How Your Brain Gets It Wrong
Updated: Aug 10
Over the years, I’ve put off all kinds of things that would have made my present self a healthier, wealthier, wiser self. Sure, I’m doing well enough after taming my tendency to delay, but my confirmed procrastination surely took a toll.
At various times I have procrastinated on cleaning, finances, writing, reading, and more. I’d tell myself that I would catch up “when things slow down”—during evenings, weekends, holidays, vacation time (when I’d still resist doing it). Despite my relative successes, I know I could have done better.
Does this sound familiar?
Relying on willpower is NOT the answer, as you already know. A book by the top procrastination researcher, Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., taught me how to identify and root out the common, insidious assumption that fuels much procrastination. That changed everything for me—and it can for you too.
How Your Brain Gets It Wrong
Your procrastinator brain has the crazy idea that your future self is not really you but rather some stranger. In that default mode, your brain aims to make life cushy for Present You--while shamelessly shifting current burdens (e.g., saving for retirement, working on your business plan, making a dentist appointment, etc.) to the Future You.
It’s as if your future self is someone else, not a continuation of you. This false assumption can be hard to shake without conscious interventions.
Without a deliberate mindshift, Present You lacks connection and empathy for Future You, as shown in this episode of The Simpsons:
Marge: Someday these kids will be out of the house, and you’ll regret not spending more time with them.
Homer: That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy!
Stop Passing the Buck Future to You
How would you feel if you woke up one morning to a sinkful of dirty dishes left the previous evening by a roommate who expected you to do them? Would you ever shift your burden to someone else so shamelessly? Probably not.
But this is what procrastinators do. Alarmingly, for habitual procrastinators, Present You has inherited an overwhelming To Do list from Past You. How grateful do you feel to your Past Self for dumping this on you?
That is the essence of procrastination, asserts Pychyl: Present You is passing the buck to Future You. The key is to remember that they are one and the same person and take appropriate action.
You, not some stranger, must pay the cost incurred by putting things off. Worse, the bill often accrues interest, making it even more difficult. As Christopher Parker wrote, “Procrastination is like a credit card. It’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.”
Yet this is the kind of self-sabotage you commit every time you delay unnecessarily—as when you put off doing your taxes, creating a business marketing plan, or looking for a better job, or whatever scares or bores you.
If you’re ready to end this painful legacy, consider these two research-informed strategies that really worked for me:
1. Develop Empathy Toward Your Future Self
Procrastinators do not feel much connection with their future self, studies. But making your future self more salient can improve your decisions.
For fun, try the Aging Booth app (at iTunes and GooglePlay). Upload a current photo of your face, and the app will add decades to your appearance by adding wrinkles, jowls, and gray hair. Using a similar technology, a Stanford study found this enhanced subjects’ financial prudence.
Alternatively, you could simply accept your brain’s misconception that your future self is a different person--and strive to develop greater empathy for him or her. Let your kindness flow toward this distant, unseen person that you will someday become. Savor the awareness that you are providing an enormous benefit for this person. Afterwards, let your present self experience gratitude to past self for having made today a bit easier.
Even now, I smile while announcing to Future Gayle that, despite fatigue and drowsiness, I am now doing her a favor by washing the dinner dishes. The next morning, when I enter a clean kitchen, I thank Past Gayle for setting me up for a good day. Who wants to begin a race several yards behind the start line?
By doing this practice mindfully, your default mode will shift from resistance to anticipatory gratitude. It may sound odd, but this explicit reflection strengthens the habit of doing things on time. Sometimes your brain needs updating on the consequences of your actions.
Your new mantra: “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”
2. Play Fair with Future You
Callousness or blindness toward our future selves also intensifies our tendency to self-sabotage through delay.
Professor Pychyl proposes that procrastination may reflect the irrational belief that Future You will be better equipped to handle the current challenges. You cling optimistically to the optimistic belief that Future You will somehow muster greater resources, e.g., time and energy, than Present You. When your courage, confidence, or willpower wavers, you intentionally--but hopefully—pass the buck.
But is that really fair? As my highly disciplined military pilot father would ask, “If you don’t have the time to do it now, what makes you think you’ll have it later?” (Note: I have found that calendarizing tasks for 7 days at a time makes the folly of procrastination self-evident.)
If you are honest with yourself, you’ll admit that putting things off makes the easy stuff harder. And it can make the hard stuff downright impossible while increasing your anxiety and damaging your relationships.
Doesn’t your Future You deserve a better fate? You are in charge here.
Thinking of my future self as my respected, beloved teammate reminds me to stop shirking my duties instead of leaving most of the battle to her. Playing fair matters to me! (I also call on my character strengths to meet these challenges—take the free text at www.viacharacter.org.)
To summarize, cultivate your mindfulness of how your current behavior impacts your future self---and reap the benefits. While some delays are inevitable, maintaining an attitude of empathy and fairness toward Future You will help sustain the motivation you need today to ensure a future filled with well-being, joy, and success.
P. S. Bonus: You will discover the joy of free time on weekends and vacations, unencumbered by any anxiety over a swelling To Do list. That’s positive reinforcement for your new, healthy habit of doing things in a timely manner. When you ditch the procrastination habit, you reclaim your life.
Recommended Resources for Procrastinators
Urban, Tim. A memorable TED talk by a humorist on procrastination that went viral. https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator?language=en