I envy my friend Lori (name changed to protect the shy). She has reached adulthood possessing one of my most sought-after traits: self-discipline. She regularly makes healthy choices about what she eats, then rewards herself on a weekly “cheat day,” when she eats anything she wants. She gets up early every morning to exercise, and at 50 looks and moves more like 35. She gets her work done ahead of schedule, then saves her evenings and weekends for the things that bring her pleasure. That is one of the great tasks of growing up, is it not — learning to delay gratification? Those of us who don’t learn to get the less pleasurable stuff done first grow up instead to become habitual procrastinators.
Much has been researched and written regarding procrastination. Procrastination is described both as a state, as in “I am procrastinating that task,” and as a trait, as in, “I am a procrastinator.” In the previous paragraph, it sounds to me like I am more convinced that procrastination is a … state? That it’s something I can change if I put my mind to it? That I can become disciplined INSTEAD of procrastinating, that I can learn instead to delay gratification and thus become a more productive person and that perhaps more happiness will follow? Let’s go with that explanation for a minute.
[Note: Now, some of you are going to be tempted to stop reading when you come to the words “biology” and “dopamine.” Please hang in; it will only last for a moment.] Some of the biology behind procrastination has to do with the release of dopamine in the brain with certain pleasurable, “rewarding” behaviors. Simply put, dopamine acts on your brain by making you want to repeat behaviors. With behaviors like playing video games, checking Facebook, or watching a funny TV show, we get small, continuous rewards via dopamine release. For other tasks that we are putting off — such as that research paper that is due in school, or finally getting taxes done, or getting that report done at work — the reward comes later, after the project is completed, and it’s only once. With that in mind, it may be helpful to schedule more frequent rewards to train yourself toward task completion. Write down your goals, make a plan, stick to it for an amount of time that you know is a reasonable expectation and even set a timer for yourself (the suggested period of time is 25 minutes), then reward yourself with a quick check of your social media site, a snack, or whatever. This is a tried and true approach, called the Pomodoro Technique (Nowell, 2013).
It turns our that procrastination isn’t as simple a topic as it may appear on first glance: a basic time delay that makes life more stressful. Procrastination is a fairly complicated topic, and is related to stress, self-esteem, motivation, personality, fear, anger, empathy, mindfulness, and coping. Research shows a negative correlation between procrastination to self-compassion (Sirois, 2014). Self-compassion is an adaptive quality — one that helps us on our journey to well-being. Self-compassion involves recognizing and accepting our own human failings; in contrast to the hyper-critical stance that some of us take when judging our own failings, self-compassion involves viewing ourselves kindly when we are faced with suffering due to things that happen to us AND due to things that happen because of our own failings (Neff, 2003). So, basically, the research shows that the more we procrastinate, the more we view ourselves negatively. Or, that the more we view ourselves negatively, the more we procrastinate — the direction of the relationship between the two factors isn’t clear. Regardless, procrastination is not a happy place to dwell. Armed with this information, it may be useful to not only try to cut procrastination off at the pass by changing behaviors (using Pomodoro Technique), but by changing the way we think and feel about ourselves.
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, procrastination researcher, suggests that the better we are at visualizing ourselves in the future, the better we are at getting things done now, rather than waiting until some future date (Pychyl & Sirois, 2013). I love this idea of enlisting my future self to help me get unstuck in my present. I tried this out for the past couple of weeks. And, by the way, this is called imagery intervention. So, I’m working the imagery intervention on my own darn self. I have used this in several different scenarios, such as: I am trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, or to eat at all. I ask myself, “How would my future self feel about this choice? Will my future self be happy I skipped breakfast? Will my future self be happy I ate a chocolate chip cookie and a Diet Coke for breakfast? Will my future self be glad I took five minutes to scramble some eggs and eat a half-grapefruit?” And I visualize how I really will feel tomorrow for each of the choices. And I’m telling you what, it is powerful! It may be that power is in the mindfulness of this process, which is a critical component to self-compassion. And guess what, the more self-compassion, the less procrastination. You see how that works?
In conclusion, as U2 reminds us, “you’ve got to get yourself together. You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it. Don’t say that later will be better.” Set some goals, write them down, be specific, imagine how your future self is going to feel when you accomplish right now what you’re considering accomplishing. Above all, be kind to yourself. C’mon.
peace and love,
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85 – 101.
Nowell, D. (2013). Manage procrastination with the Pomodoro Technique. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intrinsic-motivation-and-magical-unicorns/201307/manage-procrastination-the-pomodoro-technique.
Pychyl, T. & Sirois, F. (2013). Procrastination and the priority of short-term mood regulation: Consequences for future self. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115-127.
Sirois, F. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13(2), 128-145.