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.