Why Do We Procrastinate?

Because procrastination is such a common problem, especially for students, we are presenting a series of articles that explore the issue in depth. (For the first in the series, click here.) This week, we examine the way procrastinators rationalize poor choices.

Christopher Scheer is a learning specialist at Touro University California.

For a human, every dawn brings the same personality test. Is she an “early bird” who bounds out of bed to greet the day, or a “night owl” who blinks at first light like a groggy bear waking from hibernation? owl with clock

If the latter, she is far more likely to employ that cruel self-torture device, the snooze button, a perfect technological expression of the increasingly prevalent problem of procrastination.

There she lies, disoriented and grumpy, mashing the snooze button repeatedly in order to delay as long as possible the pain of leaving that oh-so-cozy bed to face the drudgery of morning chores and toilette. If forced to rush to work or school, skip breakfast, or even find herself late or absent for an important commitment, she may later guiltily lament those extra minutes spent under the covers as pointless, unrewarding, and self-destructive.

Our sleepy protagonist is harming her own self-esteem, at a minimum, and may even be risking future earnings and security, undermining personal relationships and even damaging her health by procrastinating the beginning of her day. Yet, the next morning, and all the ones after that, she is likely to repeat the frustrating scenario. Why does she do this?

scarlett-ohara-from-gone-with-the-wind“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy! After all, tomorrow is another day!”

— Scarlett O’Hara, “Gone With the Wind”

Snooze button abusers are as good a place as any to try to understand why our brains so frequently lead us to procrastinate, making “hedonic,” or pleasure-seeking, decisions which give us short-term relief yet are antithetical to our long-term goals, values and self-identity. The simplest answer is that her brain is making what, in that moment, it believes to be a perfectly rational decision: By telling the finger to push the snooze button, it receives comfort and avoids pain.

Those who struggle to wake up in the morning often report that their sleepy morning brain makes elaborate rationalizations and arguments for why it is “OK,” or even a positive, to sleep longer than they had planned. “By not leaving time to eat, I can lose weight,” the brain argues; “I shaved yesterday, nobody will notice if I skip it today,” it whines. “In fact, I will be more functional later if I can have these extra minutes of sleep!”

snooze button keep dream alive

When later arrives, of course, the more alert, sober mind, perhaps after a cup of coffee or tea, will correctly assess these thoughts as ludicrous, irrational and manipulative. Yet, faced with an onerous deadline, or a frightening high-stakes performance, even the most caffeinated, well-rested individual can desperately seek escape routes toward easier or more pleasurable activities, whether it is daydreaming, cleaning the toilet, or reading about the funerary practices of the ancient Hittites on Wikipedia.

benefit-300x292

Humans tend to discount the value of future gains when offered immediate rewards.

The reality is that all procrastination can be viewed as rational if we remember that the self of the present moment does not have the same wants, needs and goals as the past or future self, or at least doesn’t have them ranked with the same priority. In behavioral economics, this is known as “time inconsistency”: In the present, the certainty of some benefit — say, staying warm and cozy under the covers — can seem to far outweigh the uncertain gain in the future, such as the percentage of increased safety we gain by leaving enough time not to have to speed to work.

When the night owl’s Bedtime Self goes to bed, he is energized and optimistic about the future; his brain’s executive CEO picks an ambitious alarm time which will maximize productivity. The suffering that awaits Morning Self when that alarm rings is of little concern to Bedtime Self, who, in any case, is too busy procrastinating going to sleep at all, since whatever is currently holding its attention is much more interesting than the theoretical value of sleep. When the alarm does ring, Morning Self will likely berate Bedtime Self for this carelessness!

In the end, it will be up to the business-like Daytime Self to sort through all these recriminations, critiquing poor decisions made by past selves, blaming the attendant exhaustion for further procrastination episodes on its watch, and remonstrating future selves to do better, dang it.

If all this seems crazy-making, it is because it is. The complex reasoning ability of humans is both a gift and a curse; the procrastinator deploys it to defend decisions which are negative for the organism over time but provide comfort in the current moment; short-term gain for long-term pain.

Most problematically, the vast majority of these decisions are made by our subconscious well before we “decide” to act on them; experiments using brain scans seem to prove that we likely began reaching for that snooze button before we were even consciously aware we were going to do it!

Thirty years ago, just one in twenty Americans surveyed described themselves as “chronic procrastinators, while a similar recent poll found that number had risen to more than one in four.

daydreaming

Dreaming of a life in full color.

