Unpuzzling Procrastination: student Interview with Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl

ProcrastinationPuzzle_3bProcrastination: Interview with high school students and Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl

Student Success Podcast No. 15
Jan. 30,  2014, recorded Jan 28, 2014

Today’s Guest: Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., and Sean, Sena, and Matthew, high school students

Dr. Pychyl, whom we agree to call Tim now, discusses the personal experiences with and possible solutions for three high school students, Sean, Sena, and Matthew. These students bravely discuss their struggles with workflow problems and strategies they could use to overcome it.

In this interview, Tim shows his deep compassion for students and concern for their success. The students engage his ideas thoughtfully, and we look forward to hearing back from them soon on how they are progressing.

Please see more from Dr. Pychyl at the Resources links below.

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Guest Biography

Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl is Director, Centre for Initiatives in Education & Associate Professor, Department of Psychology Carleton University, Ottawa. Applying his expertise in Psychology and his deep desire to help people, Dr. Pychyl teaches, writes, blogs, podcasts, and runs conferences on procrastination. Dr. Pychyl gladly shares with readers his own experiences as a parent and person who struggles, like us all, to get things done. Well, he does more than most of us, including to keep a team of sled dogs, but even he has to force himself to get things done sometimes.

Topics Discussed

  • See below for detailed bulleting of this conversation



Host: Michael L. Bromley Original Music by Christopher Bromley (copyright 2011, 2013) Background snoring: by Stella Best Dogs Ever: by Puck, Stella, & Artemis:

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Life is good: Puck, Stella and Artemis






