Why Do We Procrastinate The Things We Want Most?

Hey, gang, it’s time for another WONDERFUL Guest Blogger! As you know, I only share the best writers with you all, and this girl is no exception. Without further adeau, I give you Christine Hill

Why Do We Procrastinate the Things We Want Most?

By Christine Hill

I think one of the most useful skills that I learned in college was how to write a 10-page paper in one night.

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That’s right. I was one of those students. The major pity is that I kept getting away with it, so I really didn’t have much incentive to change my ways. Now that I’m an adult and there are certain things that simply CANNOT be put off (like the rent check) I’ve learned a little bit more self-regulation. But procrastination is still something I struggle with.

20% of the population considers themselves “chronic procrastinators.” And because it has such a major impact on job performance, tapping into our potential, and creative power, it’s the subject of an awful lot of research. For business start-ups and managers, especially, it can be difficult to decide when to “pull the trigger” and just put an idea into action. Amidst all the research, I think the most effective insights into procrastination are detailed by Tim Urban, author of Wait but Why.

A vivid dramatization of the procrastinator’s struggle is the subject, both on his website, and in his TED talk. Check it out below. It will strike a dramatic chord with anyone who has found themselves panicking the day before a major essay is due.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU

Because so many people tend to procrastinate, it can be hard to share a one-size-fits all solution. Instead, I’m going to share a few different ways to look at it, and you can decide which one strikes a chord for you:

Connect with the Future Self

One study at Stanford monitored the neural pathways of subjects when they were asked to envision themselves, a stranger, and their future self. For some students, envisioning their future self was much closer to envisioning a stranger than to envisioning their current selves. Others felt a closer kinship and continuity with the future self. Can you guess which group held the worst procrastinators?

Many behavioral theorists believe that procrastination is caused by a disconnect between the current and future self. We prioritize immediate gratification over long-term rewards. There are a few ways that you can trick yourself out of this mindset, though. A study at USC found that when people phrase future plans and deadlines in terms of days rather than months or years, they’re more likely to take action quickly. For example, 3 months away feels a lot farther than 90 days or less. So, in order to connect with your future self, or overcome the divide:

  • Think in terms of days, or even hours.
  • Be realistic about your future expectations.
  • Make a habit of visualizing your future self and the consequences you’ll need to deal with.

Focus on One Step at a Time

Another study on procrastination observed that students procrastinated less if the deadlines were closer and the projects were smaller. In other words, dividing a big task into a lot of little tasks can motivate you to get a project done better. This might sound really obvious, but the science–and the actual implementation of it–is always more complicated than it seems at first.

Breaking down a large task into numerous small ones takes advantage of our natural tendency to value immediate gratification over long-term results. After all, it’s hard to look forward to the reward of working out every day when it could take months for you to start seeing results. However, if you start anticipating a reward that you get with every workout, it can be a lot easier to motivate yourself. Even the rush of completing a task can activate our brain’s reward center. So, in order to use your natural instincts to your own advantage, try breaking down large tasks into small ones with lots of deadlines. Instead of getting overwhelmed with a colossal task, take it one step at a time.

Confronting Fear

I saved this approach for last because for me, it’s the most striking and motivating. It boils down to one cold hard fact: we procrastinate to avoid pain. To be completely blunt, procrastinators let their life be ruled by fear. Look back at the Wait but Why illustration. Only when the fear of turning in nothing overwhelms the fear of turning in something crappy (i.e. the Panic Monster kicks into high gear) does anything get done.

Phil Stutz and Barry Michels shared an excellent parallel to help procrastinators overcome the habit. They theorize that every procrastinator procrastinates simply in order to avoid pain for as long as possible. Think about the things you put off; they’re unpleasant things that you don’t want to face. It’s a social situation that could be awkward, a time that you risk rejection, something that will require effort and sweat from you. Phil came to know the star runner on the High School football team and came to learn something profound. This boy wasn’t the star runner because he was better at running. He wasn’t stronger or faster than anyone else. He was the best because he ran toward pain instead of trying to avoid it.

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He knew that when he tackled someone, it would hurt for a minute, but afterward, he would feel on top of the world! So he learned to run toward pain because on the other side was his actual goal.

Megan Mcardle posits an interesting theory in her article “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.” She points out that kids who were good at English class tend to have a “fixed mind-set” instead of a “growth mind-set” and believe that tests and challenges aren’t a way to learn new things, but rather it’s a way to sift people into their fixed values. Therefore, the true fear behind procrastination is that ultimately, we’re not enough, and now it will be proven to everyone.

Therefore, when you’re tempted to procrastinate, you need to ask yourself one simple question: are you going to be ruled by fear?

Christine is a professional writer and an avid reader who’s passionate about storytelling in all its forms. At any given moment, she’s in the middle of at least three books on anything from human psychology to ninjas. Although she’s a marathon swimmer and enjoys camping in the mountains, she believes there’s nothing better than a carton of ice cream and a Dawson’s Creek marathon.

I need to tell you all, that during the time I was trying to get this post up, the biggest problem I encountered was, you guessed it, procrastination. (Thanks, God!) I guess this is a timely message for all of us. And P. S., Christine, I am a firm believer in the power of a pint of ice cream to make all things better. 🙂



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2 responses to “Why Do We Procrastinate The Things We Want Most?

  1. I read this while procrastinating on doing a lesson plan for a student I have to tutor in three hours. (It’s 5:30 in the morning, and I had to get up early because I would not do the lesson plan the night before.) Wow.
    This could be a life-changer for me.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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