The Time Traveling Mistake We Make When We Procrastinate

Mozart, the great and enduring musical genius, doesn’t conform to our stereotypical notion of a musical prodigy.

Did he practice for hours per day? Nope. Was he well intentioned with his plans? Also no.

More of a partier than a conscientious adult, Mozart, as biographers have described him, was someone who was “much addicted to trifling amusement.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that he also wasn’t known for finishing compositions promptly. In fact, in late October of 1787, after having all but wrapped up the score for Don Giovanni, he decided to go out for a night of drinking with buddies. Toward the end of the evening, one friend nervously turned to Mozart and remarked that with the opera due to be performed for the first time the next day, he couldn’t believe that the overture hadn’t been written yet!

Mozart hurriedly returned home to start—and hopefully finish—this missing piece. But, because he kept nodding off due to the alcohol and the late hour, he asked his wife, Constanze, to help him stay awake by telling him stories.

Amazingly, just three hours later, the overture was complete. Without the benefit of photocopiers, copyists had to then transcribe the orchestra’s parts by hand, and, as legend has it, the final pages made it to the theater only minutes before the curtain went up. The ink, in fact, was still wet when the orchestra members performed it for the first time. The opera was a success, and almost 250 years after that stressful debut, it’s still performed regularly at opera houses worldwide.

Leaving things to the last minute is a bad habit that resonates with many of us. Take the story of Tim Urban, the creator of the popular blog Wait But Why. A self proclaimed “master procrastinator,” he has relayed the story of how, during his final year of college, he kept putting off writing his honors thesis.

Given that the thesis was meant to be a yearlong endeavor, the plan was to start in the fall months and slowly ramp up in January, maintaining a challenging pace of work until May, when it was due. Except that’s not what happened. Finding excuse after excuse to not get started, he finally sat down to write it two nights before the due date. Pulling not one but two all nighters in a row, he was able to dash all 90 pages off and get it in just in time.

As he relates on his blog and in a TED talk, he received a call from one of the college administrators about a week later.

“Mr. Urban, we need to talk about your thesis,” the administrator said.

“Okay …,” Tim responded nervously.

The administrator continued. “Well … it’s the best one we’ve ever seen.”

In Urban’s telling of the story, you can quickly see how stunned he was to get this news.

But then, after a pause, he says, “Actually, that didn’t happen at all.” It was, in fact, “a very, very bad thesis.”

If only putting things off resulted in the sort of positive critical reception that Don Giovanni received. Most of us, however, have had experiences more like Urban’s than Mozart’s: procrastination doesn’t typically garner awards.

Even though you may never have procrastinated like Mozart, I’m going to guess that you’re intimately familiar with this behavior. Across the globe, about 20 percent of people are chronic procrastinators. And, while estimates of exactly how many people procrastinate to some extent are a little hard to nail down, one informal survey found that 85 percent do so in a way that bothers them.

In putting something off until a later point in time, we’re failing to consider how much our future self will want to avoid the same negative emotions that we’re trying to avoid right now.

Make no mistake: the tendency to put things off isn’t just bad for college students trying to complete long papers. As psychologist Fuschia Sirois has documented, there may be far more severe consequences: chronic procrastination is associated with a litany of undesirable outcomes, including poor mental health, anxiety, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. And this type of procrastination becomes a vicious cycle: procrastinators put off and fail to schedule the very doctor’s appointments that could help lessen some of their health care woes.

Consider for a moment what procrastination actually is. The word is derived from the Latin procrastinaire, which means “put off until tomorrow.” Okay, sure, you know that. Here’s what’s more interesting: procrastination is also conceptually related to the Greek word akrasia, which means doing something despite knowing that it’s against your better judgment.

So, procrastination isn’t just about putting something off until tomorrow that you could just as easily take care of today. It’s also about knowing that even as you delay, you’re harming yourself.

Think about this definition in light of our present and future selves.

When we’re faced with an unpleasant task—say, folding the laundry or finally making that appointment with the cardiologist—and we decide not to do it, we prioritize our present self’s desire to avoid negative emotions. We get anchored on our feelings in the present. But procrastination presents an additional wrinkle: in putting something off until a later point in time, we’re also failing to consider how much our future self will want to avoid the same negative emotions that we’re trying to avoid right now.

Note that it’s not as if we’re simply failing to consider our future selves. When we procrastinate, we do think about the future and our future selves but not in a particularly deep or meaningful manner.

When we procrastinate, we do think about the future and our future selves but not in a particularly deep or meaningful manner.

In this way, procrastination represents a time traveling mistake we make when thinking about our future self: poorly planning our trips. It’s as if you’re about to go on a weeklong Boston vacation and have in mind some ideas of what you want to do once you’re there. You’d probably like to try some Boston specific foods and maybe take in some of the rich cultural history. But only once you’ve boarded the plane do you realize that, outside of booking a hotel room, you’ve made very few plans. Maybe you’ll still be able to get some clam chowder, but if you were hoping for a tour of Fenway Park or a visit to Paul Revere’s house—attractions that could sell out quickly—your future self might end up disappointed.

You’ll still be taking a trip to Boston, but one that differs significantly from the trip you intended to take.

So, too, is it the case with time travel: in thinking about the future in a merely surface level way, we end up traveling to a different future than the one we meant to go to. It’s as if we want to arrive at one particular version of the future—where we are happy, healthy, and financially secure—but allow ourselves to go down a path that could potentially land us in a very different place.

Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Canada, has looked at just this sort of time travel mistake.

In one study, he and his former student Eve Marie Blouin Hudon surveyed hundreds of college students. (While conducting research on undergraduates often comes with limitations, they present an excellent testing ground for all things having to do with not completing assignments on time.) The scientists asked the students about their procrastination habits as well as the relationships they have with their future selves. Those who felt more of a sense of similarity and emotional connection with their future selves, it turned out, were also the least likely to needlessly delay the critical tasks they set out to do.

It wasn’t just a sense of similarity and connection that mattered, though. The research participants were also asked how vividly they imagined the future. For instance, if you were in this study, you’d be asked to think of an image of the sun rising over the ocean on a hazy day. In your mind’s eye, how vivid is that image? At one extreme, it might be super clear—almost as if it’s something you could see right in front of you. At the other extreme, though, it might be as if there’s no image at all, but rather, you just sort of “know” you are thinking about the sun rising.

In Blouin Hudon and Pychyl’s research, the students who reported conjuring the most vivid mental images also felt the strongest relationships with their future selves and were the least likely to procrastinate.

In thinking about the future in a merely surface level way, we end up traveling to a different future than the one we meant to go to.

These are correlations, but they’re suggestive of something compelling. Having an easier time fully and vividly imagining ourselves in the future may make it harder to justify putting something off to the version of ourselves who will suffer from today’s failures to act. Because we can conjure up the disappointment of our future self in Boston, we’re more likely to exert the effort required to plan the “right” trip.

I reached out to Professor Pychyl to ask him a bit more about this work. I was naturally curious whether he—an international expert in the study of procrastination—ever finds himself, well, procrastinating.

“Almost never!” he told me with a laugh. But not, he cautioned, due to some great virtue on his part. Instead, he reportedly recognizes procrastination for what it is: a desire to have our future selves do the things our present selves want to avoid. As he put it, “I know my future self isn’t going to want to do this thing any more than my present self does. And I have empathy for my future self: he’s going to be under enormous amounts of stress, so let’s just do this thing now.”

Excerpted from Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today by Hal Hershfield. Published by Little, Brown Spark. Copyright © 2023 by Hal Hershfield. All rights reserved.

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