It is early in the morning, and I have a very long to-do list that hasn’t been getting done. I can feel myself avoiding life, and slowly being swallowed by my depression. And while to some degree I can’t help the depression as it is an ongoing issue between me and my brain chemistry, I certainly don’t want to help it along.
As I sip my coffee and ignore the list sitting on the left edge of my desk I wonder why I am avoiding life? I know if I just got started it would all be done by now. It’s what I tell my daughter when she whines about homework or chores, “if you had started already it would be done by now.”
Sage advice, but clearly not helpful otherwise I wouldn’t be avoiding cleaning the bathroom.
Why not? Why am I procrastinating?
According to Psychology Today, chronic procrastination affects at least 20% of the population and represents a problem of self-regulation.
I’m overweight and I know I have an issue with self-regulation (hello carbs), but until now I didn’t realize that procrastination was another version of my shitty ability to say no.
Procrastination isn’t one size fits all. Nothing in life is. According to Joseph Ferrari Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University, and Timothy Pychyl Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada, there are three main types of procrastinators:
- Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
- Avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
- Decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.
I was the first type in college completing my projects last minute and getting great grades felt good. And gave me time to have a life and complete school work. But I’m no longer being graded, and as a self-employed person, I’m setting my own deadlines.
I don’t have a problem making decisions, so I’m going to guess I am somewhere in the second type. I am avoiding work. Feelings. Stress. All of the bad things.
Why work when I can relax instead?
Can Visualization Help?
One helpful technique I read about while researching procrastination was visualization. If we can clearly see our goals then we are more likely to reach them. “A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting.” Meaning that imagining the positive outcome has the same mental affects as actually experiencing the outcome.
And yes, when I sit here and imagine eating fresh home cooked bread with dinner tonight I am motivated to get up and start baking. But then again baking bread is something I really enjoy.
When applied to something I strongly dislike doing the visualization doesn’t work as well. I can visualize a clean bathroom, and feel the positive effects of enjoying a clean bathroom as I soak in the tub with a glass of wine and a good book. But that does not make me want to clean it. Not enough to actually get up and do it anyway.
Clearly visualizing is important, but not enough by itself.
Turns out I am biased toward the present rather than thinking about the future.
In behavioral economics, they call it time inconsistency. For example, if you say, “next month I’ll start…” budgeting. Or working out, or eating healthy, you are putting off the pain and discomfort of self-regulation in favor of doing whatever you want right now.
Psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California tackled present self vs future self in a recent study published in Psychological Science. “In order for the future to energize and motivate current action, it must feel imminent.”
In the study, they asked participants about important events like a wedding and then asked them to judge how soon that event was occurring. When asked how many days away the event was people responded with between 13 and 33 days sooner than if they were asked about how many months away the event was.
Other participants were asked about saving money either for retirement or when a child’s education at 18 years old. When given the length in days, rather than years, people were four times more likely to start saving sooner.
Let’s try some practical application.
Think briefly about getting your goal. For weight loss you might choose how you feel, the attention you’ll get, clothes you’ll get to buy. The energy you’ll have. Want that life? Awesome.
Now, think about the effects of not taking action. You’ll be 5 years older, you’ll still be overweight, unhappy. Your clothes will be old and ratty because you don’t shop because you don’t like how you look. Or look farther out and think of missing out on your children’s lives because you didn’t change your habits now.
With finances imagine being debt free. Or only having a mortgage. Oh, the glory. How much money will that free up in your life? Think of saving for that vacation. Not a weekend with your mother in law (even if she is awesome) but a real vacation. A week, or two, away from life without worrying. And think of how fast you saved, or even better how fast you can save for another trip because you don’t have to have debt as a priority.
Now consider the opposite. 5 years from now. How much extra will you have spent on interest? You’ll be tired. And even more tired of paying off your debt. Maybe you are locked into the job you hate because it pays enough to cover life and bills and debt. No real vacations. No real treats because in the back of your mind you’ll know you still have to pay off your debts. Consider the exhaustion and health effects of prolonged stress from your debt. Maybe you’ll even be 20 pounds heavier.
If I sit here and imagine not cleaning the bathroom for another week and see the germs spreading over every surface, and smelling the grossness that will accumulate in another week. Let’s not stop there. Almost all visualizing advice says to incorporate as many feelings and senses as you can, so let’s be honest and accept my anger and irritation for having a gross space I have to spend an hour scrubbing instead of 20 minutes. I will probably be cranky and make the other people I live with cranky because I’m venting my anger on everyone even though I know I shouldn’t.
I can easily see how procrastinating cleaning this mess can ruin a whole day by starting it off on the wrong foot and letting the negativity snowball from there.
Avoiding those negative feelings and that awful hour of cleaning makes me want to ensure I get to cleaning the bathroom today. Now.
After cleaning, I’m going to spend some time thinking about my priorities and what impact not achieving my goals will have.