by Jim Bruce
Procrastination, according to Merriam-Webster, is to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done. Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences recipient George Akerlof once found himself faced with a simple task: sending a friend and colleague a box of clothes the colleague had left behind in India after visiting Akerlof. Akerlof wanted to send the box but was faced with the Indian bureaucracy and a task he knew would be quite a hassle. So, he put off dealing with it day after day for eight months, only to return the box by way of another friend who was visiting him.1
James Surowiecki1 notes that Akerlof really intended to send the box to his friend “but the moment to act never arrived.” Akerlof, who today is one of the central figures in behavioral economics, came to realize that procrastination might be more than just a bad habit. George Ainslie who also studies procrastination argues that procrastination could well be called the “basic impulse.”1 And, that anxiety about it is a serious problem.
The word procrastination arrived in the English language in the 16th century and two centuries later Samuel Johnson was describing it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind.” Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, has reported that the number of people who admit to having difficulties with procrastination increased by a factor of four in the 24-year period from 1978 to 2002. This suggested to Surowiecki that procrastination may be the quintessential modern problem.
Steel defines procrastination as “willingly deferring something though you expect the delay to make you worse off.”1 I, and you, often delay a writing task until the last minute knowing the result may well be not as good as it would have been if we had started earlier. American workers forgo significant sums of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never get around to signing up. (Many employers with 401(k) plans now sign you up as part of the hiring process to avoid this situation.) In his history of General Motors, Sixty to Zero, Alex Taylor III concluded “Procrastination doesn’t pay” noting that the company’s bankruptcy was due in part to the executives strong inclination to delay tough decisions.
Surowiecki notes toward the end of his essay “This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.” The obvious question then is why we do that? Charlotte Lieberman, writing in her essay “Why You Procrastinate. (It Has Nothing to do With Self-Control.)”2 provides some insight.
She notes that Calgary’s Steel talks about procrastination as “self-harm.” From Lieberman’s point-of-view, self-awareness is the key part of procrastination that makes us “feel rotten.” “When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea. And yet, we do it anyway.” Lieberman continues: “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of the inability to manage negative moods around a task. … [It’s] a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks – boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-dough and beyond.”
Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa and Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, in their 2013 study,3 “found that procrastination can be understood as ‘the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.’ Put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on the ‘immediate urgency of managing negative moods’ than getting on with the task.”2
When we procrastinate, we do have some momentary relief – a short or longer reward for procrastinating, for not doing what we know we should be doing – and that makes the cycle vicious. When we do something and are rewarded for it, we have motivation to do it again.
As I write this, I note that I have taken many short interruptions, sometimes because an unrelated thought crosses my mind and I stop my writing to chase the thought before I lose it – what time is the UPS driver going to deliver the package that should have been delivered yesterday, check my phone as it sounded the arrival of new video of my great-granddaughter, etc. Each of these interruptions, short procrastinations, yielded a reward. And, when I got back to the essay, I expended some small or large overhead to get restarted.
Lieberman puts it this way “Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.” Psychologist Hal Hershfield, professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management says it this way: “We really were not designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.” His research has shown that “on a neural level we perceive our ‘future selves’ more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off – and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side – are somebody else’s problem.”
James Clear4 says it this way: ”Behavioral psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called ‘time inconsistency,’ which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. … [I]magine that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself … you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term rewards.”
“However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self. Researchers have discovered that the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.”
So, think about that important, high-priority task that has been sitting at the top of your To-Do list for the past week. And, think about all the much smaller, likely less important things that you decided to do instead – after all they will only take a few minutes – of focusing on the high-priority task. I know that you’ve done this because it, all too often, is the trap that I also fall into almost every day.
As you go through this week, try to capture your actions, even the short ones such as I noted earlier, as you defer working on those high-priority tasks to take on the tasks that you can do quickly, those that will only take a “minute.” And, also note the sense of gratification you get from completing each of those tasks. I think you’ll be surprised.
Next week, we’ll talk about some steps you can take to better control your tendency to procrastinate.
Make it a great week for you and for your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.