Defeat Procrastination Tomorrow!

Monday, April 25, 2016

(AND Today!)

A professional psychology journal recently published an article about procrastination, which makes quite a few interesting observations, among them the following, which I'd never heard before:

In general, people learn from their mistakes and reassess their approach to certain problems. For chronic procrastinators, that feedback loop seems continually out of service. The damage suffered as a result of delay doesn't teach them to start earlier the next time around. An explanation for this behavioral paradox seems to lie in the emotional component of procrastination. Ironically, the very quest to relieve stress in the moment might prevent procrastinators from figuring out how to relieve it in the long run.

"I think the mood regulation piece is a huge part of procrastination," says Fuschia Sirois of Bishop's University, in Canada. "If you're focused just on trying to get yourself to feel good now, there's a lot you can miss out on in terms of learning how to correct behavior and avoiding similar problems in the future." [bold added]
Afterward, Sirois asked the test participants what they thought about the scenario. She found that procrastinators tended to say things like, "At least I went to the doctor before it really got worse." This response, known as a downward counterfactual, reflects a desire to improve mood in the short term. At the same time, the procrastinators rarely made statements like, "If only I had gone to the doctor sooner." That type of response, known as an upward counterfactual, embraces the tension of the moment in an attempt to learn something for the future. Simply put, procrastinators focused on how to make themselves feel better at the expense of drawing insight from what made them feel bad. [italics in original]
A translation, in terms actionable by the chronic procrastinator, might be: You need to develop a habit of considering the pain that fun little distraction you are about to indulge in is liable to cause yourself later on.

The article offers a few other ideas, but I think this one is central, and there is no need to wait for a professional consensus about better "interventions." We have free will, and the idea so fashionable today that psychological problems are illnesses, creates the illusion that the cavalry is coming. (This is not to deny either that there are psychologists who disagree with the idea or that some severe cases need professional help.) The key to taking advantage of the article's insights would, for the layman, seem to be to take action during any moment of clarity it might bring, and to find a way to remember that moment on the path to defeating procrastinatory habits.

The cavalry ain't coming, but there is hope.

-- CAV

P.S. I would add that the one thing anyone hoping to learn from the article ought to put off is deciding if it did them any good.


Kyle Haight said...

Interesting. My reaction to the bit you excerpted was that "At least I went to the doctor before it really got worse" was an identification of reality and the value significance of the choice that was actually made, while "If only I had gone to the doctor sooner" is an attempt to rewrite reality.

It would have been better if you had gone sooner -- but you didn't. Getting hung up in 'if only' has its own dangers.

Gus Van Horn said...


Those are valid points, although I wouldn't have a problem with "if only" as long as it really does lead to a behavioral change. Likewise, I can see that there is the risk of making it seem like I think the the reaction you favored can't lead to behavioral change.

That said, the former can be an indulgence in regret, the latter, (as I read it) an attempt to defend poor timing. Perhaps, recalling a high frequency of actions that would have been better had they been done sooner should be a spur to introspection.