Tim Pychyl is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Carlton University and hosts a podcast called I Procrastinate. We discuss how to go from being a procrastinator to someone who gets things done. His book that we discuss in this episode is on that very topic – it’s called Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change
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In This Interview, Tim Pychyl and I Discuss Being a Procrastinator and…
- His book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change
- How it’s in the getting on in life that makes a life
- Being a procrastinator can be an existential matter
- What he tells his children: I didn’t ask what you want to do or how you feel, I told you it’s time to make your bed.
- When we are procrastinators we delay getting on with our lives
- Being an active member or your own life
- The two ways being a procrastinator compromises our health
- Fewer wellness behaviors
- Treatment delay “I’ll look after that later”
- Being a Procrastinator is a problem of self-regulated behavior
- I won’t give in to feel good
- Goal Intentions and Implementation intentions
- Giving the monkey something to do
- What’s the next action?
- Keeping it small
- Hacks to work around our irrational thinking
- Motivation and then Action or Action and then Motivation
- The meaning behind our goals
- Meaning and Manageability
- Asking what will this cost me if I put it off?
- Being a Procrastinator
- Prefer tomorrow over today
- Thinking “I’ll feel like doing it tomorrow”
- Affect forecasting
- Thinking of your future self as a stranger
- Developing empathy for future self
- Self-handicap to preserve self-esteem
Tim Pychyl Procrastinator Episode Links
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Tim Pychyl Procrastinator Transcript
It is in the getting on with life that makes our lives. And that procrastination in a very real sense is an existential issue of not getting on with life itself.
Thanks for joining us. Our guest on this episode is Tim Pychyl. Tim is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and has garnered an international reputation for his scholarship and a global audience for his “I Procrastinate” podcast. He also writes a popular “Don’t Delay” blog with Psychology Today. His new book is “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.”
Eric: Hi Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim: Hi Eric. Thanks for having me.
Eric: I am really excited to have you on. Your book is called “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.” You actually have a couple of books, but this is the one that that I read to focus on for the interview and I know being a procrastinator runs rampant everywhere and I know our listeners, it’s something they also are interested in. So I’m really looking forward to getting into that. But let’s start like we normally do with the parable. There is a grandfather who’s talking with his granddaughter and he says in life there are two wolves inside of us that are always at battle. One is a good wolf, which represents things like kindness and bravery and love. And the other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed and hatred and fear. And the granddaughter stops and she thinks about it for a second and looks up at her grandfather. She says, well grandfather, which one wins? And the grandfather says the one you feed. So I’d like to start off by asking you what that parable means to you in your life and in the work that you do and how it relates to being a procrastinator.
Tim: Well, I’ve been looking forward to joining you on the podcast simply because I like the parable so much. I read it and I’ve enjoyed parables since I was a young man, especially Zen Koans and things like that. And I see the same sort of wisdom in that parable. And it fits my research so much in the sense that even the most recent research we’ve seen come out of Germany using functional magnetic resonance imaging on the difference in brains between those who are a procrastinator and those who aren’t. We see that the amygdala’s larger and it’s about fear. It’s very true in terms of understanding procrastination. So it fits with my research well.
And in my own life, of course, I recognize the habits that I developed, the things that I feed, the things that I think make me happy, but don’t, when I feed those, they become habits and difficult to break. So I resonate to that both personally and professionally.
Eric: That’s wonderful. So do you have any parables of your own that are particularly important to you besides the wolf parable that come to mind that might speak to procrastination?
Tim: Yes, for sure. Actually it’s a Zen story and it’s the young novice who lists the master and he said, master, I’ve been doing my meditation and I’ve been working hard. How do I achieve enlightenment? And the master looks at him and says, have you finished your rice? And he said, yes. Then wash your bowl. And that’s the end of this story. And it’s so powerful for me because that’s what life is and so many ways, that it is in the getting on with life that makes our lives. And that procrastination in a very real sense as an existential issue of not getting on with life itself. And so I find that to be a very powerful thing that we can make more of many tasks in our lives. In fact, I teach my children that all the time. I’ll say to my son, for example, when he was six, I said to him, you know Alex it’s time that you started making your own bed. And of course he said, I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it. And my children know and I say it to them all the time is that I didn’t ask you what you want or how you feel. I said, it’s time for you to make bed. And that’s so much in that parable or that Zen colon of what makes enlightenment in life.
