Why you procrastinate

by Pop on June 22, 2010

Post image for Why you procrastinate

Psychologists say it’s not a time management problem. So what’s going on?

My college memories rapidly faded after graduation, but one of my most vivid, enduring memories is of one of my former roommates, who was a chronic procrastinator. Sure, he waited until the last minute on take-home tests, 10-page papers and studying. But my absolute favorite was the night before move-out. It was around 1 AM, and we had to be out of our dorm by 12 PM the next day. The roommate had just popped open a bottle of some form of alcohol and hadn’t even begun packing. My other roommates and I looked at each other in disbelief and reminded him that we had to move out in mere hours. His response: “I figure I have 11 hours to pack. That’s plenty of time!” I’m pretty sure that, like most mortals, he fell asleep somewhere around 4, and no, he did not make it out of the room on time.

Turns out my old roommate suffered from one of the most common side-effects and/or causes of procrastination: optimism. That is, he underestimated how long it would take him to pack and overestimated his ability to stay awake all night after drinking.

There are lots of psychological hang-ups and side effects that lead us to procrastinate (and probably to put off all those things that would improve your financial situation a ton). Here are a few of them.

You know that exercise where you “picture” where you want to be? That’s B.S.

Or, at least, so says a study published a couple years ago in Psychological Science.

You’ve probably been told to do this exercise dozens of times in self-help books. Envision who you want to be. Put pictures of people at the right weight up on the bulletin board. See yourself scoring the goal at the big game. Imagine that letter informing you of your perfect GMAT score.

But thinking in abstractions like that apparently leads us to procrastinate from doing the actual exercises, practice, and studying needed to achieve those goals. To prove that, the scientists mailed subjects two questionnaires. In one version, they led the questions with a full picture of La Parade, by Georges-Pierre Seurat, and described the painting as “a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony.” The second group of respondents got a small detail of a portion of the painting, and were told “this demonstrated the pointillist technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image.” In other words, the first spoke to the emotions and abstraction of the piece, while the second spoke to the actual methods Seurat used to paint it.

The survey had a bunch of questions, but the researchers were really only interested in how long it took each set of respondents to return the survey (they were asked to give it back in three weeks). The results were definitive. Those given the whole painting and abstract description took 20.5 days to return the questionnaire, while those given the detail returned it in 12.5 days.

The message that the researchers concluded for procrastinators was simple: Focus on the details. Creating a list of little, specific tasks—like to complete one practice test on Wednesday and sign up for a Kaplan course on Thursday—is much more effective than simply putting a picture of Harvard Business School on your desk.

It helps to set a self-imposed deadline. It helps more if someone else sets it for you.

I go into and out of phases where I create lists of tasks that I plan to accomplish the next day. Invariably, the list is extremely effective for the first few days that I use it. Then one or two tasks will slip to subsequent days. And then the whole system will fall apart, and I’ll stop making lists for a few months.

It turns out that my pattern isn’t unique. Procrastinators do benefit from making self-imposed deadlines to accomplish certain items—at least, they do better than if they don’t set the deadlines at all, according to researchers. But, predictably, when it’s only ourselves we have to disappoint, we don’t perform as well.

I’ve thought about signing up for Stickk.com for a while, which was founded by a couple Yale professors. The website basically lets you set up a monstrous (or not-so-monstrous) incentive to stick to a goal. For me, it might be something like “Write two blog posts per week for PopEconomics.com”. If I hit it, nothing happens. If I don’t, some sizable monetary penalty hits my credit card and is donated to charity or to whatever third-party referee I designate. To motivate myself, I think I’d have to set a penalty of at least $1,000. Probably more. Dangerous? Yes. Possible to spur dangerously high productivity? I hope so.

The three basic types of procrastinators

This didn’t come from an economic study, but from a pair of psychologists writing for Psychology Today. It’s probably based on some study or another, but I can’t find it offhand. Still, its assertions are intriguing.

It turns out that we procrastinate for three, basic reasons: because we want the euphoric rush of performing on deadline, because we hate failure, and because we have trouble making decisions. If anything, I think I suffer from the second problem. No attempt, no possibility of failure. Though I notice I’ve become better at that as I’ve gotten older. I definitely don’t procrastinate because I “like” panicking and working like mad as a serious deadline approaches. And while I have trouble making decisions sometimes, often I think I don’t begin a task because I don’t understand or take the time to break down all of the steps needed to complete that task (see the second heading).

