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Why We Procrastinate (nautil.us)
191 points by canguler on Aug 14, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

It's an interesting idea - could we deal with procrastination by visualising ourselves in the future position where the task is not done? I don't think it's the full story on procrastination though.

Procrastination can be rational. If you have a difficult phone call to make, and you can't get focus to deal with it, it's rational to not do the obvious thing of picking up the phone and making a mess of the call.

I procrastinate when I don't feel able to get a task sufficiently into focus that I can progress it. There's a particular struggle with sequencing steps - working out a series of things to do to contain the task.

My technique for getting around this is to brainstorm simple things I could do around my outcome. This could be as trivial as writing a paragraph about why it feels hard.

After a bit of this, I can string together four or five tasks. Once I have a sequence of things, I can get some motion. Then procrastination ceases to be a problem.

Something else I find useful is to accept exhaustion. If I can't sequence, it may be because of exhaustion. Go and lay on a couch with no intent, and try to think about it with no pressure. Sometimes new ideas come here. But if I fall asleep - it was needed. Come back after rest for another go.

>you can't get focus to deal with it... working out a series of things to do to contain the task... brainstorm simple things I could do around my outcome... writing a paragraph about why it feels hard... string together four or five tasks... Come back after rest for another go.

This is not what I consider procrastination, and I consider myself a major procrastinator, struggling constantly with time management issues because of it.

What you are describing is a context of ancillary effort surrounding the task. These are Things Being Done To Do The Thing.

Necessary but insufficient. Secondary, but nonetheless essential.

Procrastination, on the other hand, is the Absolute Evasion Of All Things Related To The Task At Hand.

Not lead up. Not preparation. Not sequencing. Not anything.

Anything But.

Do Something, but make damn well sure it's Not The Thing That Relates To What You Ought To Be Doing.

Email fidgeting. Netflix grazing. Guitar strumming. Water boiling watching. But not The Thing. And not Near The Thing.

Anything But The Thing.

This is doubly hard when creative (read: conceptual, thinking, fuzzy, ethereal, imaginative) work is The Thing To Be Done. Because sometimes Not Doing The Thing is what Needs To Be Done To Do It.

But just as often, oh man, do we like to fool ourselves into even avoiding Not Doing The Thing Needed To Do the Thing We Need To Do by simply Not Even Doing That.

If you pack batteries all day into tiny boxes in a warehouse filled with angry and watchful foremen (I've done this), there's no possibility for confusion between Getting It Done and Not Getting It Done.

But if you've got 600 words to write on how SEC New Rule 506(c) pertains to real estate crowdfunding, who's to say that sitting on your ass and watching 7 episodes of Adventure Time isn't integral to your effort. (It's not. But still, who's to say?)

Don't even get me started on billable hours. That's a whole nother can of worms.

What you describe here my friend, doesn't seem to be procrastination. The above are pretty much all the hallmark signs of resistance. An interesting read; "The war of Art" -Steven Pressfield.

edit: care to explain the downvote?

Also not the downvoter, but I can also see why. Your comment doesn't really give me much to understand or respond to. What do you mean by it is not procrastination? You're going to have to explain that. The only thing I could about resistance in the sense you use was a small paragraph on Wikipedia about a term coined by Steven Pressfield. So it's probably not something known by anyone who has not read that book (which does seem interesting by the way, thank you). Even then, the way it was described, it doesn't sound like procrastination and resistance need to be mutually exclusive.

Also looking into it (just based on the wiki blurb, not having read the book. So it's entirely possible I'm misunderstanding it). But a "universal force that he claims acts against human creativity" sounds cheesy. There's no external force acting against me when I watch Adventure Time instead of accomplishing something (I'm guilty of that too), or browse HN while at the office. I'm just being lazy and doing something easy and enjoyable, instead of something hard but beneficial. And that matches the definition of procrastination pretty well.

Thanks for taking the time to explain this to me, I really appreciate the feedback. I shall ensure replies are more thought out in future. Sometimes it takes someone pointing something out to me, to allow me to course correct and I thank you.