Eric: Right. Just taking the next right action. And actually you just touched on something that I was going to read that you wrote because I love the way you say this and I just think it puts this in perspective. You say, “when we procrastinate on our goals, we are basically putting off our lives. And you said you became more convinced of the importance of dealing with procrastination as a symptom of an existential malaise and a malaise that can only be addressed by our deep commitment to authoring the stories of our lives. To author our own lives we have to be an active agent in our lives, not a passive participant making excuses for what we are not doing.”
Tim: Yeah, it’s nice to hear my words read back to me. It’s been a while since I wrote that book. And I stand by that. It’s good that I wrote that, no. It is a succinct summary of what keeps me interested in procrastination. Like there are so many layers to my understanding. You know, I started briefly with thinking about the latest German study that was neurophysiological, based on understanding brain differences. But like all explanations, we can take it at different levels of analysis. And for me the most profound one is this notion of getting on with our own lives because the one nonrenewable resource we have in our lives is time. You and I don’t know how much we’re going to have, but we know we can’t make any more of it. And I think that’s probably why in every great world religion, there’s some notion of the sin of sloth because you can’t waste this thing called life. And with procrastination, you know, for me it’s not a matter of becoming some Uber productive earning machine, but a person who lives the life he or she wants to, achieves the goals that he or she wants to achieve and doesn’t kind of stew on his own juices in the guilt and shame that so commonly defines procrastination.
Eric: Yeah, I think that’s such a big piece of it. I often talk with people about when we know there’s things that we want to/need to do and we don’t do them, it feels awful. And I think one of the most important skills we can build in life is to sort of make promises to ourselves and then keep those promises and procrastination stands kind of right in the middle of that. And you actually say that there’s some research that shows that procrastination actually compromises our health in two different ways. Could you share a little bit about that?
Tim: Yes. I’m working on another paper with my colleague at the University of Sheffield right now, we’re reanalyzing some of our data. And the first path is a direct path with stress. Procrastination causes more stress and of course we know there’s many mechanisms in terms of our physical health, how that undermines our immune system and creates less resistance to all sorts of illness. So procrastination is a stress route to an effect on our health. But there’s also an effect in terms of fewer wellness behaviors and treatment delay, more treatment delay. So procrastination has indirect effects. So we have this direct route through stress. But there are two interesting indirect routes that procrastination has an effect on our health and that’s from fewer wellness behaviors. So we don’t sleep when we think we should be sleeping, don’t exercise, don’t eat well. These are typical wellness behaviors and sleep is interesting on its own. I have colleagues at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who’ve been studying sleep procrastination, in fact.
And the other indirect route is treatment delay… ‘oh, I’ll look after that later’. And that has significant effects. And I’m interested in studying that, especially in older adults when things are more fragile in terms of you need to have things locked in sooner than later. So we have all these routes to the connection between procrastination and our health. The one we have the most research evidence on is the direct effects of stress. But then there’s the indirect effects of fewer wellness behaviors and treatment delay.
Eric: Yeah. Actually it makes me think of a story and I’m not sure that I can blame this on having better control of procrastination or just pure terror. But this week I got a call from my dentist, I had been in last week to get some work done and they called and said, we see something in your x-rays and we think we think it might be cancer. And I thought, Oh my God. So I called oral surgeons till I could find one that would see me like now. And went over and got it looked at and it was absolutely nothing. But again, I think that was more driven by fear than not being a procrastinator. But it just made me think of that when you were telling that story about delaying going to the doctor. That was one time I was not delaying.
Tim: But you know there are people who get news like that and do put it off. It’s quite incredible.
Eric: Yeah. I just was like, I don’t want to live for two weeks worrying about this because I know I will.
Anyway, so there’s lots of things that cause us to be a procrastinator, but at the heart of it, you say that one of the biggest things is that it’s a form of self-regulation failure. Can you explain that?