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Show Notes

  • Timl: 95% of students admit to procrastinating. Think the other 5% just don’t want to admit it.
  • Sean: through h.s. and middle school, my main fault, just trying to get work done. Been there a while, never learned how to get over it.
    • When doing work, will procrastinate, or before starting, push it back
    • Not just work, chores around the house, too. Put it off,
  • Tim: why is that a problem?
  • Sean: When I procrastinate it leaves me less time to get work done. Makes it harder for me to get it done, work or chores, and w/ less efficiency. Would have been done if I had not procrastinated
  • Sena: Short term, doesn’t seem bad. “oh yeah, just putting it off for a couple hours” … but then crunch time. Should have had more time.
    • Procrastination makes you overestimate your abilities: “I can do this huge task in a short amount of time,” but it impacts quality.
    • Procrastinate has not allowed me to put my best foot forward and my best work.
  • Tim: it undermines ability to do best work
  • Sena: it’s a lie that we tell ourselves
  • Tim: we have present self that wants to do what it wants
    • who are we lying to?
  • Sena: lying to present self, but future self won’t be happy with our decision
  • Tim: there’s some research on the stranger we call future self
  • Mathew: I might finish my math h/w, and have to do physics, and will give myself a 10 minute break… but then after the break, “I’ll take another 20 min break… then it’s 9:30 and I’m tired and leave it for the next morning. Just can’t finish it.
  • Tim: parable about the 3 blind men and the elephant: each sees it as something different, but don’t realize the part of it. These perspectives are all a part of the whole thing
  • Sean: agree with Sena about lying to yourself, a false feeling of it will be okay later. If you have a paper and push it off, you imagine yourself getting it done, but then when you have to do it, it’s harder and you end up trying to finish it the next day, or never finish it and get points off
  • Tim: feelings, the need to lie to yourself
    • Research on lies we tell ourselves, self-deception = cognitive dissonance
    • Attitudes and behavior that don’t align = dissonance
    • our intention, say to do math then physics, then say will take a break, and then you don’t come back. Breaks can be a slippery slope.
    • Dissonance between the intention and what you do. A tension.
    • The best way to reduce the tension is to put it off, or say will do it tomorrow. It’s a dissonance response.
    • Believing we can do more = planning fallacy
    • Why do we do that?
    • We treat that future self like a stranger. Research with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) … uses radio waves to capture blood flow in the brain, which marks brain activity.
    • Front of brain = pre-frontal cortex, newest part of brain in evolution, distinguishes us from animals and controls executive function
    • A professor of marketing put subjects into the machine and asked them to speak to present self, present self and a famous actor they’ve heard of but don’t know. Measuring brain activity, found that thinking of present self = lots of prefrontal cortex activity.  But when thinking of future self = same as thinking of a stranger.
    • So when we put things off to future self = a disassociation.  We treat future self like a stranger.
    • Imagine an experiment: on a new medicine that tastes awful, and we want to know how much of it people will drink. So measure who takes it and when. Ask about themselves now, later, and about another person, and people expected small amounts for present self, but more for future self and strangers.
    • Homer Simpson: Marge complains that he will regret not spending time with children. Homer replies that future self will, and “I don’t envy that guy.”
    • This shows background to what is going on in our brains when we put things off even though we know it’s not in our best interest: something going on with future self, and present self can put things off to future self.
  • Bromley: what would be the quick solutions from the students?
  • Sean: recalling conversation with Bromley about Tim’s idea on making external notes
  • Bromley: intentions and implementing them.  Meanwhile, we find ourselves throwing darts at future self.
  • Sena: would force future self to do it.. but will talk myself out of it and think you can just come back and deal with it.
  • Bromley: beating up future-future self
  • Sena: a cycle. My solution: force myself to do it. Not do anything until I get it done. Sit in one place and not get up, b/c if I get up I will be distracted.
  • Bromley: is that when you have a deadline approaching? Future self-acting on present self’s delay?
  • Sena: Yes
  • Bromley: These students all do work, but we admit we put off some of it.
  • Mathew: solution, maybe imagine myself in the future and tell myself don’t procrastinate or I’ll have to do too much work.. Me future self talking to present self.
  • Bromley: what have you done before?
  • Matthew: I sit down and say I will do it, then take a break and the cycle repeats… leave other assignments for later.
  • Bromley: again, we’re dealing with deadlines that are now or already passed.
  • Sean: yes, am deadline motivated. I’ve never not done a project, but have put myself in a position with barely any time.
  • Tim: Sean focused on tasks. Sena discussed willpower. Matthew started talking about time travel, and then went back to the problem about breaks.
    • On breaks: “only a minute to … ” but that’s a rational decision over an irrationally short period of time.  Even 10 minutes can be. Some things are so seductive. Breaks are essential, but we have to be careful about them
    • Can make a pre-decision, using implementation intentions, a commitment to say, “When ten minute is up I will get back to work.” Seems strange to say, but the pre-decision works
    • Also, rather than take a break between tasks, take the break after starting a next task, and just get it going. This reduces the threshold for engagement of that 2nd task
    • What about not taking a break between math and physics?
  • Mathew: if I start on physics, or a really hard class, I might want a break to refresh my mind, then it happens over again. I get starting assignment immediately after another one, but the breaks kill me, I never come back.
  • Tim: when you hit that difficult assignment, you want to call in the break. You just want to walk away from it, and that’s procrastination, b/c you know you don’t want to get back to it.
    • Easier to say will take a 10 minute break than saying just won’t do it. Hard to admit you won’t do it, so easier to just take breaks.