I guess I really connected with what you said and it was well written. You said it in a way that would take me quite some time to get across, and described it much better than I could. That blended pretty well with my own experiences. I could procrastinate about procrastinating myself, it's not a good place and a frustrating feeling. I tried to read as many books and read about as many other people as possible to try better my understanding of why I do it so much, so often, despite me knowing a lot of data about it. I believe what Petsfold is trying to do is to personify procrastination to a recongizable point, like a character, so you can consciously choose to not let that character win. That's my main takeaway from the book. It's certainly helped me. I still procrastinate, but I feel like I know a little more. Almost like "what is it I'm resisting about x that's making me procrastinate so much". This can sometimes, not always, help me identify and act on variables that might be affecting me at that moment in time. Best of luck, and thank you again.

I've read "Do The Work", the later, shorter companion to "The War of Art". Resistance and procrastination and related, but not identical. You get resistance about creative acts that expose you to public assessment of your work, or really anything that might upset the status quo in your life. Sure, you can procrastinate about a 600 word article or a term paper. But when you avoid even starting to write your first novel, or coding on your side project startup, that's getting into resistance. I think the more ego we wrap up into a task, the more resistance rears its ugly head.

It wasn't me, but you posed an non-intuitive distinction without explaining it, which makes it difficult to discern what you're trying to claim.

I believe I procrastinate for similar reasons and my techniques for getting around it is similar to yours.

However, I do consider my past and future selves as different people in my mind. I am someone who talks to himself constantly. I've added talking to my past and future selves. I will say, out loud or mentally, "Thanks Past Me." There is something about being grateful to my past self for things I have done that have made my life better today, that makes me more able to do things that will make my life better for my future self. And I think a part of it is that I know, because I am grateful to my past self, that my future self will be grateful to me.

Keith Chen has done some research about the effect of language on economic behavior. He also did a TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_aff...

What can economists learn from linguists? Behavioral economist Keith Chen introduces a fascinating pattern from his research: that languages without a concept for the future — "It rain tomorrow," instead of "It will rain tomorrow" — correlate strongly with high savings rates.

It seems like the lack of a future tense in one's language could make it easier for a person to identify with their "future self" (as the article terms it).

>What can economists learn from linguists?

That's a question best left for a linguist to answer, not an economist. The Internet is full of amusing correlations between language and behavior, and most of them are bullshit.

Here's an analysis of Chen's argument by an actual linguist: http://sinoglot.com/blog/2013/04/futurity-in-chinese-and-eng...

The paper is

The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets MK Chen - The American Economic Review, 2013


That's funny. This is the exact kind of lingustic stereotyping we mock as pop science in intro linguistics course (at least in the US the last decade I took them).

How does "It rain tomorrow" not indicate a concept of the future?

For that matter, how does "It rain tomorrow" not indicate a phrase in the original language that might as well have been translated into English as "It will rain tomorrow"?

It does indicate a concept of future. What it doesn't do is use a different tense—the key verb is the same as when talking about the present. It's a subtle distinction, but he is arguing that this lack of differentiation in verbs has an impact on internalizing future events.

And while you very well could make the translation from whatever the original was to "It will rain tomorrow," it might not be a literal one that preserves the original tenses, which would obscure exactly what he was trying to point out.

It doesn't have grammaticalisation of time, is what was meant.

It's obviously got at least one word for the future ("tomorrow"), which is kind of like having a library function strcat instead of just +

Also, English doesn't have a future tense, so there's that.

> Also, English doesn't have a future tense, so there's that.

Has happened, is happening, will happen?


[does happen, will happen], [go, will go] - notice that the active verb doesn't change from present to future, rather there is an auxiliary added to mark the tense. Contrast to French where you have [vois/see, verrai/will see] and the verb itself is modified.

Right, English doesn't have a future tense (in the sense of tense as marked by inflection). So what's the contrast of note? That the one sentence marks the future by use of a modal auxiliary (in addition to the explicit "tomorrow"), while the other marks the future only by explicit description of the time "tomorrow"? Mark me as highly skeptical that this is of any significance...

