Volume 15, Number 9
Most people have some health behavior that they fully intend to improve at some point in the future… perhaps tomorrow, next week, or in the months/years ahead. The goal might be more consumption of vegetables, getting more sleep, getting more physical activity, or even getting a recommended screening exam. And usually there is sincerity in the expectation that the health goal will be met, at some point in time. In many of these situations, a change could be implemented today, but one chooses to put it off. This common type of procrastination is an important contributor to the prevalence of chronic illness and related consequences.
Two of the world’s experts on procrastination, Drs. Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois, define procrastination as the voluntary delay of an intended action, in spite of knowing that the delay will likely leave one worse off as a result of the delay. It is a failure of self-control. Why is procrastination so common?
There is much research evidence indicating that the short-term benefit of procrastination is repairing one’s mood. In other words, the target behavior is viewed as unpleasant, boring, anxiety-provoking, or otherwise difficult, and thereby associated with unpleasant feelings. So, not engaging in the task is a short-term way to feel better… and it works! One “gives in to feel good.” And because it works momentarily, the procrastination is reinforced, making future procrastination more likely.
However, this short-term mood repair comes at the expense of not achieving the original goal. If procrastination has previously occurred with respect to a specific behavior, there may be ongoing bad feelings related to not having made progress toward the goal. The shame or guilt that frequently accompanies procrastination means that there is even more of a negative mood state to repair, also making future procrastination more likely. It is a slippery slope. Procrastination typically involves focusing on and prioritizing feelings at the moment, rather than the consideration of future costs and/or feelings. There often is an assumption that one will “feel” more like taking action tomorrow or another day, but this typically is an inaccurate prediction.
Another related contributor to procrastination is the immediate availability of alternatives associated with positive emotions, such as engaging in social interaction, eating “comfort” food, or otherwise being distracted. Choosing one of these alternatives can also serve the purpose of short-term mood repair.
There are strategies that can help individuals overcome procrastination:
- Intentionally separate emotions from the target behavior. In other words, one doesn’t need to “feel” like engaging in the task in order to take action.
- Plan or schedule the target behavior in advance (i.e., implementation intentions), so that decisions about the behavior are not made at the moment when one may not feel like taking action.
- Focus specifically on getting started with the behavior. Once an action is implemented, it usually becomes easier to maintain.
- Minimize cues for any potentially distracting options.
- Go “public” with the plan for action. Expressing to others one’s commitment to action creates a social cue to follow through.
Because feelings/attitudes often follow behavior, good feelings are typically experienced when one is engaged in or has completed intended tasks. This is especially true when there are benefits that come from the action, even if the benefits are long-term. The realization that the target behavior probably wasn’t as bad as expected, the sense of accomplishment, and the momentum gained by taking action all reduce vulnerability to future procrastination.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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