Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Procrastinating 101: Tomorrow--You're ALWAYS a Day Away

In Annie's rose-colored version of the song, tomorrow is a haven for hope, a raincheck, something to pin one's dreams to when today disappoints.  Dr. Timothy Pychyl, author of The Procrastinator's Digest:  A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, would have us sing it differently. 

Annie's view is that "Tomorrow is only a day away."  We don't have long to wait.  Dr. Pychyl points out that tomorrow, as a repository of new energy, better mood and motivation, never comes--it's "always a day away."

That cheery observation is the main message of Dr. Pychyl's Chapter 4, "Why We Won't Feel Like it Tomorrow." In today's Procrastinating 101 we continue digesting Pychyl's digest--kind of like a crib sheet from Cliff Notes.

Pychyl's formula should be familiar by now.  Each chapter includes a mantra.  Chapter 4's is "I won't feel more like doing it tomorrow."

His exposition of the issue presents some useful terms from the psychological literature, which were new to this reader of all things procrastinational.

The first is affective forecasting, which is basically our flawed attempt to plan actions based on how we think we're going to feel in the future.  In the case of procrastinators, this usually consists of a false expectation that the task that is so onerous today will be less so tomorrow--a tomorrow which Pychyl has warned us against waiting for.

And we go wrong in forecasting our future feelings because of 
  • focalism--"the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings in the future" and
  • presentism--putting "too much emphasis on the present in our prediction of the future."

And here's the "catch"--"when we intend a future action, our affective state is often particularly positive."

Pychyl's strategies for dealing with this human foible?

Strategy #1--Time travel

What he apparently has in mind here is getting more specific about the future.  For example, in thinking about retirement, he recommends we chart and spreadsheet our way to a more realistic picture of how current decisions will affect our future economic wherewithal.  

Although this practice might prove useful, Pychyl is concerned that us ditherers may engage in second-order procrastination--i.e., putting off the planning exercise intended to ward off procrastination.  Ah, there's a term for this troublesome behavior of mine.

Never fear, however.  There's a back-up strategy.

Strategy #2--Expect to be wrong and deal with it

As we have gotten used to doing with iffy weather forecasts and downright unreliable economic predictions, we can learn to discount our lousy predictions.  Pychyl outlines two approaches to doing this:

Approach #1-- Accept that "My current motivational state does not need to match my intention in order to act."

As Pychyl asserts, "This is a common misconception about goal pursuit; we believe that we have to actually feel like it.  We don't."

Approach #2--Similar to #1.  Kind of the difference between sucking it up today, and sucking it up tomorrow.  Realizing that when we do arrive at tomorrow, our mood is not going to be as good as we anticipated yesterday when we made the plan to act, we can plunge in anyway.  

"[T]he thing to do it to remember that this is a transient mood."  "And to know that this [being dismal at mood prediction, and having to pay the piper] is a common problem with being human."

The hope is that motivation will follow behavior.  Once we get going, we will feel more like continuing.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, tells of her father's running program, which depended on the minimal commitment to "put on his running shoes and close the door behind him," behavior can produce attitude/motivation, as well as the other, perhaps more usual, way around.

The whole thing seems to me to amount to calling our own bluff.  For those of us who have fallen prey to our own fairy tales about "the day to come" more times than we care to admit, this sort of wising up should not be rocket science.

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