If you have the tendency to put things off, you’re probably frustrated by it. Most people who have this tendency become enormously frustrated, even angry at themselves, over time.
It’s definitely the case that procrastination often comes with a high price tag. Putting things off, particularly things that are time sensitive like paying bills, beginning projects, or returning calls, can very easily lead to consequences that range from hurt feelings, damaged careers, all the way to legal problems or aggressive creditors.
What’s even more frustrating about procrastination is that many people who do it seem to have no idea why. Even if they acknowledge the practical harm that procrastination inflicts upon their lives, they’re frequently at a loss to explain the pattern in any rational way.
From a behavioral science point of view, procrastination isn’t rocket science. Behavioral psychology asserts that most behavior choices can be understood by tallying the perceived reinforcement associated with one behavior versus another.
That is, the things we choose to do, we associate with relatively more pleasure; the things we avoid doing, we associate with more pain.
If you’re putting something off, it’s because you associate more pain with it than the alternatives.
How can that be, though, insofar as we know for a stone cold fact that procrastination leads, over time, to an enormous amount of pain?
Our brains are magnificent creations. They’re wired to avoid pain and cultivate pleasure. For that matter, the fact that we’ve evolved to avoid pain and cultivate pleasure gives us a clue about our fundamental human needs: pleasure has survival value.
(That bears repeating: pleasure has survival value. We’ll return to this subject in a later blog.)
The thing is, though, our brains didn’t evolve to think particularly long term.
When our brains, as we know them today, were in the process of evolving, long term planning wasn’t a particular survival priority. Our caveman and cavewoman ancestors were getting chased around by wild prehistoric animals and aggressive competitive cave people, who threatened their physical survival on a day to day, hour to hour basis.
The cave person who sat around attempting to plan out the next six months was at serious risk of getting literally eaten.
So, our brains evolved with a bias for the moment. They are naturally responsive to what is happing in the here and now. They respond, in other words, to the pleasure-or-pain choice that is right in front of our face— not the potential pleasure or pain that is weeks, months, or even days down the road.
What does any of this have to do with you, the modern day procrastinator?
Something we need to understand about our brains is that they’re not evolutionarily all that removed from our caveman and cavewoman ancestors. Like our prehistoric ancestors, our brains tend to respond to the pleasure-or-pain response right in front of our faces.
Long term goals are most often comprised of daily, component, steppingstone goals along the way— many of which aren’t particularly sexy. Steppingstone goals don’t carry with them the gratification associated with achieving the end goal. They’re often boring. They’re often decontextualized from the larger task. They’re often frustrating.
Whereas everyone likes the idea of achieving a long term goal, few people get fired up about intermediate goals. So those goals are easy to put off. They represent more pain than pleasure to our brains, so our brains have little problem shunting them off until later.
Immediate gratification is perceived by our brains to be a “sure thing.” It is, after all, immediate. Delayed gratification, by definition, is less sure— after all, if we take the chance in putting off gratification, many things could happen between now and then to keep that gratification from happening.
Neuropsychological research strongly suggests our brains prefer sure things to uncertain things, in much the same way they prefer pleasure to pain.
All of which is to say: procrastination may seem irrational, given the pain that chronic procrastination inflicts upon us. But, when viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, behavioral psychology, and neuropsychology, it’s actually a fairly straightforward equation.
In other words, you’re not lazy if you procrastinate.
You’re not a bad person if you procrastinate.
You’re not “broken” if you procrastinate.
What do we do about procrastination?
Luckily, understanding the evolutionary and behavioral roots of this behavior also suggest some straightforward ways to short-circuit it. Specifically, if procrastination is essentially our brain balking at uninteresting, unrewarding tasks, the logical solution is to find some way to make steppingstone goals less aversive.
We can do that by chopping steppingstone goals into little, doable chunks.
We can do that by rewarding little steps toward our goals, not just the final goal.
We can do that by soliciting support of others to keep reminding us of our eventual long-term goals, so we don’t lose the forest for the trees.
As usual, no matter how frustrated we get with ourselves over a seemingly irrational behavior, the key to overcoming that behavior turns out to be in patiently understanding that behavior.
Compassion and patience with ourselves will win every time.