Source File: Tim Pychyl-Procrastination
Title: Tim Pychyl-Procrastination
Ari: Now I’m speaking with Tim Pychyl, who is a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa
Canada and he is a specialist in procrastination so Tim thank you very much for speaking
Tim: My pleasure Ari but I don’t procrastinate, I just study it.
Ari: Right! Exactly. So you are not a… I guess we could say you’re not a procrastination
expert, you are just a procrastination enthusiast maybe?
Tim: Of course I have procrastinated in my life and there were periods in my life where it was
the bane of my existence like many people so I get it from the inside but there is some
of my colleagues who say, “How could you study this? You don’t procrastinate.” Well,
that’s because I have studied it enough now not to be able to do it. That’s a very good
Ari: Now you said something before we started recording that I wish I was according and
you promise to say it again so we were just talking about time and you said you had
thought about that.
Tim: Just this morning, this isn’t the first time I had this thought but it just hit me profoundly
today because I was going to do three or four tasks this morning and one of them had to
be moved and I thought to myself, “Time is the true zero-sum game” and in an
existential sense you don’t know how much of it you’re going to get but you’re only
going to get so much and it is not a renewable resource that way. So it’s always a matter
of how you chose to use your time which is the bottom line for me.
Ari: Absolutely and that’s a really good launching point for this because one of the
differentiators that I try to make with people when I am trying to help them be more
efficient or I am trying to be more efficient, is that there is a difference between
procrastinating and deferring. So for me, deferring is when you putting something off to
a time that you can actually more effectively deal with it whereas to me, and I am
always hoping that your way to correct me on this thought but procrastination is really
about sort of just pushing them under the rug because you don’t want to deal with
them now and your sort of disassociating yourself with the tasks.
Tim: I don’t have to correct you, you hit the nail on the head and in fact but the new
graduate student who is going to be doing her research on this concept off active
procrastination. There is some researchers so don’t agree with you would think that
they found this active procrastinator who delays purposely and they call it active
procrastination which of course is an oxymoron. You’ve defined it correctly that there is
deferral, there is intension updates, “Well, I’m going to put this off” it’s just better for
me to do this later and then… And that’s a good thing, we do it every day. You have to.
And then there is procrastination where you had an intention to do it, you know you
should do it now but as you put it so well, you’re pushing it under the rug because you
don’t want to and really you don’t want to you want to feel good now, it’s that instant
Ari: Yeah so before we even get into the nitty-gritty about procrastination, what got you
interested in procrastination in the first place which is kind of funny question NSF I
Tim: Yeah. When I did not study procrastination is a graduate student although a lot of times
I did it. But I did study other graduate students when I did my doctoral research. I
actually spent time studying doctoral students across many different departments and I
was interviewing them and they would say things like, “What are you doing?”, They will
say, “Oh, and kind of sitting around the research room here and yak and complain about
our work.” “Well what are you supposed to be doing?” “Well I am supposed to be
working on my comprehensive exam.” “Well why aren’t you working on your
comprehensive exam?” “I don’t know what to do.” “Well, why don’t you talk to your
advisor about…” “I can’t let him know I am not doing anything.”
And I thought to myself; there is a pathos here that is really thick. These are really
intelligent people saying really silly things. And I was studying people’s goal pursuit and I
was interested in how their goal pursuit predicted their well-being and what became
painfully obvious to me was that what predicted our unhappiness were the things we
said we were going to do and didn’t do in a timely way. So I realized that I wanted to
move away from studying just goal pursuit to studying when our goal pursuit broke
down and specifically procrastination.
Ari: Right okay. And then how did that research begin though? What did you start to look at
first? I guess there is the “how” and the “why” to procrastination. So what did you start
Tim: We started with a paradox because I had a lot of students interested in this and so all
my research is driven by my students but back in the 90s one of the first things we did is
we said, “It’s interesting, people procrastinate because you are getting rid of something
noxious.” You are thinking, “I don’t want to do that, I’d rather have fun instead.” And
yet when we looked at the little bit of research that shows out there procrastination
seems to be correlated with negative emotions and we’re thinking, “Why is that?” If
you’re procrastinating, shouldn’t you be feeling good? So we actually did some
experience sampling studies where we put pagers on people and try to catch them at
the moment there procrastinating, not just this general trait sort of procrastination
where you procrastinated all the time but if your procrastinating right now how do you
feel? Because we wanted to understand, “Did you feel better when you
procrastinated?” And low and behold, the negative emotions were no longer correlated
with procrastination when you’re actually procrastinating but then again there weren’t
strong positive emotions either particularly because there was when emotion that was
dominant and that was guilt.
