At first glance, it might seem as if the impulse to procrastinate a difficult or onerous activity makes perfect sense. Let’s say there’s a necessary task you’re not looking forward to doing—say, writing a paper. Writing a paper takes effort and can be mentally taxing. So doesn’t it make sense that you’d want to put it off as long as possible?
No, it doesn’t—at least, not from a rational point of view. This is, after all, a task you’re going to have to do at some point anyway. Putting it off doesn’t magically get you out of having to do it; it just delays the inevitable, often with activities that could charitably be described as “unproductive.” That’s why procrastination is defined as “the voluntary postponement of an intended course of action despite having the opportunity to act and expecting to be worse off as a result of the delay.” Logically, it would be better to just do your work in a disciplined fashion and get it over with. So why do we procrastinate?
The answer lies in the way your mind conceptualizes your present and your future self. A number of behavioral economics experiments illustrate the point.[2,3] In a classic paradigm, participants were first offered a choice between receiving $100 today or $110 tomorrow. Next, they were offered the same choice, but one month hence: take $100 in a month, or $110 in a month and a day.
When thinking about the option that’s a month out, subjects naturally made the “rational” decision of waiting one extra day to make an additional $10. But when faced with the same choice in the near-term, many people chose less money today over more money tomorrow.
The point of the study is not that we’re stupid or that our choices are wrong, but that we have an inconsistent way of conceptualizing time. Procrastination happens when you face a task that’s difficult or unpleasant, and, faced with feelings of stress and dread, you wind up “giving in to feel good”—meaning you push the difficult task off into the future so that you can breathe a sigh of relief in the present.
The tendency to do this depends on how disconnected your current self is from the person who’s actually going to suffer the consequences of the actions: your future self. Functional MRI studies show that when prompted to think about themselves ten years from now, some people have especially high activation in the rostral anterior cingulate, a region of the brain associated with thinking about others. These same people are more likely to choose an immediate smaller reward than wait for a bigger reward in the future.
In other words, we view future selves the same way we view strangers. Since we have trouble imagining the feelings of our future selves, we have no trouble taking actions in the present that inflict suffering on them. The result is that although we know we should exercise every day, sleep eight hours a night, and save for retirement, we nonetheless give the pleasures and temptations of the present greater weight than we do our long-term goals and priorities.
So if you want to improve your overall well being, reduce procrastination by relating to your future self.
1. Gollwitzer, P.M. Wieber, F. (2010). Overcoming procrastination through planning. In C. Andreou, M.D. White (Eds.), The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, (pp. 185–205). New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Soman, D., Ainslie, G., Frederick, S., Li, X., Lynch, J., & Moreau, P. et al. (2005). The psychology of intertemporal discounting: why are distant events valued differently from proximal ones? Marketing Letters, 16, 347–360.
3. Thaler, R. (1981). Some empirical evidence on dynamic inconsistency. Economics Letters, 8, 201–207.
4. Tice, D.M., & Bratslavsky, E. (2000). Giving in to feel good: the place of emotion regulation in the context of general self-control. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 149–159.
5. Ersner-Hershfield, H., Wimmer, E. G., & Knutson, B. (2008). Saving for the future self: neural measures of future self-continuity predict temporal discounting. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 4, 85–92.