The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It

Delaying hard work is all about your mood.
timojneumann/Flickr

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

The Atlantic

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.

People often schedule reminders to complete a project significantly before the deadline, so they have time to complete it. But this strategy often backfires. Some practiced procrastinators are both “present-biased” (they choose ESPN.com or BuzzFeed over work every time) and overconfident about their ability to remember important tasks, according to a new paper by Keith M. Marzilli Ericson. As a result, they often put off assignments, only to forget about it until long after the deadline. Procrastination and forgetfulness are bad, independently. Together, they're a double-headed meteor hammer smashing your productivity to tiny little bits. 

To hack your way to productivity, you could schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.

For pathological procrastinators, recognizing that we need deadlines to bind ourselves to our responsibilities is the first step. The second step is recognizing that our own deadlines are less effective than other people's deadlines.

In one famous experiment, Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages. One group got a weekly deadline for each passage, a second group got one deadline for all three readings, and the third group chose their own deadlines. Readers were rewarded for the errors they found and penalized a dollar for each day they were late. Group II performed the worst. The group with external deadlines performed the best. "People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, "and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines."

A more theoretical approach, from Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman writing in the new Journal of Consumer Research, aims to change "the way consumers think about the future." Tu and Soman point out that people have a habit of managing goals and tasks in specific time categories—we plan activities by the day, expenses by the month, and resolutions by the year. This way of thinking can separate us from future selves. When we say “I’ll start that project next week,” or “I’m starting my diet next month," what we're really saying is "I hope that after an arbitrary amount of time, I will be in a better mood to bind myself to this task." 

One study in their paper asked consumers to open a savings account within six months. One group was given a December deadline in June and a second group was given a January deadline in July. Although each group presumably contained a similar number of procrastinators, significantly more people in the first group chose to open their account immediately. When the deadline was a calendar year away, people were more likely to rationalize that they could put it off.

Finally, procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. "Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation," he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else. 

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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