Time Inconsistency and procrastination

The issue

Why is there a difference in the value that we put over short versus long term results?

Each day, we are faced with tens of tiny decisions that end up defining our reality. The answer to what we “should” do about them might be obvious, but a war between present and future selfs comes up and often fools us into taking the wrong choice. It is called procrastination — the tendency to search for immediate benefits of our actions, instead of considering the real costs that don’t become apparent until the distant future.

This problem appears in all aspects of our daily life: Although you might try to save some money, you still spend a lot because the positive aspect of spending is immediate (you get what you want), while the cost of not having saved will only show up at your retirement. The same goes even for the minor things like eating sweets: It is quite tough to avoid them, but as soon as you think about the hard workouts and the perfect body that you have been dreaming of, avoiding those sweets actually becomes the thing that you want to do.

We’re not necessarily a culture designed to stop and analyse difficult situations or spend afternoons wandering what is the best outcome from a long-term perspective. We are attracted by an endless flow of distractions and we choose what is good right now. But a great mystery of well-being is that the things that bring it don’t necessarily feel good in the moment. That is why it is so hard to make your present self act in the best interest of your future self and the product of this dilemma is, well.. procastination.

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone”
Pablo Picasso

Yes, yes... We are not all as mentally strong as Mr. Picasso, but I think we can dive a bit into the evil mechanisms of “doing things another time” and understand the factors that make us weak in the face of impulse.


Why we put things off when we should be focusing on them right now

People like to think of themselves as rational and civilised, but most of us only act that way under the action of the conscious part of our brain. It is the talking, the reasoning part that we use whenever we choose to be productive, to plan our actions or to get things done way before their deadline. However, it is hard to nurture this part of the brain. It gets exhausted pretty easily and as soon as it does, it seems that a new “false-self” comes into being. That’s our impulse, our intuition, our instinct, the little evil that uses tools like love, fear or excitement to soothe us into taking the easier choice and to set the borders of our comfort zone.

Life is temptation

“Promised virtues fall prey to the passions of the moment”
Phil Zambardo

Finding out why we let ourselves seduced by the apparent benefits of the moment can seem an awful job, but “The time paradox” might help us. In his book, Phil Zabardo talks about people’s specific attitudes toward time (what he calls time perspectives) and he identifies 6 of them:

  1. Past-negative (When one feels regret, failure, abuse, or trauma.)
  2. Past-positive (When one feels nostalgia or gratitude or when he thinks about past achievements.)
  3. Present-fatalistic (When one searches for the pleasure aspect of a particular situation. -the view that causes procastination)
  4. Present-hedonistic (When one believes that there is nothing he can do to positively impact his future.)
  5. Future (When one thinks in terms of goals and makes plans to assure his success.)
  6. Transcendental-future (When one believes that everything around is in vain and that real life begins after death.)

He also goes on to say that there is a “right” way to set these time perspectives that guarantees living a happy and successful life, but I will let you discover that in his short, but inspiring TED talk, or in the much more detailed book.

So, why does this psychological issue matter to our procrastination problem? Well, as soon as you understand that the way in which you take decisions is severely influenced by what time zone you focus on, you will see that most of these zones are associated with numerous benefits, but concentrating on one in excess will bring even greater costs. Our present-hedonistic view encourages us to do the easier things now, postponing the harder for later and it forces our mind into choosing to take the easier route if the negative aspect of that are not immediate. It is easier and more comfortable to push deadlines and avoid doing your real tasks, but is it really the best choice?


(Start conquering the one habit that makes you say .. “hmm..maybe later”)

Ok, we understood that the reason we procrastinate is that our mind wants an immediate benefit. As soon as your impulse comes in and it decides that it needs that benefit, there is no way to stop it from achieving it. Or is it?

1. Visualisation can help

There is a tasty cookie on the table.. but you want to avoid it because you have that goal physique in mind, right? That is the key here! As soon as you feel an inconsistency between an immediate, easy to get pleasure and your goal, just imagine how your life will look like after you achieve your goal. Doing this puts the future payoff into your mind’s eye and it changes your time perspective to a future oriented one.

Visualisation is strongly related to goal setting, which you can read more about here.

2. Design your world

Ok, so you decide to work on something. But the mighty facebook / twitter / instagram icon appears. What do you then? It is exactly like giving a kid sweets when the dentist said he has to wait for thirty minutes. The impulse will push his behaviour. But what if he couldn’t see the sweets?

That might be the strongest tool you have to avoid procrastination — Manipulating your environment. If you put logic ahead, you can think of possible distractions before they act upon your actions and eliminate them. It is far from hard to make the right choice when there are no bad choices around.

3. Don’t overestimate

As I mentioned before, we often feel more comfort to postpone a task instead of doing it at the right time. That comfort comes from the opinion that the task is hard and that we don’t feel like doing it then. But, is it really that hard? There is a tendency to overestimate the effort that we have to put into daily activities to successfully finish them. The advice for this impression is simple: Force a start. (or at least try to)

Human instinct want to avoid change, but as soon as we take the first step towards something, that instinct starts playing in our favour. Simply begin, and you might notice that the task at hand was not that hard.

“The habit of always putting off an experience until you can afford it, or until the time is right, or until you know how to do it is one of the greatest burglars of joy. Be deliberate, but once you’ve made up your mind–jump in.”

–Charles R. Swindoll

I would love to hear your thoughts on this piece!


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