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Procrastination: Present Self v Future Self

It’s taken me three weeks to write this post.

Ever since I heard Dr Tim Pychyl talk about procrastination, I’ve been meaning to write something down.

It just hasn’t happened. I’m not trying to be cheeky or intentionally self-referential, it’s just that life got busy these past few weeks, and there didn’t seem to be a good window of opportunity.

I had my job. There were meetings. And that family get-together. And I’ve been trying to stay active with three hours of basketball each week.

Of course, there was also that evening I watched the Raptors play. And that trashy novel I read last weekend. And I’m pretty sure I went out for dinner at least a couple of times.

Was I procrastinating?

To answer that question, Dr. Pychyl says I need to consider the relationship between my current self, me sitting here today, and my future self, me in that mystical place called tomorrow, where procrastinators believe “98% of all human productivity, motivation and achievement is stored.”

When I voluntarily put something off, even though I know it’s going to leave me in worse position, that’s procrastination. It brings with it that nagging guilt of knowing I should be doing something other than what I’m doing.

But sometimes I’m right in leaving something for my future self to manage, like at the end of the day when I’m tired, or when an unexpected opportunity presents itself.

It’s knowing that all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

There are significant costs in procrastination, including:
1)   slagging performance
2)   health and well-being due to delay in treatment
3)   stress
4)   relationships (bailing on others)
5)   regrets (saying they were going to and didn’t, putting off life)

So if the costs are significant, why do we do it? According to research at Carlton University’s Centre for Initiatives in Education, it’s not a time management issue, but a failure of self-regulation. Procrastinators are giving in to feeling good.

There are many ways self-regulation can develop, though living life with purpose and structure is a common element. We delay gratification when we feel hungry for something. Will power is a muscle that needs to be exercised.

Dr Pychyl suggests that implementation intentions are useful tools for overcoming procrastination. In situation X, I will do behavior Y to help me achieve subgoal Z. In my current circumstance, that might sound something like, on NFL Sundays, I will sit down to write before I turn on the television so I can make sure I get my blog posts done.

The key is to just get started. When we make progress on a goal, it changes the character of that experience. It remains stressful until I start the task.

That’s when we discover it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

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