I'm saying it's a strange example to say that some languages do or don't have a grammaticalization of time, and then give two supposedly contrasting grammars as an example of each, when actually neither of them really has a future tense.

But they said it as if one does.

TL;DR for the busy:

The post focuses on the fact that it's hard for us to think about our future selves. So procrastination is the result of short-term bias, and a desire for immediate gratification.


I personally think that's irresponsibly oversimplistic. Procrastination can get much, much more complex than that.

> I personally think that's irresponsibly oversimplistic. Procrastination can get much, much more complex than that.

Well said. I find there are two main reasons I might procrastinate. Sometimes it's because I'm working on something boring or frustrating, and I just want a break from it. Sometimes it's because I'm scared I'll fail, whereas if I never start, I'll never risk that.

I'm trying (with a bit of success so far) to reshape my habits to stop the second kind of procrastination. The first kind, I don't even consider to be a bad thing. When I was a child, I learned to program and do maths because I found "school maths" boring. I read a lot of amazing books because I couldn't be bothered to memorise facts in a sub-par geography class. Now I'm (supposedly) an adult, this form of procrastination consists of deferring low-priority but necessary tasks (e.g. timesheets, marking students' work, health and safety reviews) and working on cool things that motivate me.

Yeah, I think the main thing about my procrastination is structural and habitual. This is something I've built since I was a child. I've always been averse to doing things that I don't instantly or immediately enjoy.

That said, these structures and habits were built because of some set of reasons that may seem completely irrelevant today. My parents spoiled me silly and never expected me to take any serious responsibility for anything. I used to read tonnes of books for pleasure, but I never did any of my homework because I didn't see the point of it.

Years later, I struggle to get myself to commit to doing work that I personally acknowledge as important and useful to me.

As a serious, pathalogical procrastinator, the best explanation I've ever seen for why people procrastinate is this one: http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastin...

I realize this also focuses on Instant Gratification as the cornerstone of the problem, but it describes the actual struggle with much more detail and nuance.

"Sometimes it's because I'm scared I'll fail, whereas if I never start, I'll never risk that."

The idea from the article is that you are actually wrong about what you think your reasons for procrastinating are. They may feel intuitive to you, but they are inaccurate. The idea is that if you identify with your future self more often, you will align the interests. People who naturally do this procrastinate less.

Rather than thinking about fear of failure, imagine a future self that has done the thing. Even imagine a future self that has done the thing poorly and another that has done it well. Imagine a future self that just gets to talk about doing the thing poorly to someone interesting at a party. Imagine another future self that has been rewarded and recognized for having done the thing well or just got lucky. Identify with those future selves and let them compete with your current self. Each of the future selves results in doing the thing. They are way cooler than the current self who wants to not do the thing. Make it a competition between done-well and done-poorly to see who wins rather than letting done-not-at-all getting too much attention.

Out of curiosity, what are some of the things you're trying to combat the 2nd type of procrastination? I've been experimenting with habits and other organizational systems to use my time more effectively, and it's been going pretty well so far.

The main thing I do when I realize I'm frittering away time when there's something pressing that I really should be doing, I think "OK. On xxx Date in the future, you are going to be held accountable for The Thing. That date is approaching, and when it gets here, you are either going to fail or succeed, and the difference will likely be what you spend your time on right now."

This is moderately successful for important tasks with important consequences, but not so helpful when I really should, say, do my laundry. But I figure that if I can get the hard things sorted out, I'll slot the laundry in somewhere later (textbook procrastination rationalizations, yes, I recognize the irony).

I'm also playing with todo lists to help me plan better - keeping everything in my head is certainly not optimal. I sampled a bunch of methods: so far Wunderlist has been the best for just straight todos. I would like to change my habits so that when I'm too tired (physically or mentally) to do intellectual work, I default to a less demanding task - exercise, errands, whatever - instead of HN. But that's still a work in progress.

