Why We Procrastinate

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People often assume that procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, but in reality, the situation is far more complex than that. When it comes to making decisions that will burden your present self, for example, whether or not you will finish your paper today, you will always choose to give the burdensome event to your future self to complete. This concept suggests that most people think of their future selves as an entirely different person from their present-day selves, almost like a stranger.

Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, conducted an experiment to determine people’s relationships with their future selves. The experiment was done by asking people to make decisions about how much of a disgusting cocktail to drink for themselves, for another participant, or for themselves in two weeks’ time. When choosing for themselves, people chose to drink the smallest dose. When choosing for another person, however, they chose a higher dose, which was also the case for when they chose for their future selves. Pronin notes that one of the biggest differences between one and someone else is the experience of one’s own thoughts and emotions compared to someone else’s. “We experience our own [thoughts and emotions] internally. We can look inward,” Pronin said. “Whereas, for other people, we only know what their thoughts or emotions might be through their actions. So the future self — and in that same way, the past self — are more like another person than they are like the self, because we can’t experience the feelings of a past and future self like we can with the present self.”

Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA, and a team at Stanford University conducted an experiment in which fMRI data was collected of participants while the researchers asked them to first think about themselves, then to think about another person (a celebrity), then to think about themselves then years from now. Most of the participants’ brain activity that was measured when they were imagining themselves in the future had a very similar pattern to the activity measured when they were thinking of strangers who they had never met before. 

Essentially, the best way to overcome the struggle of procrastination is to build a stronger connection with your future self. Once you feel connected, you are more likely to make better and healthier decisions. However, doing this may not be the easiest. Instead, Hershfield suggests trying to go with your mind’s misconception. If your brain insists on regarding your future self as a different person, then work with that by tricking your brain into thinking that your future self is just another person you care about and therefore want to treat well.