Why in the world do we wait until the last minute?
Tomorrow - a mystical land where 98 per cent of all human productivity, motivation and achievement is stored." (Unknown)
Are you familiar with this way of thinking? It can be just about any task. There's no particular characteristic of the task except perhaps that I don't feel like doing it, at least not right now. I had intended to do it now; it was my intention a few days ago.
That's the thing about my good intentions, they seem like a real plan - then. But, the time comes for action, and I find myself sorting through my email inbox, tidying my desk, alphabetising a playlist on my iPod, channel surfing, anything really.
The thing is, I don't like living this way, but I can't seem to change. I don't understand it. I only work under pressure, living deadline to deadline. Why can't I just do it?" But, why do we procrastinate? It's probably true for many of us that we will get the task done tomorrow. For some, it's because a good night's sleep restored reserves of willpower and we actually do feel more energy for the task at hand, no matter how aversive. That's one thing about our future self, it may have qualities that differ from our present self
For others, the task will get done not from some exercise of renewed will, but from adrenaline-filled panic. Sure, it's motivating, but it's not the most autonomous sense of our own being. If we find ourselves acting like this often, it can also lead to deep feelings of self doubt.
Why in the world do I always wait until the last minute to get anything done? Again, there are many answers to this question. Let me focus on two.
First, task avoidance has probably become a habit. When we faced aversive tasks in the past, we avoided them to seek short-term mood repair. A habit is formed.
The next time we face an aversive task, we avoid it, and we do this again and again until there is no time left. At that last minute when we're left with the task, we may regret it, but that's the nature of bad habits.
The second reason some people offer up for their chronic last-minute efforts is that they often say, "I'll feel more like doing it tomorrow," I also hear "I work better under pressure.
Given that experiments have shown that we make more errors under pressure, we don't really work "better" under pressure. We work under pressure because we habitually and needlessly delay our tasks, and it's the only kind of motivation that seems to work for us.
So, what's the bottom line here?
There are three main points I think we can take away from all of this.
>We procrastinate in order to feel good now. It's short-term mood repair that is immediately reinforcing and this sets up a long-term habit.
>Once we have a habit, we don't even stop to think about what we're going to do.
It's unconscious. When we face an aversive task, something that is boring, frustrating, low on enjoyment or something we don't know how to do, we put it off.
That's the procrastination habit.
>Breaking the procrastination habit requires we first recognise the short-term gains we're seeking with the avoidance, and how specious this reward is in our lives. Once we bring that into conscious awareness, we need to do the hard work of habit breaking. We have to act against the prepotent response of avoidance.
It is a precipitous moment in which even a little action will begin the self-change which we seek. Just get started. Don't over think it. Just pick a place within the task, anything, and get started. Progress fuels well-being, well-being fuels motivation, and there is habit-breaking power in this process.
Timothy A Pychyl is director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada)
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