I’ll get around to procrastinating later
Jan26

I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Do you tend to put things off until the last minute? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes this urge to procrastinate makes us behave in ways that are detrimental to our future well being, yet this happens all the time. In science, we find ourselves waiting until the last minute studying for an exam, preparing a presentation to our peers or writing a grant proposal. In a broader scope, we fail to save early and/or often enough for retirement. We delay changing less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or deliberately abandoned by February. Why do we make decisions that may endanger our future well-being? A recent article in Nautilus by Alisa Opar entitled “Why We Procrastinate” has a compelling explanation—we sometimes fail to identify with that future version of ourselves. 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. In other words, the subconscious rationale is something like: “Why should I exert myself and do it now? Someone else will take care of it later.” That “someone else” being an abstract, future self. I think that goes both ways: I know I tend to look at foolish acts or decisions I've made in the past with the observation: “Who was that person?” As an added bonus, this rationale absolves me from some of the blame for a past act, since now I’m clearly a better, more evolved version of my past self. Clearly. A possible consequence of this lack of identification with our future self is to delay or even fail to act in the present in ways that will benefit our future selves. The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores. This view of the future self as “other” originated in the realm of philosophy, particularly in the writings of Derek Parfit. In recent years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have produced a body of data that appears to support it. Some fMRI studies by Hal Hershfield at NYU’s Stern School of Business looked at the differences in brain activity when someone considers their present and their future selves: They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more...

Read More