One more cup of coffee: Why procrastination might not always be a bad thing.
This time last year I found myself with a to do list as long as my arm. Stuff had stayed on it for what really seemed to be unreasonable lengths of time – six months since I had decided to set up a savings account, a year since I bought some ill-fitting vintage dresses that I wanted to get altered; four months since I figured my sofa could do with an extension piece which needed to be ordered separately. These were all things that would benefit me once done, that weren’t even unpleasant or particularly cumbersome. Yet I kept putting them off. There was always something else that needed doing, something that seemed less of an effort. Grocery shopping. Laundry. Meeting friends for coffee. And even when I didn’t have any of those things on, I found myself shoving the to-do items to the back of my head and doing nothing other than sit on the sofa with a coffee and playing silly games on my phone. I always really enjoyed those moments. But never without that overhanging feeling of guilt that procrastination brings. I should be doing something else. And how much happier wouldn’t I be if I didn’t have those things hanging over me?
At the start of the summer I had a two week, childfree, window. The perfect time to tackle the to do list. My only fear was that I would waste so much time drinking coffee or doing small stuff at the start of those two weeks that at the end I would not have had any happy, guiltfree time at all. I decided to get on to it.
So I went to the bank. I popped the bag of clothes in the car and drove out to the alterations place. I measured my front room and went down to the sofa showroom. I also left my car in for a service, renewed my insurance, sorted out childcare for the autumn and picked out my new bathroom suite. Oh, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment ticking off those boxes on the list. Oh, how I was going to enjoy the time I now had left! These were all things that would benefit me once done, that weren’t even unpleasant or particularly cumbersome. Yet I kept putting them off. There was always something else that needed doing, something that seemed less of an effort. But as I sat down to this time really enjoy my coffee, the experience wasn’t quite as exhilarating as I had expected.
What was going on? Firstly, it turns out that I am not the first person to be wrong about the extent to which a future event would influence my level of happiness. In psychology terms this is known as affective forecasting, and we are all notoriously bad at it. Numerous studies all show how we over-emphasise the positive or negative impact of a future event.
One study looked at self-predicted happiness levels amongst college students who were randomly assigned desirable vs undesirable dormitories. Unsurprisingly, being assigned the desirable dorm was presumed to bring high levels of happiness, and the undesirable one the opposite. A year after the assignments, however, there was no significant difference in the happiness levels of the two groups. The same findings were seen amongst college professors who were asked what impact they thought getting tenure would have and amongst voters predicting how they would feel if their preferred candidate won or lost. They all over-estimated the impact both in positive and negative terms.
Of course we do experience feelings of happiness (or unhappiness) when certain things occur – and we are pretty good at predicting which of those emotions it will be. Immediately upon finding out which dorm they were assigned it’s likely that the students quite strongly felt one or the other. My own happiness when I finally got those things out of the way was tangible. It’s just that the emotions are not likely to be as intense, last as long, or have the overall impact that we think.
And there was something else. In my case, it hadn’t been just the satisfaction I would get out of having dresses that fit me properly or improved seating facilities that led me to think I would be happier when these things were done. It was the fact that I would no longer be procrastinating. Because procrastination, we know, is not a good thing. It is seen as a symbol of inefficiency and something holding us back from fulfilling our potential. It is linked with issues such as low self-esteem and other self-defeating mechanisms.
But are we also over-estimating the negative impact of procrastination? Research has, in fact, shown that there might be a difference between types of procrastination and that some are not as bad as we might think. Sometimes what we think of as procrastination might actually just be a form of time management. Studies have found a difference between passive and active procrastinators – the latter being the ones who in the end always get the job done. An extreme example might be the Durham student who wrote her dissertation in one eight hour sitting the night before it was due (and who received a 2.1 for her efforts). But even if most don’t go to these lengths, active procrastinators are seen to consciously (or sometimes perhaps unconsciously) delay action and concentrate on other tasks at hand. That might mean cleaning out your shed when you have an important article to write or catching up with a good friend when you should really be preparing for a presentation. Perhaps because you know you work better to a tight deadline. Or because the other tasks do actually need to get done too. Or simply because sometimes we just need a break and a bit of balance without feeling guilty about it. So while I will continue to tick items off my to do list, I will also be enjoying my coffees. Because we could do worse than listen to the words of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks:
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Dunn, E.W.; Wilson, T.D.; Gilbert, D.T. (2003). Location, location, location: the misprediction of satisfaction in housing lotteries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,29 (11), 1421-32. doi: 10.1177/0146167203256867
Gilbert, D.T.; Pinel, E.C.; Wilson, T.D.; Blumberg, S. J.; Wheatley, T.P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75 (3), 617–638. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247.
Gilbert; D.T., Ebert, J.E. (2002). Decisions and revisions: the affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 82 (4), 503-14.
Wilson, T.D.; Gilbert, D.T. (2005). Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3): 131–134. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00355.Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Pinterest