Procrastinators of the world, unite…tomorrow! While you might not feel motivated to quit your tendency to stall, you shouldn’t put off taking action any longer. Research indicates that procrastination can have a devastating impact on your physical and mental well-being. UCLA School of Management professor Hal Hershfield explores what triggers procrastination and unveils an attribute common to procrastinators: an inability to imagine the future in vivid detail. If you’re guilty of procrastination, let Hershfield help you to empathize with your future self and kick the habit once and for all.
- A whopping 85% of people feel irked by their tendency to procrastinate.
- Leaving tasks to the last minute can harm your mental and physical health.
- Procrastination arises from a mental time-travel fallacy and a failure to imagine a possible future in vivid detail.
- When you procrastinate, you fail to show empathy for your future self.
A whopping 85% of people feel irked by their tendency to procrastinate.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a chronic procrastinator. According to biographers, he was “much addicted to trifling amusement.” In October 1787, on the eve of the debut performance of Don Giovanni, Mozart engaged in a night of drunken revelry with his friends – even though he had yet to write the overture for the opera. In the wee small hours, friends persuaded him to return home, and in a flurry of intoxicated inspiration, Mozart composed the overture in just three hours. Scribes then painstakingly copied the score and distributed it to the members of the orchestra mere minutes before curtain-up. It is said that the ink on the pages was still wet when the musicians performed it for the first time to a rapturous reception.
“In putting something off until a later point in time, we’re failing to consider how much our future self will want to avoid the same negative emotions that we’re trying to avoid right now.”
Mozart is an anomaly. While many people put off completing jobs to the last possible moment, rarely does eleventh-hour work receive critical acclaim. Consider self-professed “master procrastinator” Tim Urban, the creator of the blog Wait But Why. When Urban put off writing his honors thesis until the last moment, rather than spending a year on it, he ultimately produced “a very, very bad thesis.” Most procrastinators wish they could overcome their affliction. Some 20% of people consider themselves to be chronic procrastinators, while 85% of people feel irritated by their tendency to procrastinate.
Leaving tasks to the last minute can harm your mental and physical health.
The word “procrastination” has roots in the Latin word procrastinare, meaning “put off until tomorrow,” but also in the Greek word akrasia, which means “doing something despite knowing that it’s against your better judgment.” Thus, procrastination isn’t merely the act of postponing but also of knowing that your stalling tactic is self-sabotaging.
“When we procrastinate, we do think about the future and our future selves but not in a particularly deep or meaningful manner.”
Procrastination can have grave consequences, according to psychologist Fuschia Sirois, which include depression, anxiety, hypertension and heart disease. Procrastinators are also less likely to schedule doctor’s appointments, exacerbating any health issues.
Procrastination arises from a mental time-travel fallacy and a failure to imagine a possible future in vivid detail.
Procrastination involves an error in mental time travel: When you put off unpleasant tasks, you’re prioritizing the desires of your present self above the needs of your future self – that is, you’re failing to properly consider the negative emotions you’ll face when you still need to do the task later.
“In thinking about the future in a merely surface-level way, we end up traveling to a different future than the one we meant to go to.”
People do think about their future selves when procrastinating, but only in a superficial way. For example, when you’re planning a vacation, you might visualize yourself enjoying the trip but fail to make detailed plans and arrangements to do everything you’d hoped to do. Consequently, you might not manage to visit the most popular tourist attractions, which often get booked up months in advance.
When you procrastinate, you fail to show empathy for your future self.
Psychology professor Tim Pychyl conducted a study of college students with Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon to gain deeper insights into procrastination. The researchers found that the students who procrastinated least shared one key attribute: They were able to imagine a possible future in vivid detail. The researchers asked subjects to picture a sunrise over an ocean, during hazy weather. Those who could envision the scene with vivid detail in their mind’s eye were most likely to feel a stronger connection to their future selves and avoid postponing tasks.
“Having an easier time fully and vividly imagining ourselves in the future may make it harder to justify putting something off to the version of ourselves who will suffer from today’s failures to act.”
Pychyl himself rarely procrastinates, something he attributes not only to his ability to imagine his future self’s needs but also to the empathy he has for this future self. He imagines the negative outcomes that may arise if he fails to treat this future version of himself with empathy: “He’s going to be under enormous amounts of stress, so let’s just do this thing now.” Don’t fail to act today when the person you’re harming is your future self.
About the Author
Hal Hershfield is a UCLA School of Management professor of marketing, psychology and behavioral decision-making.