So that’s some of the first studies we did with some of these experience sampling
studies where we try to get that what people were feeling and thinking while they were
procrastinating. And since then we’ve done lots of different studies and for people who
are listening and are interested, they could just go to procrastination.ca and you will
find all the kind of research we do.
Ari: Okay so that’s an interesting thing to me too is that guilt issue and this is not just
obviously with procrastination, this is with dieting or with how you act in your
relationship with your significant other. There’s all this guilt but it again it doesn’t seem
to constantly change. It seems like people who procrastinate… It’s almost clinical; that it
gets to this point where people just can’t make themselves do things anymore because
they get into this mode of procrastination. And also how does that tie-in for you with…
Is not really a questionable concept that in an eight hour day, the average worker is
really doing like two hours of work. Is that active procrastination or is that something
Tim: No, that can just be procrastination. That can be what lots of people call laziness,
irresponsibility I suppose but it costs huge amount of money to businesses when people
waste time like that when they are not on task. There is a lot of sense of agency there.
But let me go back to guilt. Absolutely we stew in our own juices with procrastination
and the guilt is really like a thermometer of what… Really researchers and social
psychology called cognitive dissonance.
Classical cognitive dissonance, you have an intention and then your behavior is not
matching that intention so the gap between your intentions in action that defines
procrastination leads to this dissonance. And as you said, we don’t know anything about
it, it doesn’t seem to motivate things; well it could, that would be the ideal thing; you
change your behavior which means you get going but instead we have lots of strategies
to reduce dissonance. Like we dismiss it, “Oh, it’s not that important.” Or, “I will feel
more like it tomorrow.” Or, “I work well under pressure.” And all of these things are said
so that we can feel better about ourselves, we are trying to reduce the guilt.
Now we are never completely unable to escape our self-deception that way. We do a
pretty good job of it and they might even use substances; we might even have a couple
of beers and other substance of choice, anything to get away from that guilt. But it is
paradoxical to me why we become our own worst enemy and that was keeps me
Ari: And you said you keep studying it because of that paradox. So what can people do
about it or what have you found to be most effective ways for people to overcome
Tim: Those are two different things. We can become very strategic and make little baby steps
even when we haven’t grappled with the whole thing but I am going to start with what I
think is ultimately what we have to do then I will start with some techniques you can
use right away. Ultimately you have to come down to what I said earlier, what you
thought you wanted me to repeat which is, “Time is a zero-sum game.” And how we are
choosing to do it
To me, at its existential roots, procrastination is not getting on with life itself, like it’s a
horrible thing. This is your life, what are you going to do with it? To me if when you
wake up and open your eyes to that, to your own sense of agency, then you start
making choices and then you don’t stew in your own juices anymore. You either do the
thing that’s the next thing to do or you just abandon it. You say, “I am taking it right off
my list.” And it has a very Zen like quality there and the notion of the master is with the
student who is seeking enlightenment and the student or novice says, “How do I do it?”
And the master says, “Did you finish eating your rice?” And he says, “Okay, then wash
And honestly Ari, it comes down, that is profound what I think has to happen in order to
deal with procrastination. Now that’s a tall order in a sense because by even using the
story it has some sense of wisdom or enlightenment attached to it but I do think there is
some truth in that. Now along the way you can do lots of tricks and techniques and I
think that’s what mindfulness, practice and the meditation of any sort brings things to
you; you act as if you had this enlightenment and one day you realize that it is the
But for me it always comes down to just getting started. So once I make the intention, I
have to recognize that I’m not going to feel like it when the time comes. That’s a big
myth that I’m actually going to feel like it. So first of all I think, “Okay, I’m just going to
get started. I am not thinking about the whole task, it’s not the Nike thing of “Just do it”
it’s “just get started”. Because we have found in our research that once we get started,
it changes our perception of the task even our early research with the pagers; once the
students actually got down to the task at hand they didn’t say things like, “Gee, I’m glad
I waited until the last minute because I work so much better under pressure.” They
never said that. They say things like, “This isn’t as bad as I thought. I wish I had started
earlier, I could do a much better job.”
