If Only and At Least: How Procrastination Messes with Your Mind
AUTHOR STEPHEN HUMPHREYS / CATEGORY PRODUCTIVITY / PUBLISHED: JUN 10, 2019
"Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy." —Wayne Gretsky
Around 15% of adults procrastinate regularly; almost everyone will procrastinate sometimes. There are very few people who haven't put off a difficult or unpleasant task, even though the sensible thing would be to get on with it. Occasionally thinking, "I'll do it tomorrow," or, "I'm not really in the mood for this right now," isn't a problem for most people, but if you regularly put things off then you can begin a cycle of procrastination. The more you avoid doing things, the more you're likely to start thinking counterfactual thoughts. And the more you think counterfactual thoughts, the more you're likely to avoid doing things.
What is counterfactual thinking? It means remembering something that happened and imagining that it had been different. This process of picturing a different past can be powerful: it may change the way you think and feel, just as if the imagined past was real. People who are bereaved will often think counterfactually. They imagine a world in which the person they lost didn't die; they picture them as they might be today, imagine talking to them or holding them. This is a normal reaction to loss. Your brain helps you to deal with grief by creating a happier scenario. Counterfactual thinking like this is healthy, as long as the bereaved person can eventually move on and accept reality. But when you get into a cycle of procrastination and counterfactual thinking, then it can become destructive and dangerous.
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Upward and Downward Thinking
Procrastination always involves a loss. If you didn't get a task done or you have lost time now because you're doing something you should already have finished, your brain's normal, healthy response to loss is to think counterfactually. When you procrastinate, the two most common counterfactual thoughts are "if only..." and "at least..." Psychologists describe these ways of thinking as "upward" and "downward".
Upward thinking means imagining that the past was better: this is the "if only" scenario. Suppose that you planned to buy a present for a friend but you put off doing it until the last moment, only to discover that the gift you wanted had sold out. Your response is to think, "If only I'd tried to get this sooner."
Downward thinking means imagining ways in which the past could have been worse. Suppose that you buy a last minute gift for your friend. It's not what you'd intended to get them; in fact, it's something you're not sure they want, but you think to yourself, "At least I got them something."
Develop New Strategies
A 2004 paper on procrastination and counterfactual thinking suggested that upward thoughts might prevent procrastination by helping to develop new strategies, thinking about how things could be different and resolving to behave differently in future (eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/91814/1/Sirois%20BJSP%202004.pdf). However, a 2016 study of procrastination and emotional self-regulation found that upward thinking was associated with feelings of guilt or shame and that these actually made procrastination worse (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1041608016302187?via%3Dihub). Both these studies concluded that thinking downward thoughts made it more likely that you'd continue to put things off.
Thinking "If only I'd done things differently," leads to feelings of guilt or shame; as a way of avoiding these painful feelings you avoid the task you associate with them, and you procrastinate further. Thinking "At least things aren't as bad as they could have been," reduces or removes the consequences of procrastination; you're more likely to do it in future because nothing really bad happened last time. Is there any way out of this situation? Recent research suggests a third option: forgiving yourself. Self-forgiveness isn't the same as making excuses for yourself. Forgiving yourself for procrastinating means acknowledging that putting something off had important consequences (countering downward thinking) but that you are going to leave your mistakes behind you and learn to do better next time (avoiding the guilt or shame associated with upward thinking).
If you regularly put things off until tomorrow or until you're in the right mood, you may discover that you also tend to think counterfactually. If you realize that you often say to yourself, "If only..." or "At least..." then you should be aware that this will reinforce your procrastination. Learning to forgive yourself for procrastination, to learn from your mistakes and to move on can be the best way to get out of this destructive and counterproductive cycle.
About the Author
Stephen is in his fifties and lives in Yorkshire, UK. Among other jobs, he has worked as a psychiatric nurse, a manager in the National Health Service, a parcel sorter and a door-to-door double glazing salesman. He now works full time as a freelance writer. He describes himself as a lifelong learner, and enjoys researching new topics for writing assignments.