Mark Twain advised people never to put off until tomorrow what they can put off until the day after, and a lot of us listen. Estimates suggest that 15% to 20% of all people are chronic procrastinators, and that share goes up for situational delay: As one example, four in five people put off retirement savings despite knowing better. Then there are the innumerable office procrastinators, many identifiable by the mere fact that they're reading this article.
The devious thing about procrastination is that while we tend to shrug or laugh it off as part of the work process, evidence suggests it's far from harmless. At the root of the problem is our failure to differentiate between simply delaying a task, perhaps a healthy sign of organizational skills, and truly procrastinating on it, a self-defeating habit people know will hurt them later—a little like smoking. Not only does our work suffer from the real thing, but our well-being does, too.
That puts strategies to counter procrastination at a premium. One of the most common is a self-imposed deadline, often scheduled long before an actual external deadline, an approach that acknowledges the problem and commits to resolving it. The intention here is great—instill some discipline in those moments when you have it—but whether or not self-imposed deadlines work is another question.
Some early research found that imposing a deadline might at least be better than waiting until the last minute. In a 2002 study, researchers Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch hired 60 students to proofread three passages. Some of these test participants received a weekly deadline for each passage, some received one final deadline for all three, and some could choose their own deadline. The readers got a dime for every error they detected but were docked a dollar for every day they were late.
Despite the penalty, participants who imposed their own deadlines performed worse than those given evenly spaced weekly deadlines in terms of detecting errors, finishing near deadline, and generating money (see below). Then again they did better than those given one final deadline. Ariely and Wertenbroch concluded in the journal Psychological Science that self-imposed deadlines, while a reasonable strategy to curb procrastination, "were not always as effective as some external deadlines in boosting task performance."
A recent attempt to replicate that experiment found even less reason for hope. Researchers Alberto Bisin and Kyle Hyndman arranged for students to alphabetize three word jumbles (below). As in the earlier study, some test participants received evenly spaced deadlines, some a final deadline, and some could impose their own. Each finished jumble earned participants $15, though this time there was no room for tardiness; blowing the deadline meant blowing the cash.
A substantial number of participants who self-imposed a deadline reported themselves as being relatively low in conscientiousness—a sign that they were aware of being procrastinators and were using the deadline to address the problem. No matter. Bisin and Hyndman report that these participants nevertheless had the lowest completion rate of any group. Unlike in the earlier study, participants with self-imposed deadlines completed fewer tasks than those with just one deadline at the end.
Why the difference? Bisin attributes it to the type of deadline imposed. In the 2002 study, students had a "soft" deadline; in other words, they could salvage a little credit for finishing late. The "hard" deadline in the new study left no room for error. So procrastinators who waited until the last minute to start the task and found it too tough to complete in time simply quit, rather than press on and mitigate their losses.
"They think the deadline is helpful because it makes them do it," Bisin tells Co.Design. "But they do it too close to deadline, and as a consequence, when they discover it's harder, they drop it. This is the negative effect."
Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, one of the leading scholars of procrastination, isn't surprised that self-imposed deadlines don't resolve undesirable delays. Procrastinators may need the tension of a looming deadline to get motivated, but when that deadline is self-imposed its authority is corrupted and the motivation never materializes. "The deadline isn't real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination," he tells Co.Design.
Which speaks to the distinction drawn earlier between time management and true procrastination. If time management were the essence of the problem, a self-imposed deadline should help. But Pychyl and other researchers have come to believe that emotional failures rest at the root of procrastination. Procrastinators delay a task because they're not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking they will be later on. When that time comes and they're not, they're in the same emotional place but with less time until deadline.
That's why some experts—namely, Fuschia Sirois of Bishop's University—think the best strategy for addressing procrastination is to find something enjoyable or meaningful in whatever task is before you. Easier said than done, for sure. But if you can make that chore or assignment almost as pleasant as, say, reading a book of Twain quotes, then maybe you'll only put it off until tomorrow. You'll have the whole day after to thank yourself.