So we know that just getting started is central. And that’s an emotional thing and a bit
of a behavioral strategy but a cognitive strategy might be; let’s get away from the goal
intentions like, “I’ll do that task on the weekend” and that the task is a bit poorly
defined and the weekend is really poorly defined. And get down to really precise
implementation intentions like, “When I finish my coffee on Saturday morning, I’m
going to do this part of that task and define it precisely. “In situation X, I will do
behaviour Y achieve subgoal Z.” So if you can add that into your life, just moving from
broad goal intentions to specific implementation intentions you’re going to have a
whole leap forward even if you haven’t gone to the point where you’ve kind of woken
up and smelled the coffee and said, “Hey, this is my life! What am I going to do with it
Ari: Right, okay. And I am very, very much on board with what you’re saying. So for
something you admit is like a large project, I always make a joke about this but it’s
actually very sad, is that I’ve seen this now seven times on a clients’ to do list which was
Tim: Yes of course. And with my students, when I asked one of my graduate students, “What
are you doing?” And they say, “Working on my thesis” I know they are doing nothing
because it’s too big and broad to say that they are doing anything. If they say to me,
“Oh, I am struggling with that section you were talking about the other day where I was
trying to make the transition from so-and-so’s research to my ideas.” I think; oh, okay
you are doing something.
So writing a book, it’s good, it’s a very high order meaningful goal but we have to always
juggle in our lives, manageability and meaning. Meaningless things aren’t going to get
done because they are meaningless. Things that are not manageable aren’t going to get
done even if they are meaningful so you’ve got to always keep this balance in mind. So
writing a book is very meaningful, connected to one of my core values; what is the next
step? What are actually going to today or in the next hour? And that’s where you get
into the implementation intension.
Ari: Right, okay. So then the implementation intention is good in itself of course but on a
systematic or on a logistics level, what do you tell people? Is it break it down so you
know what the next step is?
Tim: Yeah. That’s been said as a motherhood statement around procrastination for years and
then they think they have a time management problem but to they don’t really have a
time management problem. Very few people have time management problems. Some
of the research we’ve done continually shows that procrastinators aren’t broken
somehow. They don’t really estimate time badly, they don’t manage their emotions
really well. So I think that you can break down your task but then you come to that first
part of the task and you have that strong emotional reaction. Well, you have a six-year-
old inside of you. I have a six-year-old almost 7 running around my house and I know
him very well. And I would say, “Alex, it’s time to make your bed.” And he will say, “I
don’t feel like it, I don’t want to.” And I would say, “Alex, I did not ask how you felt. I
love you but that is not my question, it’s time to make your bed.” And so we have that
six-year-old alive and well inside of us. We think that saying, “I don’t feel like it” is an
explanation for not doing something. And if we stand back from that and realize how
silly it is, it’s kind of enlightening in itself.
Ari: This is great because what I have sort of hit on me a few times or several times actually
is I am a parent of three small boys. My wife stays at home, I work at home. So we are
both here on out with the kids and we have a 2 ½ year old and a twin 14 month old and
they are all boys. And what I tell people a lot is; it doesn’t matter if I am tired, it doesn’t
matter if I am sick, it doesn’t matter if I am throwing up in the toilet, I still have to feed
someone; somebody still has to be changed, somebody still has to be stopped from
falling off a countertop. You just have to do it. And that’s okay and that’s great actually
but it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it, that is totally irrelevant.