Tim: Sure. So many people think procrastination is a time management issue. And although time management is a necessary skill in our lives, it’s not sufficient. Because you’ll come to the point in time where you say, okay, this is the project I said I’m going to work on, but your whole body screams I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it. You have an emotional response to the task at hand. We typically call that task aversiveness. We find it aversive in that we’re anxious about it and we’re bored, we resent it, we’re frustrated by it. Any one of those emotions or pick some out of your favorites. So how do you get rid of those negative emotions because we don’t want them? Well we use avoidance as an emotion coping strategy. The problem is it’s a miss regulation of emotion because we’re not really going to feel better in the long run. We’re not regulating ourselves in a healthy way. But it gets reinforced because the moment you get rid of the task for that moment, you feel better. So you get this negative reinforcement that creates a habit. So procrastination is an emotion focused coping habit and it’s a problem of self-regulation in the same way that eating of the second row of cookies in the bag isn’t going to make you feel better. Putting off these things isn’t going to make you feel better. We have the naive belief is this is what we need right now. Present self believes he or she will benefit. Future self pays the price.
Eric: Right. And I think what’s so tricky about procrastination or cookies or drugs or all these different things is if they didn’t work at all, it’d be easy to see through them. But they work for like a minute or five minutes or 10 minutes. They’ve got an initial, ‘okay that feels better’. And then it fades and we pay more later. And you’ve got a phrase that you use related to this that people can use. And you say it’s “I won’t give in to feel good.” And recognizing that feeling good now comes at a cost.
Tim: You’re right, it does have this immediate fix, albeit really specious because even when, especially with procrastination and eating, more so than the other. Alcohol and drugs work a bit longer because they can actually do a bit of mood altering. But the food and the procrastination, a part of you is quite aware of that. The guilt almost surfaces immediately, especially for some of us.
Eric: Yeah. One of my favorite ways to think about this and I would imagine being as involved as you are and procrastination. You have seen the posts he did in the Ted talk, but Tim Urban with his blog “Wait, but why?” And it’s just so many brilliant things in there. But the one that struck me probably the most was this idea of the dark playground. And the dark playground was, alright we’ve decided that we’re going to to a procrastinator. Again, it’s not usually that conscious of a thought, I’m going to be a procrastinator. But we’ve decided we’re going to do something else but we don’t really enjoy it. He calls it the dark playground because we’re playing, we might be on Facebook or YouTube or playing solitaire or whatever it is. But it doesn’t fully feel good because there’s this nagging sense of ‘I should be doing something different.’ And that term dark playground really, really helped me because I could notice when I was in it. I could notice that like, okay, I’m not doing what I should do. I’m doing this thing and you know what? I’m not even really enjoying it that much. Not as much as I would enjoy it if I finished what I had to do and then went and did it.
Tim: Yeah, that’s crucial. That self-understanding is the impetus for true change. It doesn’t make it easy, especially if you have a habit because habits draw us back to it. But without that recognition, there’s no real commitment to the change. It’s when you recognize that yeah, this, doesn’t work. Okay. I’ve had a belief for a long time that just makes me feel better, but it’s not going to. And then what you need to put into place are just a few strategies to extract you from that kind of mental loop or that downward spiral you can get into that eventually leads into that negative spot.
Eric: This would be a good time to introduce this topic. It shows up in a lot of areas of the book and I’m a big fan of it also. And it’s the idea of implementation intentions. And you actually, at different places in the book talk how we can use these to deal with kind of that part of being a procrastinator. Can you explain what an implementation intention is and then maybe talk about how we can use them in relation to this self regulation?
Tim: Oh sure. This is the work of Peter Gollwitzer at New York University. And he and his colleagues have done a great deal of work differentiating between goal intentions. We all have goal intentions. I want to write this or I want to lose some weight or I want to achieve that. Or we can have avoidance goals; I don’t want to end up here. And then he contrast that with implementation intentions, which is the how. How are you going to actually implement this goal? Because goal intentions don’t have a lot of motivational force, but an implementation intention, which they’ve shown over and over again in their research makes it more likely that I’m going to act. And the classic implementation intention in terms of what they found in research is most effective is a conditional statement. If, then, or as I like to say when, then… when this happens, then I do that.
