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published: 12 Dec 2023 in People & relations

Today, tomorrow, never. The science behind procrastination

Kamila Brzezińska
Kamila Brzezińska

Editor

“Never leave that till tomorrow that which you can do today.” – advises the famous quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. As procrastination becomes a prevalent issue negatively impacting our professional and personal goals, researchers attempt to answer the question: why are we so bad at honoring commitments? In this piece, we will look into the science of procrastination through the lens of three psychological phenomena: present bias, delayed gratification, and temporal discounting. We will also delve into their implications in the decision-making process and try to suggest some strategies on how to combat – and win with – procrastination.
Today, tomorrow, never. The science behind procrastination

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Have you ever got yourself a subscription to a gym, yet you've never stepped inside of one? Or perhaps you vowed to yourself that this year, this time, you will finally master a new language – but as the evening and the scheduled studying session approaches ­– you find yourself watching “The Italian Job” instead of actually learning Italian?

If the answer is “yes”, then I’ve got some news for you.

The good news is – you don’t have to feel guilty and blame yourself for not meeting your time management expectations. It’s not just you being lazy – scientific research indicates that we might just be wired to procrastinate.

The bad news – well, apparently we might be wired to procrastinate. And if rewiring a plug is quite a feat, rewiring your brain will not be an easier goal to meet.


Phenomenon 1: Present bias – “Tomorrow never comes”

Present bias is a cognitive phenomenon that explains our tendency to prioritize immediate rewards over future gains (O'Donoghue and Rabin, 1999). This present-oriented outlook may lead us to avoid short-term discomfort and prioritize fun, even if this decision will come back to haunt us in the long run.

Source: Calvin and Hobbes

Source: Calvin and Hobbes

To put it in perspective: yes, if you went for a run, you would probably have more energy, sleep better, and be a step closer to achieving your preferred body weight, but… that would also mean changing into your fancier sweatpants, braving the cold weather, etc.

Each time, all that effort to achieve some distant prospective gains is contrasted with the immediate discomfort avoidance, which you get by simply staying at home. On top of that, by staying in not only you avoid discomfort but also you're able to reap immediate rewards. After all, the cozy couch in your apartment has never looked more inviting, and if you really wanted to keep the theme of running, you could just watch a BTS Run video.

When you combine all of the above factors, it is a no-brainer that your brain finds the second prospect significantly more appealing.


Phenomenon 2: Delayed gratification – “To eat or not to eat”

There have been several studies on procrastination, but perhaps the one best known is the 1972 Stanford “marshmallow” experiment.

During the study, a group of 32 children, in the age range from 3 to 5 years old – so rather unusual test subjects – were given a single marshmallow each. The kids were told that they could eat the treat right away, but if they managed to stop themselves from doing so, they would receive an additional sweet. The researcher then left the child alone and returned after about 15 minutes to check the progress. (Mischel and Ebbesen, 1970)

The results were surprising: around 70% of the tested children couldn’t wait, while only 30% had enough self-restraint to get the coveted second confection. The promise of a future gain seems less attractive than the temptation of present gratification.

Even more surprising were the measures by which the 30% managed to resist the marshmallows. The researchers observed:

"(some children) covered their eyes with their hands, rested their heads on their arms, and found other similar techniques for averting their eyes from the reward objects. Many seemed to try to reduce the frustration of delay of reward by generating their own diversions: they talked to themselves, sang, invented games with their hands and feet, and even tried to fall asleep while waiting - as one successfully did." (Mischel and Ebbesen, 1970)

Interestingly, it seems like it was not the thought of the future compounded interest that helped the participants to succeed, but rather their ability to distract themselves from temptation.

Fifteen years after the original experiment the researchers contacted the original children, now in their late teens, and found out that this resolve was also noticeable in their adult lives. Those who waited as kids were now more successful, achieving higher SAT scores, having better BMI index, and more. (Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriguez, 1989).

Finally, over the years the experiment was repeated several times and all over the world. And yet since 1972, the results remain remarkably consistent: two-thirds of the participants cannot resist the thrill, while one-third prevail thanks to their strength of will.


Phenomenon 3: Temporal discounting – “Despicable (future) me”

Our tendency to make decisions based on the present outcomes is amplified by another aspect: how we perceive ourselves in the future.