Tim: Yep. And if you can bring that to there on most of our lives we would be much better
off. In fact we see a lot of procrastination in students and we see it in other places in life
of course but those people; there’s an old adage “Give a job to a busy person.” It’s like
they are already in motion. And a lot of that too is that they recognize that, “I don’t have
a lot of time”
Another view on this is something that some people call the unscheduled and it’s a
really interesting way to think about your life, is that when we think about next week. If
I said to you, “Ari could you do this with me today?” You are liable to think, “No, I am
too busy.” I say to you, “Ari, next month will you do this?” Most likely we are going to
say yes and in fact there is a lot of interesting research about present self and shoot
future self and how we really do treat future self like a stranger; I don’t care, that’s
future self, that’s future self’s problem.
Ari: Future Homer, from The Simpsons.
Tim: That’s it, you’ve got it, “Man, I don’t envy that guy.” Homer just nails it so beautifully
there. Our brains actually activate differently when we think about present self and
future self. If I think about a stranger, I will treat future self more like a stranger.
All that aside, the unscheduled is take a blank calendar for next week and I fill in all of
the things that I really have to do, right down to the nitty-gritty; like brushing my teeth
and showering because it takes time. Even today I have to run to a vet appointment
after our chat today and I thought to myself, “Gee, I better shower before this because I
have to leave as soon as we’re done.” So all that has to go in there and then you get a
more realistic attitude of what you really have available for these other tasks and it kind
of puts you in the headspace much like the busy parents who said, “It doesn’t matter if I
am throwing up or if I am feeling sick, I’ve still got people to care for.” And if you
actually look at all the things that are going on in your life and you get other tasks
thrown in and you think, “Gee, I’ve got to do that right now, right then” because that’s
it, that’s all the time I have I can’t get into this wishful thinking. So I think what’s
happened as a parent is what happens to many of us is we realize, “Well, I have to step
up here”. Now what I want to see people do is to step up to own their own lives even
before they are taking care of somebody else.
Ari: Right, exactly and of course we can’t apply that to everything we do but in a way, we
can because if you are doing work that’s meaningful to you that you care about then
how is that not the most important thing? How is that not the essence of your being?
Somebody could say like, “Oh, I’m just recording a podcast with you right now, it’s just a
podcast.” But to me, this is what I do. The conversation we’re having right now is the
value that I get and sharing it with you. So it’s integral to my life.
Tim: Yeah, but even they problem with that is somebody will say, “Well, lucky Ari, he has
found something that is meaningful to him and I don’t do meaningful work.” But that
doesn’t matter either. You could look at finding meaning in it and I think that is really
important because any job worth doing is a job worth doing well.
But you could also just look at it as that, “Okay, this is my task in front of me; I had
finished eating my rice, I’m going to wash my bowl and I’m going to do it right now. I’m
going to get it done now so I can get on to other things.”
Even Victor Frankel who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp; when he wrote his
autobiography he wrote about procrastination; it blew me away because I thought,
“He’s got other important things to say here.” But what he gets like every major world
religion gets with the notion of sloth is that wasting time is a sin against life itself
because it’s so precious like there’s nothing more precious you’re going to get than
time. And so if you are doing something then get it done. And this is what Victor Frankel
writes and I will go back to what he says which is, “I have learned to do the difficult jobs
first because that’s when I have the energy.” I have learned to get things done so I have
time for the important things in life.
So let’s go back to your example of being a parent; not only do you realize you have to
care for your kids whether your head is in the toilet or not but that you don’t want to
put off your stuff during the day and then look at your children later and say, “I don’t
have time to play, I have to work” because that is important stuff in life. So even if the
task at hand isn’t intrinsically meaningful like washing your bowl after your rice, getting
it done so that you can get on with the other things that really do reflect your values
and your agency, that’s why you do it quickly, that’s why you do it right then, that’s
what you don’t stew in your own juices.
Ari: Right and that’s the thing if something is an obstacle in your way like washing the bowl,
and we keep using this as an example of course. But if it’s an obstacle to five seconds of
your life was just something that will pile up and the dishes will pile up and you have to
deal with it later, that later is going to piss you off and you are not going to sleep well
and you are irritated and actually it’s a butterfly effect in some ways.
