I’ve been reading articles on procrastination to prepare for speeches I
will give in March 2017. I was particularly fascinated by “Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating,” an article by James Clear, which suggests that procrastination is a result of our present and future selves being at odds with each other.
Our future self plans and sets goals. It can see the benefit of taking actions with long-term benefits. Our present self is actually responsible for taking action. And, guess what? It really likes instant gratification. It seeks pleasure in the moment and tends to make choices to avoid discomfort, thus is likely to procrastinate tasks that could cause discomfort in the moment.
Clear says that we value long-term benefits when they are in the future, not in the present moment. You can vow to go to the gym to get it shape and lose weight when you set your annual goals. Getting in shape and losing weight are in the future. Having to go to the gym or stop eating ice cream, tasks that are necessary to achieve your goal, are in the present. It’s easy to lose sight of those laudable future goals when your bed feels so warm and comfortable in the morning or you have a tasty treat in front of you. Thus you procrastinate getting regular exercise and making healthy food choices.
According to Clear, your present self is not likely to be motivated to avoid long term consequences because we aren’t connected to our future selves. That self seems so far away and impervious to current benefits and consequences of actions taken today.
One answer to the future/present self conflict offered by Clear is to make the rewards of taking action with long-term benefits more immediate. When the benefits of long-term choices are more immediate, you will be more motivated take action now.
Clear suggests that you can achieve this with “temptation bundling,” a concept that came out of behavioral economics research performed by Katy Milkman at The University of Pennsylvania. Temptation bundling involves combining a behavior that is good for you in the long-run with a behavior that feels good in the short-run. Some of his examples include: only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising; only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
Clear’s information offers a very plausible explanation for why so many people have great difficulty starting and sustaining an exercise program, losing weight, and accomplishing many long-term goals despite the best of intentions. Is your present self running the show? Is the result undue stress and failure to accomplish important business and life goals?