When I woke up this morning, I had one goal: Finish this article by 11 a.m.
So, predictably, by the time it was 10 a.m., I had made and consumed two cups of coffee, taken out the trash, cleaned my room while taking a deliberately slow approach to folding my shirts, gone on a walk outside to clear my head, had a thing of yogurt and fruit to reward the physical exertion, sent an email to my aunt and sister, read about 100 Tweets (favorited three; written and deleted one), despaired at my lack of progress, comforted myself by eating a second breakfast, opened several tabs from ESPN.com on my browser ... and written absolutely nothing.
What's the matter with me?* Nothing, according to research that conveniently justifies this sort of behavior to my editors. Or, at least, nothing out of the ordinary for writers, as Megan McArdle has explained on this site. I'm just a terrible procrastinator.
Productive people sometimes confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful ("I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it"). The latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have time, and my fingers are on the keys, and the Internet connection is perfectly strong, and nobody is asking me to do anything else, but I just … don’t … feel like it.”).
When scientists have studied procrastination, they've typically focused on how people are miserable at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, everybody recognizes, in the abstract, that it's important to go to the dentist every few months. The pain is upfront and obvious—dental work is torture—and the rewards of cleaner teeth are often remote, so we allow the appointment to slip through our minds and off our calendars. Across several categories including dieting, saving money, and sending important emails, we constantly choose short and small rewards (whose benefits are dubious, but immediate) over longer and larger payouts (whose benefits are obvious, but distant).
In the last few years, however, scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination "really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
Instead, Ferrari and others think procrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we're in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future. See if you recognize any of these excuses...
- If I take a nap now, I’ll have more focus later.
- If I eat this cake now, that’ll be my cheat for the month, and I’ll have more willpower.
- If I send a few Tweets now, my fingers will be used to typing sentences, which will make this article easier to write.
- If I watch TV now, I’ll feel relaxed and more likely to call the doctor’s office tomorrow morning.
This approach isn’t merely self-defeating. It also creates a procrastination doom loop. Putting off an important task makes us feel anxious, guilty, and even ashamed, Eric Jaffe wrote. Anxiety, guilt, and shame make us less likely to have the emotional and cognitive energy to be productive. That makes us even less likely to begin the task, in the first place. Which makes us feel guilty. Which makes us less productive. And around we go.
The Procrastination Doom Loop
One thing that can cut through the doom loop is the inescapable pressure of an impending deadline. So what's the best way to design deadlines to make us more productive?
* Besides practicing the cliché of writing about one's procrastination as an introduction to analyzing it.