  • Bromley: Tim will talk about “Just get started.”  … just get started before the break will break down the anxiety. Say, “If I start physics, I will take a break after I accomplish something.” Breaks the barrier that something is too hard, kick open the door.
  • Tim: task aversiveness = anything unpleasant, frustrating, boring, difficult, or lacks personal meaning.
  • Bromley: you just described high school!
  • Tim: can be anything, things you just don’t want to do. “I’ll do it later.” It all starts in the same place: an emotional reaction to the task. Have to use the momentum of one task to carry you into the other
    • So, in Mathew’s case, you weren’t taking a break, you were saying “I’m not doing it,” just opening the door to procrastination, making the decision to put off work easier by saying will take a break.
    • It’s a precipitous moment whether I’m going to do the work or if I’m going to procrastinate. We can all sense it when we walk away. That’s when we lie to ourselves.
    • On will power: it just takes will power. If I just get started, I find that I can do a little bit, or get frustrated. But either way I can look back on it tomorrow and say “At least I got a little bit done!”
  • Bromley: as a teacher saw work all the time that was done at last minute. Had they just started earlier, not finished, but started, they might have been able to complete it.
  • Tim: everyone can leave stuff. Part of our nature. Weird things about our brains, such as thinking about future self as a different person.  Just deciding not to do work makes us feel good. We do stranger things as people.  A psychologist says we are “predictably irrational.”
    • Willpower is like a muscle, and we will wear it out. Like Matthew after math, but just can’t get back to it, mentally exhausted. Have to call up mental resources, such as reminding yourself why it’s important to do the task, Some solutions: exertion of will, time travel, and convincing yourself that it’s worthwhile to do.
    • The “just do it” can be overwhelming.
  • Sena: have drained my willpower on quite a few assignments.
    • History is tough for me, and I read through and feel worn out, then not have time to do other subjects, then put them off for later. Once I’ve used up the willpower, I need to take a break. But like Matthew says, once you take the break you don’t go back.
  • Tim: breaks are difficult. Can be begging of the end. But you do get tire.  But, procrastination can cause this: set yourself up for failure.  Deadlines push us, create tension, but we need things to motivate us besides that, and to do a good job, get started earlier.
  • Bromley: present self sleeping while futures self gets the bills.  What is the instinct when a teacher gives out an assignment Tuesday that is due Friday?
  • Sean: now I’d try to work on it day by day, a page a day.
    • But knowing myself, I’d probably wait until the day before, and I’d probably have other work due that day, too.  Sometimes on papers, I have it sitting right there, but I won’t work on it.  It’s ready to go, but might be paying more attention to my phone.
  • Tim: multi-tasking is a myth. It’s task switch, and a subtle form of procrastination. there will always be a distraction, email, text
    • We have to set those boundaries: “I’m going to work for 30 minutes” and then you work for 30 minutes.  But instead you wan tot play in the middle, and you’re saying “I’m going to work kinda”
    • What gets in the way of Tuesday, just starting?
  • Sean: maybe some other work, and I don’t feel like doing all those things.  And it’s easier to put on to future self, another person apparently.  Then you get to the other day and it’s like, “I probably should have started earlier.”
  • Tim: it’s like intransitive math, if A>B, C>B, then C>A. But w/ procrastination we say crazy things like, Tues, due Friday, I prefer to work Wed, then it’s Thursday and …  You’re not alone there.
    • What I stumble on is when you’re putting things off b/c you have something else to do, that’s not procrastination. If you get an assignment Tues and you have other stuff you need to get done, don’t beat yourself up and call yourself a procrastinator. That’s just delay, and that’s part of normal life and part of setting priorities.
    • But when there’s nothing going on, and what doesn’t come to mind is “I think I’ll work on that assignment.”
  • Bromley: Sean says he’s aware that he needs to do it, and that’s what we do with the  A+ Club,  I’m aware of it, Tues, Wed, Thurs… future self will pay Thurs night.  There’s got to be a trigger, will. . Dr. Pychyl offers practical steps.
    • Cool to hear the students articulate the struggle. Very exciting to think about what can be done here.
  • Tim: want to draw “bright line” — you don’t cross it, b/c once you cross it, it’s easier to cross it again.
    • As Sena calls it, force myself…. no way aroudn that.  But to beat the procrastination beast, you have to acknowledge this process. You get a task, it’s not intrinsically interesting, and it’s not externally driven, you won’t be fired if you don’t do it — we don’t procrastinate on those things.
    • Be aware that it’s provoking miserable emotions in us, “i don’t want to do this”  Acknowledge it. Awareness of tasks, also of emotions: “emotional intelligence”  — “I’m aware that I hate this, that I don’t feel like doing it. But I’m gonna make a deal with myself, I’m going to get started for ten minutes.”  And put a timer on, shut things off and just get started for ten minutes.
    • Hold yourself to that deal, to that first step, getting started, even if it’s only for ten minutes. We never change things all at once. But have to get started…  can’t turn on tv… that’s the reward for getting started.
    • You hold yourself accountable. The good feeling comes from getting things done. You put it off, as Sean said, “I want to put it off to do the things I want to do.”
    • A lIttle application of willpower + time travel and self-honesty + goal intentions >> to just starting.  A little progress fuels our motivation. Don’t think about the whole assignment. Just get started and see what goes from there.
    • Draw these bright lines. If you don’t, you’re not ready, you’re fooling yourself, like on that break that you know you’re not coming back.
    • Everyone faces it. For me, grading, reports, housework. What we are trying to do is get control of our lives, living the life we want to live, achieving what we want, finding opportunities. In service of our future self, not treating future self like a stranger.
  • Bromley: Thurs self will feel so much better if Tues/Wed self did some work.  How good will I feel tomorrow if I just do some of this now? As opposed to trying to feel better now by putting it off for later.