And when we set things up like that, what happens is we put the cue for action in the environment. So for example, speaking of dentists as you did a few moments ago, I wasn’t flossing my teeth enough and it was leading to some gum disease or the beginning of it, at least. And my dentist would say, you really have to floss. And for the life of me, I just couldn’t develop that habit. A little boy inside of me was resentful about it and then the rest of me wouldn’t remember. But an implementation intention really saved me. And it was simply that I leveraged a habit I already had. I did brush my teeth quite regularly, really regularly, every day, twice a day. And so I just made the intention when I pick up my toothbrush, I’ll put the floss on the counter. And when I put my toothbrush down, I will pick up the floss. The “when, then”. And the most important one was really just getting the floss onto the counter because sometimes I wouldn’t even remember it. This prospect of memory is a big part of not being able to self regulate because you don’t even remember what you’re supposed to do. But the implementation intention puts that cue on the environment. Oh I’m picking up my toothbrush, I’m putting the floss on the counter. And so I’m leveraging a habit I already have, that’s a really important part of this. And by putting the cue for the action into the environment, it helps me create a new habit. Now what’s interesting about all of that is there’s so many days where I thought, Oh, I don’t feel like it, I don’t want to… I act like a little boy because we have a six year old in us or a little girl as the case may be. And I look at myself and say, wow, where are you going with this? You know how long it takes to floss your teeth? It takes like 30 seconds and it feels great. And then I’d get on with that. So there’s layers of work in there. But the implementation intention was the foundation.
Eric: I’ve mostly looked at implementation intentions really in using the if then statement. But also a lot about the studies that show if you decide how and when and where you’re going to do something, you’re way more likely to do it. So it’s one thing to say I need to work out tomorrow. It’s a different thing to say, okay, I’m going to run for two miles at the park by the Lake tomorrow at 6:00 PM. Like you’ve got a way better chance of doing it if you’ve got that second statement versus the first I’m going to work out tomorrow.
Tim: You know, what interests me about implementation intentions, I did speak a great deal about it in the book, but since writing that book, I’ve focused a lot more on even finer tuned statement around this that I find as a real game changer for most people. And that really draws on the work of David Allen who’s written books like “Getting Stuff Done” and “Ready for Anything.” He argues really clearly; we don’t do projects, we do actions. Because I would say to people, as you saw in the book, a key thing is just get started. And people would say to me, ‘Tim, if I could just get started, I wouldn’t have a procrastination problem.’ That’s not very helpful. And so as I thought through that and looked at how we think about our getting started, the question then becomes, what’s the next action? If we go back to what you asked me earlier about the parables or stories in our lives and I went immediately to a Zen Buddhist Koan or Zen Buddhist story. Well the Buddhist will also say that we have monkey mind, busy places. You know, we think and we feel and we think and we feel, and you can’t get rid of the monkey. It’s just part of the human condition. But as one monk I heard say so clearly and so eloquently, ‘you got to give the monkey something to do.’ And it’s the same for psychologists will tell us, ‘you can have all these emotions but you can’t suppress and you can’t ignore them. They’re real. But we can direct our attention somewhere else. ‘
So now, not only do I think about implementation intentions is a really important tool, but I also use this simple statement of what’s the next action? And I keep that action as small as possible. So it’s a very low threshold for engagement so that I look at it and go, well, who couldn’t do that? And that primes the pump for going. And I thought of that really when you were talking about the implementation intention to go for the run; the when or the how are you going to do it and when, for what distance. But as soon as you said two miles, I thought, Ooh, for many people that just sets up the barrier. Oh, two miles, that’s too much. And so instead I’d be looking at, when I get home from work, the moment I get home, I’m going to put on my running shoes and walk back outside the door. That might be as much as I have to say to myself to get me started. Now, the interesting thing about how predictably irrational human beings are is that as much as some of us almost fight with ourselves to get started, 10 minutes later we’re on the run and we think we are could be in the next Olympics. It’s just so crazy. You know, we think now I could run forever, it feels so good. So we go from not being able to run it all to thinking that we’re an Olympic athlete. And of course that’s just the way the mind is working, we have to understand that we have these predictably irrational aspects of human thinking and we have to have these hacks to work around them.