One other thing is that I've been keeping more notebooks. If something happens, and after the fact I think "Hmm, that could have gone better..." I'll jot some notes down about what I could have done instead. When the semester starts (I'm an undergrad student) I also want to start keeping a rough weekly plan in the notebook, like this: http://calnewport.com/blog/2014/08/08/deep-habits-plan-your-...

> Out of curiosity, what are some of the things you're trying to combat the 2nd type of procrastination?

Yeah, like you, changing habits/organisation is a big thing. Another is that I've set things up such that it's far easier to exile myself from the internet. I try to restrict my leisure browsing to one VM and my work to another VM. So on.

> This is moderately successful for important tasks with important consequences, but not so helpful when I really should, say, do my laundry. But I figure that if I can get the hard things sorted out, I'll slot the laundry in somewhere later (textbook procrastination rationalizations, yes, I recognize the irony).

I don't mind letting these things languish. If it takes me a long time to do laundry, so what?

Thanks for sharing your findings about todo lists. My todo list is essentially the same thing as my calendar, and I wonder if I'd benefit from separating them a bit.

Was it really "well said"? It was a personal judgement followed by an unjustified assertion. It seems you merely agree with the comment, and have mistaken that with the author saying something well.

That's not a very good summary. A more accurate TL;DR: We think of our future self as a separate person, but if you use certain tricks to manipulate someone into identifying more with their future self, they will be more considerate of that future self.

Thank you, sincerely, for the summary. I really couldn't be motivated to read such a dense piece.

TL;DR “That's a problem for future Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy.”

We humans, Parfit argued, are not a consistent identity moving through time

Our identity is more stable at some times than others however. Supposedly, stability peaks mid-life[1]. I wonder if middle aged people procrastinate less.

Also, how much do people differ in their ability to identify with their future selves? We know that people have different time preference and some people emphasize the immediate (discount) more than others. Do they procrastinate more, too? Is this difference innate, cultural, ideological?

Peter Frost theorizes that viewing yourself as part of this great chain of ancestors and descendants was very adaptive (maybe even more important than mastering agriculture) at one time and helped drive human expansion.[2] Which would make it at least partially cultural.

Finally, some people view procrastination as a fundamentally rational way to avoid doing work that may never need to be done, like you would a gut feeling about someone's trustworthiness. This doesn't work in an artificial setting of term papers but in a complex system you can simply wait things out quite often.

[1] http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-stabilit...

[2] http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-agricultural-rev...

Yeah, I think procrastination, like laziness, might be better described as "work aversion". Procrastination and laziness both imply that the "problem" is with the individual who's afflicted with it, and it also almost implies that the environment has little-to-nothing to do with it. But there are many 'procrastinators' who actually work really hard at certain things. (World of Warcraft strikes me as one of those things that actually requires a lot of hard work.)

So again, for the people who do struggle with procrastination in their own lives, figuring out how to do something about it (if they want to do something about it at all!) requires a very thorough self-examination.

I've always wondered where the notions of procrastination and laziness came from. No one actively compromises their survivability through either.

To me it seems like the notion came from our history of servitude. Of course a Lord is going to pressure his peasants to work harder. So of course the head of a hide is going to be pressuring his nephews to get working.

Laziness and procrastination only become negative in the concept that we have to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. I'm sure the generation before Henry Ford reduced work hours to 8 hour days and work weeks to 5 days thought their kids were lazy. Who wouldn't when you're working 12 hour days 6 days a week!

My son might be of the generation working 4 hour days 4 days a week. He might be of the generation where mandatory work is a thing of the past.

> I'm sure the generation before Henry Ford reduced work hours to 8 hour days and work weeks to 5 days thought their kids were lazy.

I doubt it... At the very least you need to go much further back than Ford.

While Ford was one of the earlier industrialists to willingly accept and embrace the 8 hour day, it was by no means his doing. AFL and other unions had been fighting for working hours reductions for decades by then - with loss of life on more than once occasion - , and gradually started getting concessions.

