Are You Rewarding Yourself through Procrastination?


What if I told you that every time you procrastinate you are actually rewarding yourself?

It’s true.

When you procrastinate you are not only rewarding yourself with each choice to do something else — but when you end up pulling off that all-nighter it rewards your behavior as well. But how?

There are a growing number of researchers who have turned to a formula called hyperbolic discounting to help explain why we procrastinate.  Hyperbolic discounting was originally used in behavioral economics to help analyst predict economic decisions and later spread to the study of addiction.  Most recently, behavioral economist George Ainslie used this formula to support his theory that procrastination is a basic impulse in human nature.  Basically, he states that we are hardwired to procrastinate.

Hyperbolic discounting says that humans will choose a lesser reward in the short term versus a greater reward in the long term.  Say, I offer you $50 dollars tomorrow or $100 in a year, most people will take the $50 and run.  But an interesting thing happens if you delay the rewards long enough; for instance, $50 in ten years versus $100 in eleven, most will take the $100.  Our behaviors are surprisingly predictable and once you begin to take notice of it you will see procrastination everywhere.

So, let’s apply this to that deadline you have next week.  The further away the deadline, the easier it is to put it off.  Something as simple as staring at the fly on the wall is a more rewarding task than actually accomplishing what we need to do.  We are choosing something that makes up happy now (a reward) instead of the greater reward  (a job well done) next week.

Remember that all-nighter I mentioned earlier?  You know, the one that you felt so proud about completing at the last minute?  The same one that helps you tell yourself that you are good at working under pressure? Well, every time you wait until the last second to complete a project and actually pull off that all-nighter, you reinforce your own tendency to procrastinate.  You are rewarding your own bad behavior.

There are other factors involved as well, namely risk avoidance.  What if we don’t meet our own expectations — or worse — what if we fail completely?  Avoiding this risk is much easier than facing it and it’s much easier to check Facebook than to tackle a market report. Our decisions also become marred in past experiences, emotions, effort (or lack thereof) and rationalization.  We delay until the last minute when time ultimately makes us choose the undesirable and risky.

But don’t feel bad.  Some people go so far as putting off life-threatening decisions.  Smokers opt for a drag now versus lung cancer later.  People who have had multiple heart attacks still choose bacon over salad, simply because death isn’t staring them in the face – right this very moment.

To close out, here are some tips to help you end your procrastinating ways:

5 steps to help end procrastination

Recognize your behavior. Take special notice of when and why you are procrastinating.  If you can become more self-observant than you can begin to change your behavior.  But it is important to be honest with yourself when doing this step.  Do not fall into the trap of rationalizing your reasons for delaying work.

Put one foot forward. Too often, we fail to start a big project because we focus on the big picture.  It is like trying to run an entire marathon in one giant leap.  Instead, quit thinking about the whole task and focus on the first step.  Continue putting one foot in front of the other and before you know it you will look back and the job will be finished.

Don’t put off the small stuff. Our lives tend to become inundated with mundane tasks that leave us feeling overwhelmed.  Something as simple as sorting through a stack of mail becomes an added stress to our weekly chores.  Start completing small task as they present themselves.  When you are walking back from the mail box, open that letter – don’t throw it in the corner and wait for it to pile up.

If a project is due later, reward yourself for each hour spent on it now. Make the reward for working now, greater than a simple-immediate reward such as checking your email.  How about your favorite snack from the deli that you have been craving all morning?  One hour of work and it’s all yours.

Get started now. Stop thinking and start working on the task.  You will find that simply starting the task alleviates the anxiety associated with completing the project and boosts your self confidence because you have begun working.  It will also give you time for unexpected hurdles that you did not account for while rationalizing your decision to delay work.  Worse case scenario: you finish early and have stress-free time to relax.


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Discussion

  1. Ilija Brajkovic on the 4th October

    Great article. I agree with all facts, and I recognize the patterns that I see every day when I work (especially work at the last moment).

  2. OMG, I’m so sick of people telling me that they work better under pressure. Just because everything you do is last minute doesn’t mean you work better under pressure. In fact, NO ONE WORKS BETTER AT THE LAST MINUTE THAN THEY DO WHEN THEY HAVE TIME TO DO THE WORK WELL AND GO OVER IT ONCE OR TWICE. There. I said it.