Eric: Yeah. You brought up in that statement there, I think at least three different important points. The first is the ambiguity of a lot of the things that we have on our task list. I might have on my task list, I actually have had on my task list record video. I’ve got a video I’ve got a record for something I’m doing. Well, the problem with that is that that is out about eight or nine tasks. You know, first I have to write the script for the video, then I have to get somebody to review it, then I have to practice it, then I have to set up the video equipment and set up the lighting. Then I have to record it. Then I have to edit it. I mean, and so when I have a task on my list, like get video done, I’ll be a procrastinator about it forever because it’s not clear what the next action is. And so as you were saying, deconstructing that down to the very simplest and next action I can. I often say that ambiguity is really a huge cause of procrastination for people when they look at their task lists because we tend to have projects on our task list, not tasks.
The second thing that you talked about there is just that idea of getting started. And you know, you use the analogy of, I’ll just put on my shoes. I mean, I use that one all the time for the gym. Like just get into your gym clothes or just get to the gym. Or with cleaning, you know… alright, all you have to do is clean for three minutes. I set myself a timer and I get going for three minutes and I’m usually off. And then the last thing that was embedded in what you said is a really important idea that you talk about, it is that we often think that the order of operation is motivation and then action. But it is just as common the other way around. If we can take the action, the motivation tends to follow after it.
Tim: Yeah. I think this is a really important point that, when I was writing that book, one of the things I focused on is that I don’t know where we get this belief as adults, but we seem to have this belief that we have to be in the mood to do something, that motivation proceeds action. As you’re noting, it’s often the other way around. In fact, social psychologists showed us years ago that attitudes can actually follow behaviors; not behaviors following attitudes. And it’s so true of motivation. In fact, there’s some very interesting research that shows even a little progress on a goal fuels our wellbeing, which is a great thing considering that the procrastination’s typically that downward spiral. So it’s really the antidote in some ways to how do I get out of this trap? A little bit of progress fuels our motivation. We don’t wait for the mood or the muse, we’ll be waiting there a long time.
Eric: Yep, exactly. And you know, that idea of I have to feel like something to do it, is so fundamental to this whole issue of being a procrastinator. And the phrase I use is ‘I don’t want to let my moods drive my action.’. And I usually make a joke out of that. Like if you had a mood system like mine, if you let your moods drive your actions, it would be a disaster. And my past is littered with disasters of allowing my moods to determine what I do. Because some people wake up peppy and happy and ready to take on the world every day. And then there’s the rest of us who often don’t feel that way. And it’s learning to get started even when we may not feel like it that is so critical.
But I want to bring up another point and this leads us into motivation. We talked about how if we can just get started motivation or our attitude changes, just getting started makes us feel better about the task. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But let’s talk about the role of remembering our motivation as a way to help us with self regulation and as a way to deal with potentially depleted willpower
Tim: In what regard, Eric? Remembering our motivation, like remembering our commitment to what it is we’re trying to achieve?
Eric: Yeah. Or you know, you’ve got a chart in the book where you show this idea of it’s worthwhile to look at your goal and look at the costs associated with the procrastination as well as the benefits of acting in a timely manner. For me, I sort of think of that as like, remembering my why. Like, why is this important?
Tim: Definitely, for sure. In fact, the foundation for all of this is in commitment. And even Peter Gollwitzer who’s written extensively on implementation intentions and is acknowledged in quite a few papers and book chapters that without commitment it won’t happen. There’s no technique that’s going to save you. You do have to be able to look at your own life and understand why it is that you’re even going to use a strategy like what’s the next action or when then. And so we have to have a clear idea of the meaning behind our goals.