Tim: It is. It seems like a silly example because we’ve taken the same story but quite frankly
but I am sure there’s listeners with dishes sitting on their counter because they said, “I
don’t feel like it.” And just what you described happens is that the next day, not only do
the whole pile of them, they are really hard to us because everything is really stuck on,
it’s dried on. What was a two second job becomes a much longer job and so if I go back
to my story with my son when he told me, “I don’t feel like making my bed.” I said to
him, “Hey Alex, you know what? I’ll give you a dollar if you can count to 10 before I got
your bed made but you have to count one 1000, two 2000, he said, “all right.” So now I
have got this teachable moment; he is motivated externally by the thought of a dollar
and he starts to count and I make the bed. He doesn’t get to six, the bed is made and he
learns something deeply important. You spend more time complaining and moaning and
thinking about a task than what a lot of them take to get done and if you can get them
done in the timely way they don’t build that chaos, that butterfly effect that really does
happen when we let these little things pile up in our heads.
Ari: So are you familiar with motivational interviewing at all?
Ari: Okay so this is a psychological concept, I have recently learned about this but the
making the bed example is a good example for that and I heard of this and I loved it. So
with the child example, you want them to make their bed, what motivational
interviewing would have to do is ask two questions and the first question is… My oldest
son’s name is Ben so, “Ben, on a scale of 1 to 10; 1 being totally not ready, I don’t want
to do it at all and 10 being I am really excited you want to do it right now, how would
you rate yourself as far as your willingness to make your bed?” Well a flippant child,
“Well, I am at 2 dad.” And so then the second question is, “Okay, why didn’t you say you
were a 1?” Which basically forces them to justify and put it into their own thoughts and
their own terms like basically sort of gives them some perspective on that. And
apparently it’s very rare for someone to say they are a 1 in that situation because that’s
just being ridiculous. I really like that and I think that that in a way brings you back to
your present self, it’s like well, it’s that the matter of then or now, it’s really like why am
I not ready or am I actually really ready and I might as well actually do it.
But to have another example for you which the washing of the dishes is a great one but
this is a personal one that I find happens a lot is every time I go into the bathroom, one
of our guest room or the main bathroom in our house and maybe I am going to wash my
hands, maybe I am going to the bathroom, but if there is little or no toilet paper left, it’s
very, very easy to just walk away and say, “I don’t want to go change… I don’t want to
go get a roll of toilet paper downstairs and change that.” But of course, your future self
has to deal with that time that you go to the bathroom and you’re sitting there and then
there is no toilet paper.
Tim: Yeah. And I never do that and I can get kind of inpatient with my own partner who will
make choices like that like the dish soap is almost done, not completely done, it would
be a square to that but not to refill it then when you actually have a minute like your
future self is not under crunch; you do not know what future self is going to be facing.
Present self really does have a moment to do that but present self says, “No, I want to
do something else, I don’t want to do that.”
And the visceral reaction “I don’t want to do that” is worth exploring because what does
it mean? Like what is he going to do instead? Are you really having that much fun doing
whatever else it is? And if you can just get into the habit of doing things right away what
happens is that you are allowed to be spontaneous later without guilt because you’ve
got everything, all your ducks are in a row. But most of the time people come back to
me and say, “Look, who would want to be as uptight as that? Always doing things on
time, procrastination is my spontaneity.” And I say, “It’s actually just the opposite. Your
procrastination weighs on you like the world and it’s like a monkey on your back and
when real freedom offers itself to you, you can’t because you’ve put yourself behind an
So I love your example, it’s a mundane one but I think it’s worth exploration of, “Why is
it when we look at the simple task like, I’ve got to go get another roll of toilet paper” we
have that visceral, “I don’t feel like it”? I think it’s hardwired into us somehow.
Ari: And again, not to over trivialize this but it’s not to me but in that situation where I don’t
want to… we keep our toilet paper in the basement basically, so it’s just one floor down.
It’s really not a big deal but I don’t want to go get that roll but when I do I actually feel,
as little as that is, I feel like I accomplished something in a way.
Tim: And you do! And a little bit of progress, we know this from research that a little progress
on a goal fuels our wellbeing. And actually this is one of the few places where we have
seen upward spiral of our well-being because that little teeny success, as trivial as it may
seem spawns the next thing, spawns the next thing.