    • Thera on the 7th October

      Well I know cases where “works better under pressure” is actually true: they just don’t work on it unless you’re constantly asking how the project is going.

      The common misconception however is that “works better under pressure” is seen as a positive sentence while it’s not: either it means you just don’t work until the last minute, either that you don’t give a shit unless someone’s watching over you, and both cases are negative.

    • Tim on the 18th November

      When someone says “I work well under pressure”, what they usually mean is, they ONLY work under pressure.

  3. Gabriele Maidecchi on the 4th October

    Well put, I could recognize myself in some of those behaviors I admit.
    Procrastination is a very desirable outcome when your schedule feels too busy and your brain is telling you “get a break”, and the inability to focus on the single tasks and just feel overwhelmed by the big milestone.. ahh that’s quite too familiar.
    Thanks for the nice read :)

  4. Daquan Wright on the 4th October

    Wow…so true. I deal with procrastinating all the time and I’m trying to break it so I don’t fail my Physics class.

    Like…when I’m told the deadline for homework is next Sunday night, I put it off until the weekend hits. The weekend hits and I’m rushing to get it done.

    Starting is simply the hardest part, once you do that, just go full force. 😉

  5. Dan on the 4th October

    Wow, I am sitting here about to pass out after a 36-hour “no-sleep” marathon – getting tons of stuff done…. and now I realize it was all because I decided to procrastinate last week. There goes the good feeling (reward) I had…..Damn! Goodnight….

    • Cdot on the 18th October

      LOL, I’m doing the same thing right now.

  6. Ana da Silva on the 5th October

    hehe, this just out in the New Yorker on procrastination :)

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/10/11/101011crbo_books_surowiecki

  7. Bryan Thompson on the 5th October

    It’s easy for people to lump themselves in with a type of worker (“Mike is always a procrastinator,” his wife tells their friends.) If we don’t think this kind of thing wears on our subconscious, we’d better think again. This is what I thought about myself for much of my life. My dad would say it as I was growing up, and I’d hear my wife tell people that. These were usually said as a joke and “all in good fun” but it’s what I really began to think.

    A couple of years ago, I was challenged with this belief. I heard a talk by Paul McKenna in which he addressed procrastination. He said that most people were not actually procrastinators – they tended to pursue the things they wanted to and chose to procrastinate on things that weren’t important at the time. This challenged me in my thinking. Just because I had made this decision didn’t mean it was who I was.

    Great post!

    • Adam Bluhm on the 7th October

      I agree with people procrastinating on things that are not (as) important to them at the time. When I was in University and had an assignment due in a non-programming course, I would leave it until the last minute and spend all my time focusing on what I enjoyed, the programming. Then, when I was under the gun and HAD to get that assignment done, then I would completely focus on it and single-task until I got it done. If I did not procrastinate, I would be forever distracted and prolong things on the “boring” assignment. I recognized this form of procrastination as one of my strengths and took advantage of it. I got far more done this way.

  8. Luce on the 6th October

    Great article! Thank you

  9. Sherry Thompson on the 6th October

    Very much enjoyed reading this article. It was very informative and very enlightening….especially concerning my own habits in this area. And it’s true that what people say about us can be powerful, whether for good or bad. Life and death is in the power of the tongue. (Bible) And yet what we say to ourselves about ourselves is the most powerful talk of all. Thank you for addressing this issue.

  10. Richard Newman on the 6th October

    Hey, everyone! Thanks for the awesome comments. I really appreciate it. :) This was my first article with WorkAwesome. I’m looking forward to producing some more tips to make your life a little easier.

  11. Ben on the 9th October

    Good article.

  12. Hermie on the 15th December

    Very interesting article and an interesting take on the reasons why we procrastinate. I’ve done some research and written a few articles on the subject myself and haven’t come across this take on the subject yet. There have been quite a few studies done on procrastination including the Temporal Motivation Theory which breaks our desire to procrastinate down to a mathematical equation. Cool stuff and thank you for the article.

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