It’s ironic, but I’m procrastinating this very second. I’m supposed to be reviewing some survey results for a series of leadership speeches I’ve landed with a giant energy company. But instead I’m writing this article.
It’s not like the motivation isn’t there. The client is paying a significant amount of money for me to deliver three talks in three days; so, I should be jumping up and down for joy and eager to dive in. But alas, writing material on time and productivity is easier and more fun for me than spending a half day poking around Google Scholar, reading dry academic papers, and creating compelling new slides. Besides, I can always get to it tomorrow, right?
Procrastination is the habit of putting off important, less pleasurable tasks by doing something that’s easier or more pleasurable. Email, Twitter, Facebook, food, and Netflix are a procrastinator’s best friends.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
To beat procrastination once and for all, you have to understand it. So, why do we procrastinate? There are a number of reasons that might spring to mind, such as:
- Not knowing where to begin
- The feeling that a task isn’t so important (Or at least, we don’t care about it so much)
But are these reasons really accurate? As I mentioned, I’m procrastinating right now—but it’s not because I’m overconfident. Despite having spoken professionally hundreds of times, I know I have to prepare well in order to deliver. Since I’m not new to writing speeches, I also know exactly how and where I need to begin. The decent paycheck I’m receiving makes it very important to me. Am I just being lazy? I wouldn’t say so. In fact, I’m accomplishing more work in the meantime.
No, you don’t procrastinate because you’re lazy, or for any of the aforementioned reasons. You procrastinate because:
- You lack motivation, and/or
- You underestimate the power of present emotions versus future emotions when you set your goals or make your task list.
People tend to procrastinate a wide variety of things. You might procrastinate by putting off that school report, or making those cold calls, or firing someone who clearly has to go, or cleaning out the garage.
But what if you could better anticipate your future emotions? What if you could feel the pain now of being up at three in the morning working on that report, instead of then? Or what if you could feel what it’s like to face yet another complaint against that toxic worker now, instead of next month?
If you could better connect your current self with your future self, you would muster up the motivation you need to accomplish the task now, and not then.
Psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California attempted to prove this in a recent study published in Psychological Science. They found that if people considered far-off events from the perspective of days rather than months or years, they acted more quickly.
For example, test subjects viewed an event like a friend’s wedding as being “16.3 days sooner when considered in days rather than months and 11.4 months sooner when considered in months rather than years.” In another test, participants were instructed to imagine they had a newborn child. Half of the participants were to consider that their “children” would begin college in 18 years, the other half in 6,570 days. Of course, this was the exact same amount of time. But did the way they counted time influence when would they start saving for that education?
Interestingly, the “parents” who looked at matters from a “days” perspective planned to start saving four times sooner than parents planning from a “years” perspective.
This experiment illustrated a valuable lesson: Procrastination can be overcome by finding a way to connect to your future self, now.
In the case of the experiment, participants changed the way they viewed time by thinking in terms of days rather than years. You could use the same method: Your project deadline isn’t in two months; it’s in less than 60 days. But wait; you’re not planning on working weekends. And you have two days a week that are filled with meetings. That means you only have 28 days left!
If you’re tempted to procrastinate, find a way to visualize your future self. Focus on the pain that results from putting things off, contrasted with the relief of having completed your task.
If you can do this successfully, your future self will thank you.
Originally published on Forbes.