Empathy: The Enemy of Procrastination


            “Procrastination is the thief of time,” beautifully said by Edward Young. Between preparing that pitch for your next company meeting or writing your thesis paper the night before, none of us are foreign to the idea of “I’ll get it done later.” As procrastinators, we sabotage ourselves; we put obstacles in our own path and hurt our performance and chance of success. So why do we procrastinate?

            As much as we would like to blame our iPhones, Youtube videos, or Facebook, technology isn’t the root of this bad habit (although it certainly doesn’t aid us either). People for generations before us have struggled with putting things off for later. Dating back to the fourth century, Saint Augustine supported this by saying “Grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.” In 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod warned us not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” So, before you start to blame the weather, poor internet connection, or too much house work; read this article and find the underlying cause of procrastination, and how to overcome it.

            Let’s start with the science behind it. Focusing on the prefrontal cortex we discover that this is the part of our brain we use to make decisions and connections using abstract thought. This is not an automatic action; it takes deliberate intent If we let our minds wander, the automatic system kicks in. The automatic system is fast and unconscious. This is where our “fight or flight” instincts come from.

            The automatic system has certainly helped you in the past, but it also prevents us from working on unpleasant tasks and directs you to opt for the “immediate mood repair,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, PH.D., a psychology professor at Carleton University. This system leads to becoming distracted frequently from responsibilities and tasks we must complete.

            Procrastination is our fall back solution to avoid a certain amount of pain. Think of an unpleasant task you need to complete (you could be procrastinating by reading this!); thinking of the list of things you need to do causes you a degree of pain. This pain could be felt as discomfort, stress, or shame. The first step to overcoming procrastination is admitting to the fact that you’re simply avoiding pain- rather than the actual task at hand.

            The solution is simple. If we could better anticipate our future emotions we could then better react in the present and motivate ourselves to accomplish the task now and not then. If we could feel now the stress of rushing through research or the exhaustion of working until 3am on that presentation, we would be more likely to solve the problem now and save ourselves even more discomfort later. Empathy for our future selves is what pushes us to accomplish tasks in a timely manner.

             “Psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California attempted to prove this in a recent study published in Psychological Science. They found that if people considered far-off events from the perspective of days rather than months or years, they acted more quickly.” (Forbes).

            So, if you find yourself tempted to procrastinate, envision your future-self experiencing the pain, in whatever form it is, as a result of delaying important tasks, contrasted with the relief you would feel now after completing it. This motivation will push you to complete tasks on time, if not earlier than expected; and your future self will thank you.