Present self and Future self’s battle- An interview with Tim Pychyl, PhD, about procrastination

Emotion regulation against procrastination so that our present self doesn’t affect our future self.


It may sound crazy, but as I was writing the title, I definitely imagined present me and future me engaged in a all-in battle with  light sabers. But no, that’s not what this article is about (sadly).

Timothy A. Pychyl is the Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada), Tim and his students devote their attention to understanding why and how we can sabotage our best intentions with needless delay, and he’s going to help us get an insight about procrastination, what it is exactly, why and how it works and what we can do to fight it (no light sabers are involved).


1) You’re a university teacher and you’re also an investigator. Has your job as a teacher led you to investigate about procrastination?

No, not really, although procrastination is a serious problem for many students. For my doctoral dissertation, I studied people’s goal pursuits and goal pursuit was related to well-being. What I learned was that those goals that we said we intended to act on but didn’t was an important predictor of low well-being (unhappiness, low life satisfaction). So, I turned my attention from what people were doing to what people said they were going to do and didn’t. I’ve never looked back, because procrastination is a fascinating topic, and os many students want to do thesis research on this topic.

2) I think we’ve all done it, postponing our tasks. Why do we do this?

In a nutshell, we needlessly delay those tasks that we find aversive. There are tasks that make us feel badly because they me frustrating or boring or we resent doing them or we have anxiety about them. We don’t like these feelings, and we learn that we can get rid of these negative feelings, at least temporarily, by avoiding the task, putting it off. So, procrastination, the voluntary delay of an intended task despite awareness that this delay will probably hurt us, is not a time management problem, it’s an emotion-coping strategy -avoidance- to get some immediate repair.

3) Even when we know the outcomes will be even more stressful, we still delay our work. Why is it so hard to stop sabotaging ourselves?

Well, that stress is for our future self. Present self always benefits with procrastination. Present self gets the immediate mood repair that avoidance brings (we don’t have to do the aversive task right now), and that is rewarding. So even though we’ll pay in the long run, that’s a problem for future self. Interestingly, research has demonstrated that we think about future self more like a stranger, so we really aren’t concerned about this future stress. In addition, behavioural economists have shown us that we discount future rewards. The flip side of that is we discount future punishment as well. That’s not now.

4) If we’re going through a hard time, we’re more likely to procrastinate, or is it more about the way we handle stressful and tough situations rather than the situation itself?

I’m not sure I completely understand this questions, but I will say that yes, it’s about how we handle stress. Procrastinations is an emotion-focused coping strategy where we use avoidance to get immediate mood repair. If we’re going through a hard time, we may have even less to draw on, and our coping strategies may even be more compromised -we want to feel good now, so we avoid stuff!

5) What’s the difference between regulating and mis-regulating our emotions? How is this related to procrastination?

Great questions. Procrastinations is the mis-regulation of emotion because we incorrectly believe that the avoidance will make us feel better. It doesn’t really, as it provokes more stress as you note negative emotions like guilt as well. Effective regulation of our emotions would involve coping strategies that are more planful (less wishful thinking that procrastination represents).

6) People with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety are more likely to procrastinate? Should the treatment for these illnesses, apart from helping us improve our emotion regulation skills, address the procrastination issue directly? 

No, I think it’s important to remember that while all procrastinations is delay, not all delay is procrastination. People who have depression shouldn’t be thought of as procrastinating. Some of our recent research on delay would identify it as delay due to mental health issues. It is different from everyday procrastination. In fact, Al Mele (philosopher at Florida State) argues that only the non-depressed agent can be considered to have weakness of will (something that I think is broadly equivalent to procrastination). To get back to this issue of delay, we use delay every day as part of being a rational agent. We have purposeful delay as we ser priorities, for example. Again, while all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination. Too many people, including researchers, forget this. In fact, not understanding that there are different forms of delay leads to oxymorons like “active procrastinations”. Our research indicates that active procrastination isn’t procrastination at all, it’s simply a purposeful delay. So, someone who is depressed might delay tasks, but it is the depression that must be addressed. The delay will resolve once the depression is addressed.

7) How can we learn to positively regulate our emotions?

I think mindfulness is key. We can learn to take a nonjudgemental stance towards our emotions where we can acknowledge that we are HAVING negative emotions in relation to a task, but that we don’t have to BE these emotions. Our brains are designed to think and feel. Our brains do this constantly, but we don’t have to take every thought of feeling too seriously. When we can become aware of our emotions without reacting to each one, we can more effectively regulate them, because we don’t let them control us.

8) What is counterfactual thinking and how can it lead to procrastination? Do you recommend any methods to overcome procrastination? For example, there is research that proves that we can trick our brain to finish a task by writing it, or to achieve a goal by adjusting it to our needs… 

Counterfactual thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to procrastination, but research by Fuschia Sirois (Sheffield) has shown that people who score high on measures of procrastination use downwards counterfactuals more frequently. Downward counterfactuals make us feel better. For example, after doing poorly on an exam, a student might say “well at least I didn’t fail and I did pretty well for one night of studying”. This makes them feel better, but they don’t learn anything. Procrastination and downward counterfactuals both have the same effect – they make us feel good in the short run, but they hurt us in the long run. The thing is, short-term rewards are very powerful for the reasons I explained above; present self wins, future self pays, and who cares about future self? Certainly not present self. Some of our recent research shows that if we can think more about future self, we develop more cognitive empathy for future self, and this is related to less procrastination.

For the second part of this question, I would first look at the answer to #8 above, and then add, once I acknowledge a negative emotion, I focus on a simple question, “What is the next action I would take if I were to do this task?”. Keep this action very specific and simple so the threshold for action is low. When we define our tasks with the next action, we are much more likely to get started, and getting started is everything. So, I would argue that a key trick is not to focus on the whole task, as this can feel overwhelming. Instead, focus on the next action, and then do that again and again. Before you know it, you have some momentum and even some motivation because progress ona task fuels our wellbeing.

9) Do you have any advice for the millenials reading us?

Procrastination in so many ways is about not getting on with life itself. While you might think time is unlimited, it’s not. The one non-renewable resource in our live is time. We can’t make more of it, and we never know how much each of us will get. Why waste it with needless delay? It’s time to learn strategies like a mindful approach to our lives that will lead us to action and living the lives we want.

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