Procrastinating? Think of your future self

Nick IngramThinking5 Comments

We all procrastinate. About 20% of us do it chronically. But all of us do it from time to time.

At its root, procrastination is a coping strategy for negative emotions: boredom; anxiety; sadness.

Sirois and Pychl, in a 2013 paper, describe procrastination as “short term mood repair”. But they also add a really interesting observation. The fundamental cause of procrastination is a “disjunction between the present and future self”. More completely:

the focus on short-term mood repair that characterizes procrastination reflects not just the primacy of immediate mood over longer-term goals and rewards, but a primacy of present self over the needs of the future self.” (Emphasis mine).

So, what is this “future self”? And is there any way of overcoming this “disjunction” we have with it? And will that help with our procrastination?

One of Pychyl’s students, Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, has just published a great paper in Personality and Individual Differences (86, 2015) looking at these questions.

What is the “future self”?

There’s nothing tricky about what your “future self” is. It’s you, in the future. The more interesting concept, according to Blouin-Hudon, is the idea of “future self-continuity”:

“Future self-continuity represents the extent to which a person feels connected and similar to his or her future self and is central to creating a fluid sense of identity through subjective time.”

She notes that a strong sense of future self-continuity has been shown to have “many functional benefits” (including goal-pursuit, decision-making, and well-being). But Blouin-Hudon also notes that future self-continuity “may not come naturally to some”. In fact, she quotes research that shows that for some people “certain areas of the brain activate differently for future self than for present self.” Blouin-Hudon quotes a 2009 study showing that:

“participants low on future self-continuity showed similar neural activations when they imagined their future self as when they imagined a stranger, and these were different neural activations than for present self.”

That is, if you’re low on future self-continuity, you physically think about your “future you” in the same way as you think about a stranger. Not helpful if you need to write that essay that’s due next week!

Of course, it’s worth asking whether you can actually measure how connected you are to your future self (your “future self-continuity”). Blouin-Hudon explains this next in her paper.

How can you measure “future self-continuity”?

Is “future self-continuity” actually a “thing”? Well it seems to be. Blouin-Hudon refers to work from 2009 by Hal Ersner-Hershfield, and others, using a “future self continuity scale”. The scale is simple and looks like this:

present self future self

Participants are asked to rank how connected and similar they feel to their future self in ten years time by choosing one of the seven options above. This is the scale that was used in the neural imaging study I referred to above. The people who are more disconnected to their future self (as measured by this scale) have the same parts of their brains light up in a scan as when they think about a stranger

The interesting thing is to see if people who feel more disconnected from their future selves in ten years (as measured by the above instrument) are more likely to procrastinate now (as measured by a pretty standard instrument to measure procrastination). This is what Blouin-Hudon tested in her first study in her paper.

More disconnected to your future self in ten years, more likely to procrastinate now

Blouin-Hudon had her participants answer the questions in a standard questionnaire on procrastination. And she got them to also rank how connected they felt to their future selves. And what she found shouldn’t surprise you now if you’ve read this far. The more connected you are to your future self, the less likely you are to procrastinate. As Blouin-Hudon says:

These results indicate that people who feel more connected to their future self in ten years time tend to self-report lower levels of academic procrastination. Given previous research… we speculate that procrastination is lower for those with higher future self-continuity because these people take into account the self-defeating nature of needless delay, and choose to act more often in the present rather than delay action for future self.

This of course raises a really interesting question. Can you increase your connection to your future self, and thus decrease your procrastination? According to another study from Blouin-Hudon the answer seems to be yes.

How to build connection with your future self

Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon has just completed some further work on future self and procrastination, as part of her Masters. She discusses it in a podcast with her supervisor Timothy Pychyl (I’ll link to the podcast below, it’s worth listening to in full if you’re interested in this). And what her research shows is that it is possible to increase your connection with your future self, and in doing that start to reduce your procrastination.

Blouin-Hudon undertook the following:

  • She got two groups of undergraduates at the start of an academic semester. One group was a control, the other the intervention group.
  • The control group was given a mindfulness meditation tape to listen to, on their own a couple of times a week for a few weeks.
  • The intervention group was given a guided meditation tape to listen to, on their own a couple of times a week for a few weeks.
  • The guided meditation tape got the intervention group to imagine the end of the semester and what they would be doing as the exams loomed large. It’s worth listening to this guided meditation – it’s included as part of the podcast below.

What she found was interesting. A lot of members of both the control group and the intervention group had an increase in future self-continuity over the four weeks. And those members with an increase in future self-continuity reported fewer procrastination incidents. In other words, it is possible to build a connection with your future self, through visualisation and/or mindfulness meditation. And that connection you build is effective in reducing procrastination.

Blouin-Hudon’s conclusions are interesting. To build connection with your future self:

  • Both mindfulness meditation and visualisation of your future seem to be effective at increasing a sense of connection.
  • The key seems to be to reduce the emotional component of any future visualisation. If you become too emotional as you think about the future, the procrastination habits in the present kick back in.

This last point is probably the most important. Remember, procrastination is a coping strategy for negative emotions (be that boredom or anxiety or something else). If, when you visualise yourself in the future when your job is due, and the emotions start to well up, that’s likely to drive you to further procrastination right now.

Blouin-Hudon’s recommendations are to visualise yourself with a “third person view”. That is, look at yourself in the situation. Don’t imagine what the situation looks like through your own eyes (“first person view”). That bit of distance doesn’t seem to erode the connection with future self, but it does seem to take the edge off the emotion.

The full podcast to listen to is here. (Clicking on the button next to “pod” should work. Or search for the iProcrastinate podcast on your favourite player and choose the episode from Wednesday June 17th 2015 “Imagine your future self”).

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to overcome procrastination: leave them in the comments section below.

5 Comments on “Procrastinating? Think of your future self”

  1. Hi Nick
    Good article. I boiled it down to something I used to say to my teams. “Don’t try an analyse the hole in the donut” cheers Bruce

  2. Very interesting implications for those who shift their focus from what has been the prevalent Protestant view of radical discontinuity of future self (anxiety-ridden “rapture me put of here, Scotty”) to a view that what we build now has continuity with building a lasting future.

  3. Pingback: Effects of Procrastination in VR – Effects of Procrastination

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