The first widespread demands for an 8 hour day in the US happened 30 years or so before Ford was even born.

The first attempt at introducing 8 hour working day for federal employees passed in 1868, when Ford was 5.

New York got partial 8 hour working days (for certain traides) from 1872.

In 1889, the Second International agreed with the AFL to make May 1st 1890 a day for demonstrations in commemoration of the Haymarket massacre, and in support of the 8 hour working day. And so, the US unions fight for the 8 hour working day is actually directly responsible for May 1st as the international day for labour demonstrations.

It wasn't until 1914 that Ford cut working hours from 9 to 8, at a point when millions of workers in other industries had already achieved it. At that point, 8 hour working day had been a labour demand for 2-3 generations already.

Your perspective is completely consistent with my experience. For most of human history, we probably hunted animals in short bursts of activity then sat around "procrastinating". Laziness as a term is almost a subtle act of violence, useful for policing the behavior of others.

The idea that we should spend most of our time actively working on things or working towards things is kind of odd when you examine it closer.

Procrastination is an avoidance mechanism, but you are not necessarily trying to avoid work, it could be pain, unpleasantness, or fear of failure as mentioned earlier. To take your example of WoW, compulsive players are likely trying to avoid some real world issues, but it could be social anxiety and not "work aversion".

Oh, I don't mean to imply that people play WoW BECAUSE they're averse to work! I just mean that some of us work really hard at some things, and are really averse to doing other things. And I seldom see people acknowledging this.

I like using the term work-averse or task-averse because then I'm forced to think about not just the person doing the task, but the context of the task.

Hi Visa, sorry to put you on the spot here but you carry the distinction of being both an expert in the procrastination field and able to describe it well.

(1) A link from the link you posted (http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/11/how-to-beat-procrastination.ht...) suggests two explanations (low-confidence in kicking the habit, and inability to change their storyline) and some ways to beat procrastination.

Do these two explanations ring true? Also, have you tried the advice there?

(2) You might have been task-averse in answering this but can you comment on the following point by seren:

> it could be social anxiety

(3) How can I get in touch with you? I have something to try and fix procrastination if you are willing to be a guinea pig. I would appreciate the feedback.

Hey, sorry I didn't notice this earlier. You can tweet me at @visakanv or email me at visakanv at referralcandy dot com

I've always found every time I make the difficult choice, the next difficult choice get's slightly easier. It's a dangerous belief as the opposite might also be true.

I will assume being a suffering procrastinator, but wanna add something. Sometimes procrastinating feels like the 'creative high', except it's obviously twisted. I will jump into playing music because I suddenly have an 'idea'. Or will delve into a programming language for the same reason.

It's like a parallel choreography of desires ending being counter productive.

Fight it. (I wish I was taught courage patience and application earlier)

Considering one's future self as a different person could have the opposite effect. We might then sympathise with that person, and take measures not to be mean to him, in the same way we wouldn't be mean to a friend.

But it's a nice idea. Another tendency we have is to shed our skins and not remember what it was like to be a child. This effects the way we interact with children.

Some severe procrastinators, I think, also sort of hate themselves and their future selves, and see themselves as unworthy and undeserving of anything substantial. The procrastination might be a symptom of depression, etc.

An interesting solution to procrastination that I just came across is Beeminder [1], which lets you set a goal and a matching consequence for not staying on track to meet your goal. If you fall off track, you pay the consequence.

1. https://www.beeminder.com/

But the research cited in the article indicates that people are more willing to submit their future self to consequences that they wouldn't want in the short-term. That's consistent with my experience with approaches like the site you cited, which is that it doesn't help me procrastinate less, but vastly increases my stress and panic associated with a deadline as the consequence approaches, when it's too late to work effectively.

Actually Beeminder gets around that problem by making you quantify your goal and then defining a roadmap to reach the goal. If you go off the "yellow brick road," the penalty comes into play. It's like breaking your overall goal into a bunch of little goals, but the actual implementation is a little more subtle than that.