  • Tim: the marketing prof research for finance companies b/c people don’t save for their futures. He showed pics of ppl as they currently now and then how they will look when they age.  Then he asked them to allocate 1,000 dollars. When they see a picture of themselves as older, they are more likely to put the money for the future.
    • But how do yo uand I think about ourselves on Friday when it’s Tuesday. We don’t have an answer to that in research. What’s the most effective way ?
  • Bromley: tired to express it as a phone call: future calling present.
  • Tim: don’t do that in public!
  • Matthew: I won’t do the phone thing, but definitely would help to think how I will feel in the future. And think about how much more work I’ll have in the future, and then future future self ..
  • Tim: when thinking about Wed or Thurs self, it’s one thing to focus on how you will feel, but we are over ambitious about what we can get done in the future.
    • If you put off to Thurs, then take out your calendar and put in an “un schedule”.   Start w/ 12am and put in your day on the calendar what you will typically be doing. Don’t make false promises…  put in the typical, mundane things, then look at how much time you will have left. Might be an effective way to time travel
    • Spend a minute and look how tomorrow really looks like, then un-schedule. Then you can see that you will have time, and you can sleep well. Otherwise you will toss and turn.
  • Matthew: when I leave a big project for later, I can’t sleep, wake up at 3 thinking about it, try to work, then take a break and go back to sleep.
  • Tim: biggest emotional correlate is guilt. It wreaks havoc on us. But you did get up and start working, so how can you motivate yourself to start earlier?
    • Will, yes, but you have to have a strategy, such as looking at your day and finding the time on your calendar.
  • Sena:   I’m the type of person who would create a schedule in my head when I got the assignment, but then I’d get home and it wouldn’t come to my mind… enjoying watching tv more than the task. It’s more about following through with the schedule that you make.  I have a tendency to think I’ll get up earlier, even though knowing that I won’t.
  • Tim: future self will drink more of the bad tasting medicine, present self won’t. Future self will go running…
  • You have your intention to get to work when you get home.
    • Tiny Habits: from a researcher at Stanford.  Tim’s student has used to do things she forgets about. Also, lots of apps for reminders and alarms.
    • That can get into second order procrastination: we ignore the alarm, hit the snooze. Can be procrastination.
    • Habits: to break a habit you have to put a queue for a different behavior in your environment. Use an implementation intention: “as soon as I finish dinner and wash the dishes, I will go straight to my desk.” Has a powerful impact. Putting the environmental trigger relives you of having to think about it.
    • Can help when you make a plan and don’t remember: Situation X, then behavior Y.
  • Sean:  likes talking to yourself about how much work you need to do, and focusing on it step by step.  If I review over it my head, then I start to plan out how I will procrastinate… say have math, reading, paper… will do some then the rest at school, will set a course for myself before I start, start procrastinating by just thinking about how much work I have and am over-encumbered with
  • Tim: we get anxious, too. We cope by avoiding.  Binge-style working defines procrastinators.  Always have work to do in school. Research shows that in the Fall term, procrastinators are happier than others. But in 2nd term, they freak out… grades, things due, and then feel they have so much work to do — always did have work to do. Seeing it on campus now.
    • In school, students should be thinking that in school there’s always something to do every day, should always be working.  As opposed to those binge cycles can lead to that sense of be overwhelmed, then you get the stress and the reactions to stress like feeling tired,  just want to go to bed… future self won’t be so tired.
    • We need to acknowledge that the binge style of working… no work for a bunch of time, then binge… that that’s a problem. Better to use Sena’s strategy, if you get work on Tues, plan on doing it Tuesday. But now add some things to remember it (implementation intentions) instead of the habitual pattern of behaviors, esp geared towards entertainment.
  • Bromley: always need to remember that these three are successful students, yet they struggle. They do work they don’t want, and they are talented in unique and wonderful ways.  But what about all the lost potential in other kids around them? Lost potential b/c they can’t figure out the puzzle. As much as you guys say you put stuff off, you are still successful and think about others around you even worse.
  • Tim: w/ his students who are A students, they say the same things. We’re being honest… and that’s the important thing to address the puzzle. Why do I do that?  How do I crack that puzzle. Hopefully we have identified some things to help us identify that. Such as the break is an emotional reaction to a hard task that sets up procrastination.
    • But school is hard; tons of assignments.
    • Interviewed a NY Times reporter who wrote The Power of Habit .. he can’t procrastinate b/c he has a deadline every day. But we have to be able to do things without the hard deadlines.  Avoid distractions, focus. Can be done.
  • Bromley: I attest to it: made an implementation intention not to get a 2nd serving immediately after the first. Now I have to think about it and eating less.
  • Tim: small things we can do, like setting a smaller plate.  What can we do to harness these solutions, such as implementation intentions we can make daily? It’s not easy or fun, but when we develop new habits and it is empowering.  If we get the work done, the next day, it removes the monkey off our backs, the freedom is phenomenal.
  • Bromley: we will work on this together and let Tim know how it goes.
  • Tim: would love to hear what you’re doing, and what works and what doesn’t and why. Studies are great, but hearing from individuals who try things, like this is where I hit the wall. reporters ask me if I procrastinate, and I can’t!  Can’t lie to myself, and just have to get it done. It’s not easy.
  • All: thank you!
  • Tim: when you listen to this again, consider what you can do. What kind of deal can yo umake with yourself? How do you get past the self-lies? What kind of breaks can you take that work. Will love to hear about what work.