In fact, another way that I often think of it, and I learned this from my past own dissertation advisor who worked with an area called personal projects analysis, the balance between meaning and manageability. It’s always a balance between those two. It has to be meaningful for us to want to do it, but it also has to be manageable. It goes back to your notion of ambiguity. I’ve certainly found in our research that uncertainty is a very high correlative procrastination. And uncertainty can be there when you have ambiguous goals. But if you focus only on manageability, the next steps and you go, ‘oh, like a monkey could do this, I’m not interested anymore.’ But if you work only on meaning, then you don’t know how to manage it. So it’s this interesting balance. And at any given time, some days I have to emphasize more the why, which is your original question about, why would I engage in this, why is this important to me? And other times I know exactly why I want to do it. And then the question becomes more of, yeah, but how am I going to manage this? And then I go back to, okay, what’s the next action? Or do I need to call a friend? That sort of strategy. But it is this balance between meaning and manageability?
Eric: Yeah. And so one of the things that you talk about is that sometimes when we do stop to think about it for a second, we will say something to ourselves like, ah, it’s just not important. And being able to recognize that if it’s something that we thought was important before when we weren’t faced with the task, it’s probably important. And you use an implementation intention here actually. You say, if we say it’s not important, then we stop and remind ourselves that this is self-deception. Or if I say it’s not important, then I will just get started. But there are some other biases I thought would be useful in talking about. One is, prefer tomorrow over today… this is such a classic one, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’ And I think inherent in, I’ll do it tomorrow, is I will feel like doing it tomorrow, which is obviously a fallacy. So let’s talk about that bias, about how we prefer tomorrow over today and how we think we’ll actually want to do it tomorrow and why that’s so easy to do.
Tim: Well, there’s two things that happen there and they’re both grounded really very well in research. On the one hand, Dan Gilbert at Harvard university who studied a great deal about affective forecasting. We know what weather forecasting is, trying to predict what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow. Affective forecasting is how are we going to feel tomorrow. And what he’s learned through his research is that we rely on the present to predict the future. So we all know what it’s like to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry versus when you’re full. Your cart looks distinctly different. You’re hungry, you’re pulling a second cart full of your favorite snacks. And when you just finished a big meal, when you’re going shopping, oh, I don’t need so much milk this week. And again, we’re predictably irrational. So how that applies to being a procrastinator is that that moment when you decide, no, I’m not going to do this today, how do you feel? When I give talks to students or general audiences, the first word that comes to mind is relief. And I many other people just say I feel good. Exactly. So then when you use that momentary feeling to predict how you’re going to feel tomorrow, you saying, Oh yeah, I’m going to feel like it tomorrow. So there’s one cognitive bias that leads us to believe I’m going to want to do this tomorrow. But more importantly, and this is something that I didn’t write back in 2010/2011 was some work by Hal Hirschfield at UCLA who’s used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brains of people while they were thinking about either their present self, their future self or a stranger. And to make a long story short, what he learned was that the areas of the brain that are active when we think about present self are different than when we think about future self. In fact, the areas of the brain that are active, when we think about a stranger are the same areas that’s processing information about the future self. So we seem to think about future self like a stranger. And that leads us again to think ‘that person will handle that. And so tomorrow that person will feel like it.’ The present self is processing information much differently and this is a cause of being a procrastinator.
So these are biases in the way that we think about the future. In fact, we’ve done some research on that too where we had people imagine their future self in this case students because that’s a population we’re working with and when they thought more about future self present self made different choices. And in fact Hal Hirschfield did some of this research too before we did, but he did it with digital avatars. So you’d see a picture of yourself either as you look now or yourself digitally aged into your sixties. And low and behold if you’re sitting in experimental situation looking at your older self and the experimental task is to allocate funds, you allocate more funds to retirement savings because you’ve got future self in mind. Without that you spend money differently. And we found the same thing with students. If they can think about themselves at the end of the term, they made different choices now. And one of the mechanisms that seems to be at work there is you develop more empathy for future self. And then you think, yeah, that’s really jerking future self around. And in fact, when I give public talks, I draw on Richard Taylor, the Nobel prize winning economist from the University of Chicago who won his Nobel prize for showing how we’re predictably irrational. And as he summarizes it, he says, you know, we’re more like Homer Simpson than we are homo economicus. And it makes me smile because I love Homer and I’ll put up a picture of Homer and Marge and Marge says to Homer, you know, Homie, someday these kids are going to be grown and you’re going to regret not spending more time with them. And Homer goes, “yeah, that’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.” He just gets it.
