“That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.” —Homer J. Simpson
In two sentences The Simpsons summarises what we tell ourselves when we procrastinate. It reflects both our understanding that some future self will have to bear the burden of some task and our prescience that this future self will be dissatisfied by having to deal with problems that our present self could have prevented. We allow small problems to develop into larger, less manageable problems that our future selves struggle to cope with. That’s why, like Homer, we don’t envy our future self. We have knowingly mistreated the poor guy by magnifying the size of the problems he will have to deal with.
The battle between our present and future selves is the topic of discussion in this TED talk by Daniel Goldstein, which I recommend watching. The research Goldstein covers in the talk is also discussed in this blog, which is well worth the read if you found the talk interesting.
Why do we do procrastinate? It’s not as though we lack insight into what will happen if we needlessly delay tasks. Experienced procrastinators are acutely aware of what will happen. Yet it remains incredibly difficult to stay on task. Thoughts of doing something else repeatedly intrude, attention is diverted elsewhere, and we find ourselves making lame excuses for our behaviour.
The most common excuse, at least in my own experience, takes the following form: “Now isn’t the perfect time for…” The allure of this excuse lies in its flexibility. It can be applied to almost any situation at almost any time, which also makes it especially hazardous. It is the ultimate “get out of work” card because the definition of ‘perfect’ is often nebulous and always changing, or if the definition is fixed, then it is fixed in such a way as to preclude any possibility of the conditions for ‘perfect’ everbeing met. When is it ever the ‘perfect’ time to read that paper or to start that assignment? If you wait until you are able to do it ‘perfectly’ then you will never do it at all. Make it happen now.