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Why it feels good to flake—even on our own goals

It took me over a year to write my first tweet. Friends within my industry assured me that Twitter was crucial for my career. I’d find work leads and build a bigger community, they said. I added “Join Twitter” to the top of my to-do list. It didn’t happen. I moved it to the bottom of my list.

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I understood the benefits. I knew I might be missing out by not tweeting. I often make time for important tasks and accomplish them without a problem. Why couldn’t I follow through? It wasn’t until I spoke with Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who has researched procrastination for over 20 years, that I realized why I’d been avoiding Twitter. “It’s not a time management problem,” he says. “Procrastination is an emotional management problem.” We procrastinate when we find a task aversive, we resent doing it, or we fear it. “To escape those emotions, we escape the task,” he says.

We also procrastinate because our brains prefer instant pleasure, even if we know completing a task might benefit our future self. It’s partly because we perceive our future selves as more of a stranger. One study found that people process information about the current self and future self with different parts of the brain. “The present self always benefits from procrastination,” Pychyl says. “People like to feel good. When we don’t feel good, we do what we can to feel good. Procrastination is a learned coping mechanism, and then it becomes a habit. Then, once it becomes habit, it’s hard to break.” Twitter made me anxious. Learning its rules and etiquette felt cumbersome, and I resented the anticipated time I’d lose on the app—time that could be spent working on my novel, practicing yoga, or playing with my kids. So I avoided it. But the more I procrastinated, the guiltier I felt. Greek philosophers called this the Akrasia effect, the reason why we don't follow through on what we set out to do. Humans have been doing it for centuries.  One of the first studies to document procrastination’s harmful effects showed college students who procrastinated initially had lower levels of stress; however, after earning lower grades than students who didn’t procrastinate, they reported higher levels of stress.

Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, says it’s important to distinguish between occasionally procrastinating and being a procrastinator. While I dabble in procrastination, there are chronic procrastinators who defer action in all areas of life. They procrastinate at home, at work, with friends and family and clients; they always have an excuse, and rarely take ownership, Ferrari says. Ferrari recommends cognitive behavioral therapy to curb chronic procrastination. But what about occasional procrastinators wanting to move past the Akrasia effect? “Mindfulness meditation is absolutely the foundation for conquering procrastination,” says Pychyl. It can help you direct focus and examine emotions without letting them rule you, he says.  Try to not focus on what you feel like doing (or not doing), says Pychyl. Instead, distract yourself from the emotion and focus on the task at hand. Ask yourself, what’s the next step I would need to take to execute a certain task? Then do it. Rewards can also be effective. Pychyl tells me about one of his students who wrote rewards on little slips of paper—log onto Facebook, buy a big screen TV, etc.—stuffed the paper scraps into a fishbowl and rewarded herself with one after completing important tasks. Other researchers say it’s helpful to find something worthwhile about the task itself. In his book, ”Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done”, Ferrari recommends rewarding yourself along the way. “Find someone to hold you accountable,” he says, “and make sure to surround yourself with doers.”

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