So I finally got around to listening to a recording of an interview with Dr. Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University, about his research on procrastination. It only took me two months! And now, about two months later, I’m finally writing about it!
Growing up, I was the queen of procrastination. I generally waited until the last minute to do schoolwork and other tasks, figuring that they would take less of my time that way. And if I didn’t feel like doing something, I told myself it would be better to wait until I did so that I would be “more efficient.”
This philosophy worked more or less just fine for me all the way through college and up until I attained ABD (All But Dissertation) status in grad school. Obviously, waiting until the last minute doesn’t fly very well with a dissertation. And because I rarely spent enough time on it to get excited, I didn’t feel like working on it very often. It was clear I was never going to finish if I went on like this. And I have to say, although I was getting a lot of other things done as I avoided the hard work of writing, the weight of that huge, unfinished project was getting heavier and heavier. Not to mention my self-esteem demons were whispering louder and louder: “Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe you’re not ever going to finish it.”
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending – I did finally finish my dissertation! But how? In listening to Tim’s interview, I realized that I made two critical changes that are borne out in the procrastination research. I stopped waiting until I felt like it, and I made a connection between my present and future self.
Stop Waiting Until You Feel Like It
One of the main points that Dr. Pychyl stressed in his interview was that it is really important to stop waiting until you feel like doing something. This is a surefire recipe to put a task off indefinitely. And the reality is, whether or not you feel like doing something has nothing to do with whether or not you need to do it. Good writers often report that they have to force themselves to sit down everyday and write, whether they are in the mood or not. And as Anne Lamott says, it’s “bird by bird” – one step at a time. But if you never get started, you’ll never get past that first step. For me, this meant sitting down to work on the dissertation even if I had a very long list of other things I would rather be doing! What made me decide it was worthwhile to sit down and do something I didn’t want to do? I think it had a lot to do with the connection I finally made to my future self.
Connect to Your Future Self
A second finding from Dr. Pychyl’s research is that we have to make a connection between what our present self does or doesn’t do, and what the consequences will be for our future self. In my case, after many years I realized (or maybe admitted is a better word) that if I didn’t do my dissertation now, in the future I would be very disappointed in myself, not to mention stressed. Making a connection to one’s future self is actually harder than it would seem, because we use completely different parts of our brain. When we think about our present self, we use certain areas of our prefrontal cortex, but when we think about our future self, we use completely different areas. The same areas, as a matter of fact, that we use when thinking about strangers. So literally, our brain views our future self as a stranger!
This means that we have to do some very conscious visualization, or “time travel,” to realize that someday, our future self will no longer be a stranger, but our present self. And if we don’t want our future self to feel the pain or stress that goes along with our procrastination, our present self needs to take action now! If you saw the most recent X-Men movie, “Days of Future Past,” you’ll recognize this concept in how difficult it was for Charles (the Patrick Stewart character) to convince his younger self to take action now to save his future self (and in his case, the world). Fortunately, most of us don’t have quite that level of pressure riding on our ability to befriend our future self.
So, the next time you have a task that you’re avoiding, maybe you can convince yourself to take that first step by viewing it as a gift you are giving to your future self!