> That's consistent with my experience with approaches like the site you cited, which is that it doesn't help me procrastinate less, but vastly increases my stress and panic associated with a deadline as the consequence approaches, when it's too late to work effectively.

That GP's quote describes my exact experience with Beeminder. I lost a bit of money there, while procrastinating even more because of huge amounts of stress related to failing the task and losing money I can't really afford to lose.

Whenever the topic of procrastination comes up I always like to refer to pg's essay on it: http://paulgraham.com/procrastination.html

Procrastination comes in all various sorts and forms. We have to remember that things other people perceive as productive, but we know aren't productive to what we need to accomplish, is procrastination as well. Of course, there's also the form of procrastination that represents fear of failure.

The examples in the article sound more or less like a wild re-explanation of the economic concepts of present value and discount rate. With all the literature available there, it's a shame the article doesn't make that connection.



You're confusing a subconscious psychological mechanism with a rationally applied economic concept.

Discounting the future self is only one of many possible reasons for procrastination, which is a complex subject. If you want to listen to a podcast that reviews the many different lines of inquiry into the subject, including several branches of science and also philosophy, check out the iProcrastinate podcast with Dr. Tim Pychyl.


Listening to a Podcast about procrastination instead of coding on one of the rare days I get to the office before 8am... interesting suggestion you make mon frere

In a physical sense, future you _is_ someone else. All the atoms that make up our bodies are replaced within some timeframe. Sympathizing with future you shouldn't be predicated on that person having your personality anyway: we are all more than capable of sympathizing even with complete strangers. Perhaps we've been procrastinating much worse than we realize on that.

My personal theory is that my lizard-brain procrastinates in the hope that some percentage of the things it puts off doing, will eventually not need to be done. (Either they take care of themselves, or turn out to be unimportant)

Basically, procrastination is a rational manifestation of laziness, which as has been discussed in the past is a survival trait (avoid expending energy if possible)

Is there a relationship between one's ability to emphathize with others, and one's ability to plan for the future?

If we think of our future selves as other people, maybe the folks who can't think of other people's feelings very well also have a hard time planning for their future selves.

I think its more of the ADHD never think about the future at all issue.

I recommend the book "The Now Habit" to anyone interested in fixing procrastination. It's a decent read, and you'll learn a thing or two about how to deal with procrastination.

I think in many cases its just a fear or making a start, and possibly failing

So suicide is in fact serial murder.

I had the clojuresque thought "I'm immutable" too... and it made me rethink this design choice: maybe I should version myself, to keep in mind that future me is also me!

I do this.

Every year or two, I get a tattoo representing an idea or a defining point in my life. There are a few that aren't in line with the current me, but they're a permanent visual reminder of who used to live in this skin, so I love them just as much. Sort of real-life version tagging.

This is the most hacker-news comment I've ever read.

I've written about something similar -- http://goo.gl/SbveOA -- though in that case I was about making proclamations on behalf of future you.

In some ways the theories are at odds. My argument is that people often view their future selves as the identical person that they are today, just in the future. That they can't identify that the future person is, in effect, a very different person. This article posits that people view future person as a separate person altogether, and screw them anyways.

It is a fascinating topic that you can waste away a day contemplating. Ah well, future you can do what you were supposed to do today.

TL;DR for the busy: GO read it. NOW! Not because your future YOU will feel better, but because this future you IS YOU

-7 points and counting!

Please comment instead or downvoting! My comment wasn't meant to be offensive or anything but english is not my mother tong. So please tell me WHY!

I was downvoted for what I think is a fun illustration of what the article says. I really enjoyed this article.

It was an epiphany... for me. I guess my downvoter didn't see it that way

I relate to how you're feeling. Different communities have different expectations of what good content is. HN is a tough crowd. Lurk more, read more.

It's okay to have epiphanies, the challenge is to communicate them in a way that your audience appreciates.

HN is fickle. You committed the double sin of posting a TL;DR and YELLING.

I'll read this later.

Looks like an interesting article, bookmarked to read it later.

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