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By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Brian Rea

Published Apr 1, 2020 8:00 AM


Procrastination is not a character flaw, but it might be something quite revealing.


Procrastination sometimes works to our advantage. But more often, all that delay and avoidance results in feelings of regret and inadequacy.

Full disclosure: This article is being written several days later than planned. We sat down to get it done on Monday — four days before deadline! — but the words weren’t flowing, and the dog was shooting us that “I haven’t had a walk in days” look. Honestly, the rest of the week is a bit of a blur, but we did get our email inbox down to three digits. And now, out of nowhere, Friday is upon us, and ... oh, hey, is it lunchtime already?

It happens to the best of us: We postpone until tomorrow what we had intended to accomplish today. Our lives are busy, and stuff happens. But when we put something off against our better judgment — well aware that doing so isn’t in our best interest — we’ve entered the realm of procrastination, which has little to do with time management, or even laziness. “You can engage in positive procrastination, where you should be doing something but instead you clean your house,” notes Hal Hershfield, a psychologist and an associate professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “It’s something else on your to-do list, just not as urgent.”

Hershfield, who studies why people do things that aren’t in their best long-term interest, explains that procrastination is more often driven by psychological factors. “Tim Urban [author of the popular blog Wait But Why] has described it as the surreal experience of watching yourself fail over and over again — knowing you should be doing something, but nonetheless deciding not to,” Hershfield says. Procrastination sometimes works to our advantage — does the adrenaline of an impending deadline help the writer produce a better story? You decide. But more often, all that delay and avoidance results in feelings of regret and inadequacy, if not more tangible consequences like poor performance at school or work.

Hershfield’s research provides a window into one factor that drives this self-defeating behavior: the difficulty most of us have in relating to the future version of ourselves. In neuroimaging studies, he has found that when subjects think of their future self, their brain activity is similar to when they’re thinking about a celebrity they’ve never met. “They know that future person exists; they just don’t know who that person is and don’t really consider how that person would feel,” Hershfield says.

Other factors can contribute to procrastination. If you keep putting off writing thank-you notes for gifts you received, the explanation might just be that this is a task that’s not fun, and you’d rather be doing something more interesting. Sometimes we delay a project that brings on anxiety or dread, either because of a fear of failure or because the topic is unpleasant, like drafting a will.

According to Hershfield, procrastination stems from present bias. “What’s happening in the moment gets the most weight — someone else can deal with the future,” he says. “From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. Why consider the future when, if I’m not taking care of the present, I won’t have a future? But when that becomes overgeneralized, it doesn’t benefit us in the long run.” The good news is that we can break the cycle of procrastination. Among the strategies Hershfield suggests:

Face Your Fears

For years you’ve vowed that you’ll train for a marathon or learn to play the guitar, but it never happens. If it’s fear of failure that stands in your way, confront it. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’” Hershfield suggests. “Are you really going to be negatively judged if you don’t do this right, and will it be worse to have not done it well than to have not tried?”

Make a Plan

Rather than vaguely telling yourself that you’ll start on a dreaded task tomorrow or next week, Hershfield recommends getting specific with the when, where and how — a strategy that Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University, calls “implementation intentions.” Hershfield says: “Put [the task] in your calendar. Not ‘next week,’ but ‘the fifth [of the month], after the kids go to bed, at the kitchen table, with your spouse.’”

Do Something — Anything

Whether it’s a writing project, a cleaning project or something else that daunts you, getting started is often the hardest part. If that’s the case, start in the middle. Get something done, whether it’s the logical first step or not — write a paragraph, even if it’s not the first one, and suddenly that paper will seem less intimidating. Hershfield also recommends another trick: If it’s a big task that you’re breaking up, don’t end at a natural stopping point. Keep the momentum going by beginning the next phase, so when you get back to it, you won’t have the initial anxiety of starting from scratch.

Think Small

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about a long-term project, focus on short-term goals. “It’s the same idea as the philosophy that underlies Alcoholics Anonymous — it’s not that I’m going to be sober for the rest of my life; I’m going to be sober today,” Hershfield says. “By thinking about what we have to do in more manageable terms, we narrow our attention, and before long each ‘today’ adds up to a long period of time.”

Empathize With the Future You

After his neuroimaging research revealed the disconnect that people feel with their future selves, Hershfield did a follow-up study in which he showed some subjects digitally aged pictures of themselves, then asked everyone how they would spend or invest an unexpected windfall. Those who were staring at their older-looking faces chose to tuck away more in a retirement account than those who weren’t. “Taking a minute to consider what it’s going to feel like tomorrow or five years from now if you do or don’t do something is likely to be more effective than just asking what’s in your best interest,” Hershfield says. “Conjure up the feeling of not having completed the task, and use that as motivation to do it.”

Create an Incentive

If your reason for constantly avoiding an activity is that it doesn’t bring you joy, find a way to make it more pleasurable. Can’t bring yourself to get on the exercise bike or treadmill? Pair it with your favorite TV show or podcast. If the task requires your full attention, promise yourself a reward once you’ve completed it.

Easy Does It

If you put off an activity against your better judgment, beating yourself up is not the remedy. “Feeling guilt is a form of double jeopardy,” Hershfield says. “We have to recognize that sometimes we need to do what feels better in the moment — while also understanding that if that’s all we did, we’d miss out on a lot.”

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