Anyway, you can thank that inability to make a decision for this morning’s post, which I am writing past midnight on a work day. And I am happy to say that I’ve just started making “To-Do” lists again. Let’s see how long this lasts.

I was remiss in not mentioning earlier that this post was featured in the Carnival of Personal Finance at Suburban Dollar. Thanks Kyle!


{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken June 22, 2010 at 8:22 am

I wonder how many people don’t invest for retirement because they fear failure? Procrastinating on this decision has costs for sure.

Joachim Kristensen June 22, 2010 at 9:14 am

Of the three basic reasons of procrastination I feel one is missing: Having to do a task you really, really don’t want to do. That’s at least something I found at school being a giant source for procrastination.

2 Cents June 22, 2010 at 9:29 am

I’m an intermittent list maker too. They work for a week or so and then I can’t stand the tyranny of the list anymore, so I start to let things slip. After a week or so of chaos I reluctantly return to the list. It’s a cycle I used to want to break, but it’s become kind of comfortable. Every so often, I just need to break free from the list – but bad things happen if I abandon it for too long.

Ken – good point on financial planning. That’s something that slips through the cracks sometimes because of a lack of urgency.

Pop June 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

@2 cents: Yeah, I often face the “important but not urgent” problem. Keeping in touch with a former boss who might someday offer me a job is important, for example, but not urgent until I get laid off. Someone once advised me to make sure I do at least important not urgent task a day. Probably good advice.

Rob Bennett June 22, 2010 at 12:40 pm

People forget the good side of procrastination.

When it becomes time to fill out my income tax forms, I suddenly find great appeal in the idea of doing the laundry, getting the oil changed, making dental appointments, balancing the checkbook, getting my entire record collection into alphabetical order, etc. These tasks would never get accomplished if I didn’t do them from time to time as a means of procrastinating re something else.


Darren June 29, 2010 at 12:44 pm

That website to help stick to your goals sounds ingenious. I wish I thought of that! I’ve recently thought about posting twice a week on my blog too.

What scares me about this is that the perfectionist in me doesn’t think I have enough time to research, write, and good material in a few days. But setting a deadline should help push me a bit out of my comfort zone. We’ll see how it goes.

When you mention “important but not urgent,” did you get that from Stephen Covey’s book?

Pop June 29, 2010 at 7:20 pm

@Darren: I did read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People many years ago, and I wouldn’t doubt if he invented that phrase, but can’t remember where I got it from. It really says something for the guy that his ideas are such a part of the public consciousness now that we no longer even remember who to attribute them to. Kind of like how every time I pull a little allegory out of the hat to explain a point, it invariably ends up being either from Shakespeare or the Bible. Though no one even bothers saying “In the Bible, there was this story about a prodigal son…”

steve's zushi July 15, 2010 at 10:01 am

thank you for this…. paying penalty for work that has been procrastinated is a good way of trying to solve procrastination… :D I would be trying to do this… I hope I will do well, or a friend of mine will be richer every time I procrastinate… :D

unnati July 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I should be working right now, instead i’m reading your blog! My excuse is that i’m learning something new :)

Pop July 16, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Hey, there’s such a thing as entertainment that also educates! Thanks so much for stopping by.

vorbelutr ioperbir January 4, 2024 at 5:16 pm

Good ?V I should definitely pronounce, impressed with your website. I had no trouble navigating through all tabs and related info ended up being truly simple to do to access. I recently found what I hoped for before you know it in the least. Quite unusual. Is likely to appreciate it for those who add forums or anything, web site theme . a tones way for your customer to communicate. Excellent task..

จุดด่างดำ February 27, 2024 at 7:08 am

Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way to much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

kaufen einbaupool February 27, 2024 at 2:33 pm

Hi my family member! I wish to say that this article is amazing, great written and include almost all vital infos. I would like to see more posts like this.

sugar defender February 27, 2024 at 2:42 pm

Great blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your design. Thanks

sugar defender review February 27, 2024 at 3:42 pm

Wow! Thank you! I always needed to write on my blog something like that. Can I implement a portion of your post to my site?

oval gartenpool February 27, 2024 at 11:10 pm

I like what you guys are up too. Such smart work and reporting! Carry on the excellent works guys I¦ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my site :)

youtube to mp3 February 28, 2024 at 4:03 am

Good day! I just would like to give an enormous thumbs up for the nice data you may have right here on this post. I shall be coming again to your weblog for more soon.

Alpha Tonic review February 28, 2024 at 10:42 am

Woh I enjoy your posts, bookmarked! .

