How to Conquer Your Procrastination Problem (Hint: It’s Not Self-Imposed Deadlines)

largeIf you’re a procrastinator, you’ve probably been one for a long time. Which means, you’ve tried every trick in the book to break the habit. Some estimates suggest that 15-20% of all people are “chronic procrastinators.” And, even more of us are guilty of “situational delay:” for example, 4 out of 5 people put off retirement savings even thought they know they shouldn’t. Whether you’re a hardcore procrastinator or more of a situational delay type of person, you have probably tried to change and been unsuccessful.

The root of procrastination is fairly sinister, even though it’s a habit we tend to laugh off. Most of us procrastinate because we are unable to differentiate between delaying a task (a sign that you are a good organizer) and truly procrastinating, which is self-defeating and will hurt you later.

One of the most common counter-procrastination strategies is to create a “self-imposed deadlines.” Creating an arbitrary deadline before the real deadline definitely has its place, and is born of good intentions (self-discipline, commitment to deadlines, etc.) But, it’s hard to know whether or not self-imposed deadlines really work. Some early research found that a self-imposed deadline was at least better than putting something off until the last possible minute.

But, the more research experts conduct, the bleaker the outlook for those self-imposed deadlines. In 2002, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch had 60 students proofread 3 passages. Some of the test participants were given weekly deadlines for each passage. Other participants received one, final deadline for all three passages. Some were told to choose their own deadline (the self-imposed deadline group). Readers were given a dime for every error they found and docked a dollar for every day that they were late.

Even despite the high penalty for lateness, the people that imposed their own deadlines performed worse than the participants that were given evenly spaced weekly deadlines. But, these self-imposed deadline students did perform better than those participants given one, final deadline. The conclusion? While self-imposed deadlines are a practical strategy for overcoming procrastination, they “were not always as effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance.”

A recent study tried to replicate this 2002 experiment. The latest experiment found that self-imposed deadlines may be even less helpful than previously believed. Researchers Alberto Bisin and Kyle Hyndman asked students to alphabetize 3 word jumbles. Like in the 2002 study, some participants received evenly spaced deadlines, some received a final deadline, and some could create self-imposed deadlines. Participants were paid $15 for each completed jumble. If they blew the deadline, they did not receive any compensation.

Which group had the lowers completion rate? You guessed it. The group with self-imposed deadlines. Even people with one, final deadline performed better.

The researchers think that the “soft” deadline made the different for self-imposed deadline creators in the 2002 study. In that study, if participants were late, they still received some compensation (just less than if they were on time). But, the “hard” deadline in the more recent study gave no room for error. So, procrastinators that waited until the last minute got discouraged and just gave up.

The other, obvious problem with the self-imposed deadline is that it’s arbitrary. It’s a tactic based on self-deception, and so blowing it is just letting yourself down, not an outside force.

This analysis brings us back to the root of the problem: not knowing the difference between time management and true procrastination. If time management were actually the problem, self-imposed deadlines would do the trick. But, researchers now believe that emotional failures are actually the real basis of procrastination. Procrastinators delay tasks because they’re not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking that they will be in the mood at a later time. Then, “later” is suddenly now and – surprise – they’re still not in the mood to do it.

So, what is the best strategy for combating procrastination? Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University, as well as other experts, think the best strategy is to find something enjoyable or meaningful in the task that you have to do. You may still delay the task, but you might not delay it until the very last minute. This strategy addresses the real emotional issues causing the procrastination instead of pretending that the procrastination is actually a time management problem.

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