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August 27, 2014

Vicious cycle: How to break the 'procrastination doom loop'

Daily Briefing

    Procrastination has more to do with a person's emotions than time management skills—making breaking the bad habit a psychological exercise instead of a pedantic one, Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic.

    Why your procrastination may be your parents' fault

    "To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up," says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University. Ferrari says through his research he has pinpointed two reasons why procrastination happens:

    1. People delay action because they feel they are not in the right mood to complete the task; and
    2. People assume their mood will change in the near future.

    Such excuses form what scientists call the "procrastination doom loop" or putting off an important task that makes one feel guilty, ashamed, or anxious, according to psychologist Eric Jaffe. The anxious feelings then make one less likely to exert the emotional and cognitive energy needed to complete the task. And around it goes.

    Breaking the cycle

    Some experts recommend scheduling electronic reminders about completing a task as late as possible before the project is due, so there is no time to procrastinate.

    "Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task," Thompson writes.

    How to stop procrastinating with 'mood repair'

    Another approach is setting deadlines and binding "ourselves to our responsibilities," Thompson writes.

    In a 2001 study, researcher Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages:

    • The first group was asked to meet a weekly deadline for each passage;
    • The second group was asked to meet one deadline for all passages; and
    • The third group chose their own deadlines.

    Students were rewarded financially for finding errors and penalized for each day they were late turning in passages. The second group was penalized the most, but the third group performed the best.

    "People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines, and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines," says Ariely.

    Making work into a more of a game may curb procrastination tendencies, according to Jaffe. In one study he reviewed, students were asked to complete a puzzle after playing Tetris for a few minutes.

    "Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation," Jaffe says. He added that when scientists described the puzzle as a game, students were just as likely to complete the puzzle as non-procrastinators (Thompson, The Atlantic, 8/26).

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