Now is not infinite, there is no panacea here but it is the opposite of the downward
spiral of procrastination and guilt. It’s just making the right choice.
Ari: Right, absolutely. So the last question I would like to ask and I am so excited to hear
your answer actually is; what are your top three personal tips for being more effective?
Not necessarily overcoming procrastination, it may be but what are your top three
things for being more effective in your day?
Tim: That’s a good question; not many people ask me that question. And I am a planful
person so one of my first is that I use this sort of the day timer, of course it’s on my
computer and on my iPhone and iPad and I actually color-code all of the different parts
of my life like within my work life I’ve got research teaching and administration, those
are different colors. I’ve got personal things, recreation, kid related things and
consulting and book related things and all those different colors. And so I can do a
forensic audit of my week. I can look at my week and I can look for how much recreation
did I get in? Was there a lot of time with the kids? What’s the balance between research
So one of my practices is to be planful and also do a forensic audit constantly; am I living
the life I want to live? Am I building time for recreation that I want? Am I making time
for the balance between teaching and research that I might want? All of those things
and it is such a very good tool for me so that’s one of them. And that’s at the planning
The most important part for me is the affective part about feeling like it. I am a big one
for building good habits and routines so that things become routinized so they don’t
take mental energy but it takes mental energy to get there. Everything from making
flossing my teeth a habit that I can’t miss still doing situps and push-ups and strength
exercises for my core. So even if I don’t do an aerobic exercise, I have always got that
other core strength.
And honestly even though I do my push-ups and situps and back exercises every day
before I shower, that’s my implementation intention. In situation X before I can step in
the shower and get down and do those core exercises so I have got that implementation
intension and my visceral reaction is, “I don’t feel like it, not today.” So I always battle
that with “Tim, just get started.”
And a really mundane example of that is I was doing push-ups and back exercises really
effectively but I was skipping my situps and so to break that ice only had to do was go
from being on my knees which is the way I do my back exercises, all I had to do was roll
over on my back. I didn’t think about doing the situps I just said, “When you finish this in
situation X, when your back exercises are done, rollover on your back.” And now I am in
a position where I might as well do those situps. You see where I am very strategic
because you have to find what the fin is or the wedge is for you to be able to really build
habits you want. So for me, that’s super important so that some people we look at me
and say, “Wow, I really admire your self-discipline.” And I think, “You know, it’s not so
much self-discipline, it’s just really building really good habits. It maybe take a bit of
discipline to build those habits but once you own them, boy, like becomes so easy.”
So the first one is the planfulness. The next one is creating those habits but always I
guess the bottom line to all of it is for me is just get started. I’ll face anything and I’ll go,
“I don’t feel like it, I don’t want to.” I am no different from any other person that I know.
I am not the most super motivated man in the world but I do know what my goals are
and so when I get to the point where I make an intention and I have that visceral
reaction; “I don’t want to do this, I hate this”, I don’t know what I am talking about
really, I’m just feeling it. I say, “Just get started” and that has changed my world.
Ari: That’s awesome! That’s really awesome. So we are going to have links to all your stuff in
the show notes but where is the best place for people to find out more about you?
Tim: As I mentioned in your past interview, procrastination.ca. I mentioned that when you
asked me about my research and there is so much in there. But if you go there you
won’t just find my research, you will find a link to my blog on psychology today. So if you
want to read a lot about procrastination research, I have just been writing about that for
years. I just read research and summarize it and try to find and take away points.
And I am like you I like to podcast. I started back in 2005 and I am an on-again off-again
podcaster but there is a lot there.
Ari: I know, I love your podcast.
Tim: Will good thanks very much Ari. And they range from interviews to personal stuff so if
you go to procrastination.ca, you will find all of that.
Ari: Wonderful well Tim thank you so much. This is been a really wonderful conversation for
me and I really appreciate your time.
Tim: Me too. Most of the time I have been staring at your handsome face here and you have
such a warm… It’s a nice picture of you even though it’s just one of those snapshots
from a computer camera but it felt like I met you so that’s a nice thing.
Ari: Well thank you very much.
Tim: Alright, take care!