Eric: Let’s talk about one other bias that is related top being a procrastinator that you mentioned in the book. And I thought this one was really interesting and you refer to it as ‘self handicap to preserve self-esteem.’
Tim: My colleague at the University of Sheffield who started her graduate studies with us here at Carlton University in Ottawa, she did some research looking at how people make upward and downward counterfactuals. And so let me just take a minute and talk about what those are. Downward counterfactual, we’re really familiar with them. They happen all the time. They start in school. So you get a C grade and it’s not what you’re hoping for. You’re shooting for an A, let’s say, but your downward counter-factual is at least I didn’t fail. It’s counterfactual to what happened, you say at least I didn’t fail. So what’s the purpose of that? Well, it makes you feel better. You weren’t happy about getting the C, but when you put it against failing, you feel better. The upper counter-factual is just the opposite, of course. And that is, well, if I’d studied harder, if I hadn’t gone out last night, maybe I would’ve gotten an A. Same thing you could imagine getting it a little fender bender… oh, at least no one was killed; the downward counterfactual. The upper counter-factual; maybe I shouldn’t look up my phone when I’m trying to park the car. So you learn from upper counterfactuals. And low and behold, when fuchsia looked at the difference between a procrastinator and a non procrastinator, not surprising that they made more downward counterfactuals. Again, kind of underscoring this notion of it’s about feeling good, the same strategies being used, but nothing’s learned. And so it’s interesting for us to stand back and listen to the self-talk. Am I making downward counterfactuals? Because if I am, again, it’s all about making myself feel better rather than learning from the situation. And if you look at any of the popular self-help around motivation and productivity, it’s how do we effectively learn from our mistakes? Because that’s the only way we learn. And the downward and upward counterfactuals that you hear as inner talk can be a real clue to the habits you’ve created in your own life around them.
Eric: And so essentially part of what you’re saying is that we might be a procrastinator to give us a way to have an excuse for why we didn’t do better later?
Tim: Well that self-handicapping thing, it’s a little dicey, that I’ve got colleagues and I happened to be in that camp who would argue that procrastination isn’t a self-handicapping technique. Because if I delay on purpose to protect myself esteem, then it’s really a different form of delay because I’m doing it quite knowingly. I do think that there’s secondary gain and procrastination, you can use it to protect herself. Not a bad grade for working one night. But that’s quite purposeful. I don’t believe that we are a procrastinator to self handicap. We can delay to self handicap but there’s a fine line I would argue between that sort of delay and procrastination.
Eric: Assuming that that’s all happening at a conscious level. So if I consciously say, ‘oh well I just won’t study so much so I don’t feel bad if I don’t do well.’ That’s very much a conscious decision and that’s not procrastination and that’s actually a point you make very early in the book; not all delay is being a procrastinator, there are valid reasons to delay. But on a more subconscious level perhaps there might be some of that.
Tim: Yeah, I think there’s some truth in that. It’s become a habit in your life, you’re working very hard to protect yourself esteem. I know that my colleague Joseph Ferrari at DePaul University in Chicago, in some of his earlier research showed that people who are being a procrastinator generally didn’t want to get feedback that would reflect on them in a way that could affect their self esteem. So you could see that sort of protective factor coming up so that you delay needlessly and in a way that’s going to be self-defeating. But part of the motivation for that is that you feel you’re going to fail anyhow. And in fact when we listened to people who are a procrastinator in either therapy sessions or in research, I’m thinking of Bill McCowen at Louisiana State, he has done some interesting research where he had students when they were procrastinating, go online and talk about what they were thinking and feeling and he captured a lot of the irrational thoughts. And there were things like, well, what’s the point of me trying? I’m not any good anyhow. So sure, we get that sort of thing happening inside of ourselves, all this negative self talk. And then procrastination could become a mechanism which was self-protective. And in that sense we might be talking about this elusive notion of self sabotage.
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