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