Procrastination and Cheating Your Future Self

We seem to have a love/hate relationship with procrastination. In the moment, it offers a welcome escape from our more tedious but clearly more responsible duties. We reflexively turn to our televisions to watch one more episode, and to our phones to check that new email or update our Facebook. We endlessly rationalize ways to give in to fleeting temptations, often at the expense of our long-term goals.

Reality always Catches Up

Procrastination cannot help us hide for long from what we have to face, and eventually we are left wondering how we could have allowed ourselves to be so easily deterred, wasting valuable time to avoid the unavoidable. Much like the patterns of other unhealthy relationships, we might promise ourselves never to let it happen again, only to be drawn in by distraction once more the next time we really should be facing our obligations and responsibilities.

Since intellectually we recognize that this behavior is problematic and certainly not in our own best interest, how does procrastination manage to retain its powerful attraction, time and time again?

As it turns out, it may all boil down to examining our relationships to our future selves.

In her recent essay “Why We Procrastinate” featured in the science magazine Nautilus, Alisa Opar elaborates on the work of philosopher Derek Parfit, particularly his acclaimed 1984 book Reasons and Persons and how his ideas are relevant to current research in psychology:

We humans, Parfit argued, are not a consistent identity moving through time, but a chain of successive selves, each tangentially linked to, and yet distinct from, the previous and subsequent ones. The boy who begins to smoke despite knowing that he may suffer the habit decades later should not be judged harshly: “This boy does not identify with his future self,” Parfit wrote. “His attitude towards this future self is in some ways like his attitude to other people.”

Parfit’s view was controversial even among philosophers. But psychologists are beginning to understand that it may accurately describe our attitudes towards our own decision-making: It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us. This impedes our ability to make good choices on their—which of course is our own—behalf. That bright, shiny New Year’s resolution? If you feel perfectly justified in breaking it, it may be because it feels like it was a promise someone else made.

Investing in Your Future Self

Developing a more conscious connection with our future selves may be an effective way to reduce procrastination. Considering our goals and our futures in the moment can help prevent us from dismissing them as some distant abstract idea. Opar’s essay elaborates more on how research is helping us to understand this process and what we may need to help ourselves focus on our future selves more, including showing how looking at digitally aged images of ourselves can influence the way we plan for our future.

It is important to recognize that, for better or worse, our emotions influence our decision-making. Thus, staying disconnected from our future selves can deny us exactly what we need in those tough moments when overcoming the urge to procrastinate is the right choice.


Originally posted January 27, 2014.