying scientific conclusions pertain to the conditional problem of pervasiveness. Household chores can be overwhelming and might create a need for aversion to other activities that are more preferred, but they are not indicative of a chronic problem. Universally, all people have the capacity to procrastinate at times, but chronic procrastinators experience a negative impact on their personal health and relationships.
Ferrari states in his research that this is a “lifestyle of avoidance” and this description applies to about 20% of the general public. Task delayers have the capability to acquire better lifestyle habits in contrast to their chronic counterparts. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his former colleagues from Case Western Reserve University established in their findings that the human body has a basic energy supply of glucose within the bloodstream, and eventual decision-making opportunities deplete the necessary energy required to be decisive and exercise self-restraint, especially while at work described through a phenomenon called “decision fatigue.” A component of why task delayers are lulled into their bad habits in the first place might be the time of the day or week when chores often occur. “Doing those tasks takes some self-control, and if you’ve made a lot of choices already that day, it’s harder to exert self-control,” states Baumeister.
Negative emotions as guilt and shame contribute to chronic procrastination especially in light of how the procrastinator internalizes task avoidance as an outcome of a larger moral failure. The chronic procrastinators tell stories of that which could be if they simply buckled down and did that task at hand. Yet, accomplishing tasks into small, manageable steps and related efforts can still become thwarted if chronic procrastinators do not perceive their progress as dynamically changing or progressing quickly enough. These individuals attack themselves in an endless cycle of shame that calcifies negative behaviors into bad habits, instead of evaluating their procrastination more rationally. Task delaying and chronic procrastination researchers are continuing to plow into new frontiers in the last two decades as they have stated that decision fatigue already negatively impacts individuals that have a low willpower. People who expect themselves to fail often do, and this indicates more reason for people to be more conscious of their habits. Linda Houser-Marko, research psychologist of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, highlights in her recent findings that it can be better to measure progress toward larger projects in terms of smaller, incremental sub-goals - whether these are part of writing a small portion of a bigger research paper or a chapter within a book - rather than the larger objective itself. She counsels people who struggle with procrastination that, “The higher-level goal might give you more meaning, but the lower-level goal is better when you have setbacks or when you’re not making as much progress.” Getting the task started along with the small victories associated with task initiation are part of what it takes to experience some measures of success. It might take more trial and error to achieve a good stance on the productivity high wire, and many productivity experts agree that it can be easier to turn something into something better with an editing process and revisions rather than turning nothing into something.
Here are several strategies for navigating the pitfalls of procrastination:
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity & Getting Things Done for Teens: Take Control of Your Life in a Distracting World by David Allen
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior by Mark Goulston & Philip Goldberg
Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love by Elizabeth Lombardo
Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life by Judith Orloff