Whether it is figuring out taxes, doing the dinner dishes, or finishing a dissertation, it’s easy to put things off until we are in the “right” mood.
However tempting, this is a dangerous practice that usually backfires, explains expert Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., in Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. He offers three good reasons to just get started instead of delaying:
1) Procrastination easily becomes an entrenched habit. While delaying can temporarily boost your mood, it actually backfires over time. By giving in to feeling good instead of doing what is in your own best interest, you are making it more likely that you will procrastinate again. . . and again. The short-term reward of a mood boost explains why we are able to keep putting off highly detested chores (like cleaning out closets or writing the challenging dissertation chapter). You are training yourself to put things off just as you might train Fido to do tricks by giving him treats. Here’s my sketch of the cycle–and you can imagine what happens when there is no deadline!
2) Putting it off only makes it harder. When we delay unnecessarily, we often assume that our future mood about the task will be more positive. Research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and others has shown that humans are notorious for wrongly predicting how they will feel in the future. Yet people fall for this self-deception over and over again. If you’ve ever left the dishes overnight, you’ll agree with Mason Cooley: “Procrastination makes easy things hard, hard things harder.”
3) Procrastination causes unnecessary stress that cancels out any short-term mood boost. It is as if we are buying time with a credit card with exorbitant interest, Pychyl notes. Unfinished tasks rumble around in our heads, taking up valuable brain power. As more than one client has moaned, “My unfinished dissertation is always eating away at me, even when I’m trying to sleep.”
How do you break the procrastination cycle?
Cutting-edge motivation research has revealed strategies that can help you stop dragging your feet and get into gear:
A. Use “if-then” planning. Make the temptation to procrastinate a trigger for getting started on your project. Example: “If I have finished dinner and start to pick up the TV remote, then I will go to my desk and do the next step on my dissertation.” “If I am tempted to check email, then I will open a Word file and start a blog post.” (It worked for me to get this done!)
B. Leverage a personal strength. How might you call on one of your natural strengths to get started? Unsure what strength to use? Try one or more of these: Curiosity, courage, love, teamwork, optimism, and pride. Notice the uplift in your mood.
C. Do your “future self” a favor: You are more likely to forgo the immediate putting things off when you stop to think about the long term costs and stresses of delaying. Post a list of what you stand to gain by getting started—and what you might lose by delaying. Your future self will thank you for taking a step forward instead of sideways.
D. Allocate will power wisely. Will power acts like a muscle—it gets weaker as you exercise it throughout the day to control yourself and gets replenished when you rest or sleep. The lesson here? Attack the project first thing in the day or when you are refreshed.
Coach yourself with these tested tips and/or share it with your favorite procrastinator. Let me know how it goes–and don’t delay!
Recommended resources to overcome procrastination:
- Don’t Delay, a Psychology Today blog by Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D.
- Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, also by Timothy Pychyl
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney
- The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and How You Can Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
~ Pablo Picasso