Tonic Greens February 29, 2024 at 1:59 pm

Some really interesting points you have written.Assisted me a lot, just what I was looking for : D.

Puravive review February 29, 2024 at 3:19 pm

You made some nice points there. I did a search on the issue and found most guys will agree with your blog.

Fitspresso February 29, 2024 at 8:01 pm

Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you for your provided information.

Fortune Tiger March 1, 2024 at 2:12 am

Hiya, I’m really glad I have found this info. Today bloggers publish only about gossips and internet and this is really frustrating. A good blog with interesting content, that is what I need. Thank you for keeping this website, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can’t find it.

Sight Care March 1, 2024 at 9:43 am

Very nice info and right to the point. I am not sure if this is in fact the best place to ask but do you guys have any thoughts on where to employ some professional writers? Thank you :)

Sight Care review March 2, 2024 at 3:34 pm

Hey there, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, wonderful blog!

pineal xt March 2, 2024 at 8:43 pm

I don’t even understand how I finished up right here, but I believed this publish was good. I don’t realize who you might be but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger in case you are not already ;) Cheers!

marketing digital curso gratuito March 3, 2024 at 5:22 am

I was reading through some of your articles on this website and I believe this website is real instructive! Keep posting.

fitspresso March 3, 2024 at 12:43 pm

Very interesting subject, regards for putting up. “The reason people sweat is so they won’t catch fire when making love.” by Don Rose.

Comprar Refil De THC March 4, 2024 at 9:59 am

Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

Lắp internet viettel masteri centre point March 4, 2024 at 12:21 pm

I’ve recently started a blog, the information you offer on this website has helped me greatly. Thank you for all of your time & work. “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” by Ayn Rand.

Prostadine March 4, 2024 at 6:28 pm

I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

Cloud Solutions March 5, 2024 at 12:09 pm

Wonderful work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on Google for not positioning this post higher! Come on over and visit my site . Thanks =)

Fitspresso March 5, 2024 at 10:31 pm

I conceive this internet site has some really excellent info for everyone :D . “The ground that a good man treads is hallowed.” by Johann von Goethe.

poolplane oval March 6, 2024 at 6:12 am

I was suggested this website through my cousin. I am no longer sure whether this publish is written by way of him as nobody else realize such exact about my trouble. You are amazing! Thanks!

Hoot Loot Slot March 6, 2024 at 10:02 am

You completed a few good points there. I did a search on the matter and found a good number of people will have the same opinion with your blog.

erecprime review March 6, 2024 at 1:27 pm

Rattling fantastic information can be found on web site.

fitspresso reviews March 7, 2024 at 4:30 am

I went over this website and I think you have a lot of excellent info, bookmarked (:.

private chauffeur malaysia March 7, 2024 at 5:21 am

I loved as much as you’ll receive carried out right here. The sketch is attractive, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get got an edginess over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come further formerly again since exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this increase.

slot ph March 9, 2024 at 12:23 am

Sweet web site, super design, real clean and use friendly.

28804 Windshield Shop March 24, 2024 at 3:06 am

I’m always excited to see your posts in my feed. Another excellent article!

private investigator north carolina March 30, 2024 at 9:00 pm

This article was a delightful enjoy reading. Your passion is clearly visible!

Local Windshield Replacement 27539 April 10, 2024 at 2:31 am

This is one of the most comprehensive articles I’ve enjoy reading on this topic. Kudos!

Windshield Replacement Near 27609 April 10, 2024 at 3:33 pm

Thank you for consistently producing such high-quality content.

27591 Auto Glass April 11, 2024 at 1:28 am

This was a thoroughly insightful enjoy reading. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

Auto Glass Replacement In 27592 April 11, 2024 at 4:31 pm

Thank you for shedding light on this subject. Your perspective is refreshing!

WIndshield Facts April 12, 2024 at 11:50 pm

I look forward to The posts because they always offer something valuable. Another great read!

27330 auto glass April 16, 2024 at 10:37 am

This piece was beautifully written and incredibly informative. Thank you for sharing!

auto glass shop 28355 April 18, 2024 at 5:35 pm

A masterpiece of writing! You’ve covered all bases with elegance.

Sanford Auto Glass quote April 19, 2024 at 8:04 am

What a compelling enjoy reading! Your arguments were well-presented and convincing.

Sanford Auto Glass quote April 21, 2024 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for consistently producing such high-quality content.

28307 Windshield Quote April 23, 2024 at 11:57 am

You’ve articulated your points with such finesse. Truly a pleasure to enjoy reading.

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: