Chapter 5 in Dr. Timothy Pychyl's book The Procrastinator's Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle--entitled "Excuses & Self-Deception: How our Thinking Contributes to our Procrastination"--is the basis of today's Procrastinating 101. And his mantra for this chapter? "I need to be aware of my rationalizations."
According to Dr. Pychyl, screwy thinking that supports the procrastination habit includes the human tendencies to:
- discount future rewards in relation to short-term rewards
- underestimate the time things will take and overestimate how much we can do [leads to poor planning]
- prefer tomorrow over today [eventually leads, via something psychologists call intransitive preference, to the point right before a deadline where not only is tomorrow no longer preferable to today as a starting date, but in fact a previous date--no longer available--is preferred to today]
- self-handicap to protect self-esteem [like starting so late that you can't be expected to do really well on a project]
- think irrationally about the task at hand and our ability to accomplish the task [like insist on perfection, for example], and
- manufacture our own happiness by changing our thinking to be consistent with our behavior [i.e., contending with cognitive dissonance, which creates its own problems].
In order to cope with cognitive dissonance, procrastinators may employ
- denial of responsibility
- adding consonant cognitions
- making downward-counterfactuals ("It could've been worse!"), and
- [actually] changing behavior.
Changing behavior would involve acting, instead of procrastinating--something that is difficult to do, and therefore not so likely. The other coping strategies on this list, while they may result in better feelings in the present, can be maladaptive. A better approach is what Pychyl calls "planful-problem-solving".
Dr. Pychyl also reminds us, as we have learned from others in our Procrastinating 101 series, that, despite what many of us believe, in most cases we don't "work best under pressure." (He includes in this chapter a pretty frightening cartoon, in which one of our last-minute brethren finally gets around to thinking about packing his parachute on the way down! Maybe that will scare some of us straight--or early.)
Pychyl's main piece of advice in this chapter is that we identify those irrational thoughts that lead us to procrastinate; and having done that, that we form an implementation intention, which he described in his Chapter 3. In this way, the irrational thought becomes the cue (e.g., "If I catch myself thinking/saying 'I work best under pressure,') to implement the desired change in our thinking ("then I remind myself that this is self-deception, and just get started on the task").
He leaves us with the assignment to list our typical excuses for procrastinating, something he says may take some time. These lies we tell ourselves, when we hear them asserting themselves again, can then be used to trigger the new response--just get started.
Next week, we will learn from Dr. Pychyl why this approach works. I don't know about you, but from where I sit, it sounds too easy to be true. But just in case, I plan to show up next week with rationalizations and excuses in hand, willing to take the plunge. But not without packing my chute. Not even this inveterate relier on that most motivating of hours--the 11th--would leave that to the last minute.