This question was somewhat answered by a 2009 study led by Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

The participants were asked to answer questions about the degree to which various traits, such as “funny” or “honorable”, applied to current selves, current others, and future selves and future others. As this was happening, their heads were MRI scanned to record which parts of their brains would light up. And soon, Hershfield’s team was in for a surprise.

The researchers found that the brain activity of the participants perceived the future versions of themselves in a way one would perceive an altogether different person and not our temporal extension.

That is to say, when imagining yourself in a month or a year, your brain plays a trick on you: it registers this Future You in a similar way it would register a virtual stranger.

To put it simply: to your brain, the You of Tomorrow is not particularly different from a person passing you on a busy street. And sure, you don’t actively wish this individual any harm – but neither do you particularly care about his discomforts or plans for the day.

That’s why it’s so easy for the Present You to say: “Eh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Thus you outsource an unpleasant duty to the You of Tomorrow – and who likes this guy, anyway?


The implications of procrastination

Each of these psychological and neurological phenomena can have a long-lasting impact on various areas of our lives.

Starting from time management (“Sure, I can do it! Just not now, because, as Scarlett O’Hara wisely pointed out, tomorrow is another day!”), to investing (“This cute new coat or a prepayment on my mortgage? Decisions, decisions…”) and health (“I could eat the salad, but darn, that cheeseburger looks so good…”).

It can also divert our career paths, and stop us from achieving academic and professional success.


What can we do about it?

At this point, I imagine you must be asking yourself: “Ok, great… so we have both our neurological wiring and cognitive tendencies working against us. Is there anything we can do about it?”

Thankfully, the answer is: kind of?

So, the bad news is that there is no reliable way of rewiring your brain. Sorry to get your hopes up.

But... there are certain strategic maneuvers you could try in your lifelong battle with procrastination. The most notable ones boil down to:

Sabotage your enemy: make the Future You do what the Current You doesn’t want to do

It seems almost bizarre to put this procrastination in the context of a battle between two versions of yourself. And yet, it would be very much accurate.

Look, somebody has to the yoga class the Past You was moaning about for two months. And this isn’t The Hunger Games, so of course the Current You isn't exactly going around proclaiming: “I volunteer!”.

The Future You, though – well, that’s someone who clearly was born for the role of Katniss Evergreen. And even if not – well, too late, baby, you’ve already been cast, and you can’t afford to pay the breach of contract cost. So, the Future You will become a master yoga body bender – whether they like it or not. You just have to make it virtually impossible for them not to do it.

And that is something that you can do. Because, as they say, better him than you.

Moreover, and I don’t know how to break it to you, but here it goes: you’re a wizard, Harry! Or perhaps more like a poor man’s Time Lord, but you get the gist: you have the power to control the time. And all right, I admit that the power is super nerfed – no shenanigans with going back to 1940s Germany and killing baby Hitler, I’m afraid – but what you can do is a minor tweak in your future.

So if you want to finally go to a gym class, for example:

  • Become your private butler: Put all your gear in order the night before. And best put them somewhere visible, so that would be the first thing you see in the morning.
  • Set out an accountability system: You could for example, go there with a friend. This way You are less likely to cancel at the last minute, as you wouldn’t want to disappoint them. (Though you are very much on board with disappointing the Future You , because, again – who even is this guy/gal?)

Similar methods could be applied to other future goals.

You want to save money?

  • Set up automatic withdrawals to your investment account.

You want to eat healthier?

  • Stack up on healthy snacks.
  • Do a weekly meal prep.
  • Also – get rid of your emergency candy bars stash – yes, the one in your second desk drawer. It might seem a tad drastic but think of it as pulling off a prank on the Future You. Imagine: next time the Future You feels like eating something sweet and sneakily reach into the secret stash… and all they find is some dried apple pieces and banana chips! Ah, if you could only see the Future You’s face!

(Spoiler alert: you can. It’s the same face you see in the mirror, just glowering in anger yet glowing with health.)


Sources:

Ersner-Hershfield, H., Wimmer, G.E., & Knutson, B. (2009). “Neural evidence for self-continuity in temporal discounting.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(1), 85-92.

Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E.B., (1970). "Attention in delay of gratification". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Rodriguez, M., (1989). "Delay of gratification in children". Science. 244 (4907): 933–938.

O'Donoghue, T., Rabin, M., 1999. "Doing It Now or Later." American Economic Review, 89 (1): 103-124.


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