Understanding procrastination

Do you tend to procrastinate? I certainly do, at times. But I just read a couple articles about procrastination (thanks to Julie Bestry and Debra Baida, who shared them on Twitter), which provided some valuable insights into how procrastination works and what this means for time management.

Why we procrastinate: time inconsistency

On his personal website, James Clear wrote about time inconsistency: “the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”

As Clear went on to explain:

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.

In this article and another one, Clear provides useful strategies for fighting the effects of time inconsistency and overcoming procrastination. Personally, I realized that when I’ve been most successful in fighting procrastination, I’ve actually said to myself, “Future Me is going to be so glad I did this!” And that’s one of the strategies: vividly visualizing the benefits your future self will enjoy.

One tiny example: I ran errands on a lovely Monday, even when I was feeling lazy and could have put them off for a day, because I knew Future Me would be very glad to not have to leave the house in the forecasted downpour the following Tuesday.

Why procrastination can sometimes be useful

Adam Grant’s recent article in The New York Times was provocatively titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” Grant explained that he tends toward pre-crastination: “the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible.”

But what he came to realize is that for creative tasks (preparing a speech, writing a term paper, etc.) a certain amount of procrastination can be useful. Beginning the project but not rushing to complete it gave him a better result than finishing as quickly as he could. As he explained:

Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. … When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.

But even for creative efforts, there can be too much procrastination. Those who wait until the last minute to begin a project have to “rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

So for creative tasks, setting a schedule that allows for some procrastination time may be wise. I know I can write a blog post quickly, but my writing often benefits from taking extra time to ponder the subject. You may well have similar projects that could use that extra time, too.

4 Comments for “Understanding procrastination”

  1. posted by StillPJ on


    Worlds have collided … two of my favourite websites together at last!

    Thanks Jeri, for referencing James Clear. I love his work and his writing, and I for one would love to hear more from Unclutterer about how procrastination and personality characteristics play into how we organize (or don’t organize!) our homes and our lives.

    For those interested in reading more about procrastination, habit formation, and achieving goals, you can sign up to receive regular emails from James Clear. Consistently good and readable articles, with usually at least one “take away” thought, idea, or strategy to try.

  2. posted by jo silverman on

    The second mouse gets the cheese.

  3. posted by Jo on

    I am a true procrastinator. The idea that I could convince myself that the “future me” would be so happy that I did it now just wouldn’t work. I’ve tried it, and the present is always more powerful than the future. Not that I put everything off, or I would be having some serious problems in the now. But, I’ve been plenty sorry at times when I have put something off, so why don’t I learn from it? I’m a procrastinator, though with my husbands help, I have gotten better. I believe that selfishness has a great deal to do with it. That I can’t stand, yet I live with it. Wow! I’d better go have a talk with God, I may be in trouble here. I believe It is more rewarding to please someone else, than to please myself. So maybe the key to this procrastination is to think how it may effect others. Hey, good talk, thanks.

  4. posted by TootsNYC on

    I keep trying to persuade my h.s. son that he should start early so he can use creative procrastination. Get some of the research done for his paper, do an outline, write an intro or a couple of sections. Then let it percolate, and think about what else you might need (research from the new area you’e thought of to explore), or how else to organize it, or other ways to say it. Or sometimes a point to make about it.

    But you need to leave yourself time to go away and come back.

    In fact, I need to start doing this myself. Because when I leave it to the end, I find myself having to make do without certain supplies, resources, planning that would get me a much better end result.

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