What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves?November 19th
Imagine that you are Adam, a busy college senior assigned with the daunting task of completing a 30-page paper for your American history class. Although you saw the assignment on your syllabus when the class began in September, this paper was not even a blip on your radar until October. Then, as Halloween passed and November rolled around, it became a small, distant missile on the horizon, but you still dismissed the impending catastrophe in the same cavalier way a sailor looks at the sunny morning sky and scoffs at the forecast of an evening nor’easter. Now, only days remain before your Civil War paper is due, and as you scramble to perform in seven days a mission designed to take 90, you have no choice but to ask yourself why: why have you put off the inevitable and made writing this paper a thousand times more difficult? What does that tell you about yourself and, by extension, the entire procrastination-prone human race? And, more importantly, what can you do in the future to prevent this behavior from recurring?
One thing that these delay tactics tells us is that we’re not very logical. You dillydallied for three months, fully aware that doing so would increase your anxiety. And you’re not alone. Each year, millions of Americans pay penalties to the IRS because they didn’t file their tax returns on time. Similarly, 70 percent of glaucoma patients don’t use their eye drops as prescribed, risking permanent blindness. And how many people do you know who fail to take advantage of their companies’ 401(k) matching option? On an institutional level, the U.S. auto industry surely is the poster child for procrastination, failing to address employee pension issues for years and winding up bankrupt because of it.
All of this personal and corporate illogic begs the question: why does it keep happening? People don’t become happier when they procrastinate; in fact, 76 percent of a group of students surveyed in one study specifically indicated that putting off writing a term paper would only stress them out more. One theory being considered by researchers speculates that people delay completing tasks because they are led astray by the temptation of present rewards. You may recognize the importance of your history paper, but there may be more pressing wants and needs: a friend’s party, a trip to see your parents for the weekend, or even another dreaded assignment, but one which is due next Monday instead of weeks from now.
Our tendency to push tasks into the future also provides evidence of some other interesting quirks of human nature. We are, for instance, more than willing to justify our prevarication by expanding or contracting the amount of future time the job will take us to complete. Last week, you might have thought of starting your history paper and decided against it, reassuring yourself that composing the first two pages would only take you an hour. Or, you may have inflated the time it would require, making the task so big that it didn’t make sense to even begin to tackle it on that day. You may have said something like this, “My paper is big. It requires a six-hour block of uninterrupted time in the library. I only have two hours today, but I’ll carve out a big chunk next weekend.” And on and on it goes.
In addition to playing “time games” with ourselves, we also avoid tasks by setting unrealistic expectations for others and ourselves. Remember Union General George McClellan from your American history class? His picture should be next to “procrastination” in the dictionary. After all, he missed out on two golden opportunities in 1862 to vanquish the Confederacy—all because he didn’t want to make a move. He succumbed to a lethal mix of overwhelming fear of his opponent and conviction of his troops’ own inadequacy.
What should General McClellan have done to overcome his paralysis? How, for that matter, can you keep from making your life miserable because of procrastination? If putting off until tomorrow is the result of a psychic war being fought in your head between the part of you that makes the plans and the other part that is assigned to execute them, how do you declare a “cease fire?” One way is to convince your inner pleasure-seeker, the guy who wants to delay doing the job, that doing so might jeopardize the chances for future fun. Sure, postponing your paper in favor of partying until dawn might look appealing now, but it would mean that you will almost certainly be locked in your room all next weekend when you had originally planned to visit your parents. Better to put your nose to the grindstone today; there will always be other all-night parties.
Another great procrastination-busting strategy comes in the form of external tools. Use motivators like contracts and deadlines to prod yourself into action. If you need rewards—and who doesn’t—divide your task into bite-sized parts and give yourself a little present each time you accomplish one. Finally, you can limit the temptations that might get in the way of your ultimate goal. Tell your friends, for instance, not to invite you to upcoming events until you have completed your assignment.
This college paper that’s freaking you out right now will eventually be written. Yet, you have a lifetime of similar daunting assignments in your future. So instead of breathing a sigh of relief when you finally turn the paper in and going back to your old bad habits, begin taking positive steps to ban procrastination from your life forever. By doing so, you will reduce your stress and enhance your quality of life by leaps and bounds.