To be sure, there are times where procrastination can be helpful to our well-being in all time frames; delay allows for gathering more information, for example, which can lead to smarter decisions. And sometimes a task is no longer even necessary by the time we get around to accomplishing it. Some studies even show that those “woolgatherers” who spend more time daydreaming actually tend to have better working memories, higher IQs and ability to juggle multiple thoughts.

There is a lot of evidence, too, that the “waking restful” brain, known as the Default Mode Network, lays a lot of the groundwork for the powerful creative bursts the “working” mind gets credit for — which will come as no surprise to writers, inventors and the like, who often find putting a project down for a bit is a counter-intuitively productive tactic, leading to breakthroughs.

Yet, many chronic procrastinators doth protest too much when defending their tardiness; they nurture faith in a false correlation between procrastination and productivity. Think of the student who puts off studying and then crams frantically before the test, or pulls an all-nighter to write a paper; if they receive a high mark, they may begin to believe the procrastination was actually a key to their success!

“By the time you reach medical school . . . you have probably learned to associate worry and anxiety with productivity, and this is likely a behavior you’ve made no effort to change because it has been successful in the past and because it is the only way you’ve ever known.”

— Dr. Daniel R. Paull

“By the time you reach medical school . . . you have probably learned to associate worry and anxiety with productivity, and this is likely a behavior you’ve made no effort to change because it has been successful in the past and because it is the only way you’ve ever known,” writes Dr. Daniel R. Paull, in his advice book for incoming medical school students. “You may even believe you’ll get nothing done unless you constantly think and worry about it. While this isn’t true, some people have indeed convinced themselves that it is.”

Such a false belief, often modeled by parents and peers, can be exposed by a simple experiment: The procrastinator can be forced or entreated to stick to a more regular schedule, perhaps using a timer-based method like the Pomodoro Technique; if they can be as productive without the shame and pain of the procrastination cycle, they may be able to rewire their habits.

“The tendency to procrastinate is rooted in unscheduled activities, so if you want to rid yourself of procrastination the key is to rid your life of unscheduled activities,” writes Dr. Paull. “This does not mean you must get rid of the activities themselves. Rather, you must schedule them.” And, he emphasizes, the schedule must be reasonable and “written in stone.”

“The tendency to procrastinate is rooted in unscheduled activities, so if you want to rid yourself of procrastination the key is to rid your life of unscheduled activities. This does not mean you must get rid of the activities themselves. Rather, you must schedule them.”

— Dr. Daniel R. Paull

However, for many humans, procrastination is so deeply rooted, sometimes even in their basic brain chemistry or emotional makeup, that hearing all the good advice in the world makes as much dent in your bad time habits as a hummingbird hitting the front of a Hummer truck.

Compulsive or addictive behaviors, for example, are avoidant behaviors usually expressed as a form of procrastination of suffering — the overwhelming desire not to feel an emotional or physical discomfort. And for a person with an attention deficit disorder, the brain itself may be strongly drawn to distractions which then appear as procrastination; think of the dog in the Pixar film, “Up”, who loses all focus every time a squirrel passes by, or Tigger, from “Winnie the Poo,” for whom the urge to bounce seems inextricably linked to his self-image.

799a59fbdbea6c6896719274a5416fcd

Everyday life can be quite distracting for some of us.

Perhaps most commonly, depression and anxiety combine to make procrastination seem like the sanest response to a world the individual finds too stressful and meaningless: I am overwhelmed and it doesn’t matter anyway.

“Depressed [individuals] are different in important ways. We understand that their self-regulation is undermined somehow, their practical reasoning impaired,” writes Timothy Pichyl, a Carleton University psychology professor. “Depression complicates our consideration of procrastination or weak-willed action. It’s not only or ‘just’ about putting one foot in front of the other.”

“Depression complicates our consideration of procrastination or weak-willed action. It’s not only or ‘just’ about putting one foot in front of the other.”

— Professor Timothy Pichyl, Carleton University

For these people, the struggle against procrastination is a fundamental battle for sanity and happiness. And just as the problem is massive, so any successful intervention must be similarly ambitious.

 

[Next week: Why Is It So Hard to Stop Procrastinating? 

The Procrastination Series on EfficientLearning.org:

  1. Struggling with Procrastination
  2. Why Do We Procrastinate?
  3. Why Is It So Hard to Stop Procrastinating?
  4. Beating Procrastination: The Tipping Point
  5. Interventions for Severe Procrastination
  6. Prioritization vs. Procrastination
  7. Building Better Habits
  8. Tools, Resources, and Further Readings

 

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