The science behind why we procrastinate—and how to stop the cycle. From making a doctor's appointment to doing speedwork, new research digs into the reason we put things off. You know you have to do that speed workout to hit your goals, or turn in that work project before Friday, or make that dentist appointment they keep reminding you about. And yet, you don't.
Procrastination is something all humans do—there's a reason post offices are open until midnight on tax filing day—but why do we drag our feet even on seemingly easy tasks? A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests it all has to do with how we blend anticipation, excitement, and dread.
In an experiment, researchers asked 171 participants to eat jelly beans that ranged in flavor from delicious to disgusting—some tasted like orange sherbet and watermelon, but others like dirt or rotten eggs. People tended to feel impatient and excited about eating the good-tasting ones, and not only dreaded the awful ones, but also disliked the feeling of having to wait to eat them. Not surprisingly, this shows that people want to have good things now and delay bad things, and it's the anticipation of both positive and negative tasks that drive our behavior, according to study coauthor David Hardisty, Ph.D., assistant professor in the marketing and behavioral science division of the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.
For example, he told Runner's World, if you ask people when they want to receive $50 now or in a month, everyone will choose now. But if you ask when they would rather pay $50 for a bill, half of people would rather pay later. "This happens partly because the anticipation of positive versus negative events is asymmetric," he said. "When we imagine future positive things, we both enjoy imagining it and feel impatient. But when we imagine future negative things, we just hate thinking about them."