The Root of Your Procrastination

People envision outcomes so outstanding that their expectations become more intimidating than inspirational. "It's like you're practicing the high jump, and when you set the bar too high, you look at it, and you walk away," says John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. "Perfectionists aren't people who do something perfectly. Perfectionists are people who fantasize about doing something perfectly."  

At its core, procrastination represents shoddy treatment of the one person who should matter most to you: the future you. Resolving not to do some odious task today makes procrastinators feel good. Then they predict they'll feel just as good tomorrow, which will make the task easier. Of course, the next day they feel worse, which makes the task harder and the stress greater. Homer Simpson summed it up neatly: "That's a problem for future Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy."   

Leigh Buchanan writing in Inc.

The Present with a Twist

Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes… we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

the Past vs. Possibilities

When I encounter a $2.89 cup of coffee, it’s all too easy for me to recall what I paid for coffee the day before and not so easy for me to imagine all the other things I might buy with my money.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only questions I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction. If an international bean embargo suddenly caused the price of coffee to skyrocket to $10,000 per cup, then the only question I would need to ask myself is:

“What else can I do with ten thousand dollars, and will it bring me more or less satisfaction than a cup of coffee?”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Too Busy Feeling Bad

You’ve had an awful day—the cat peed on the rug, the dog peed on the cat, the washing machine is busted, World Wrestling has been preempted by Masterpiece Theatre—and you naturally feel out of sorts.

If at that moment you try to imagine how much you would enjoy playing cards with your buddies the next evening, you may mistakenly attribute feelings that are due to the misbehavior of real pets and real appliances ("I feel annoyed") to your imaginary companions ("I don't think I'll go because Nick always ticks me off").

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of depression is that when depressed people think about future events, they cannot imagine liking them very much.

Vacation? Romance? A night on the town? No thanks, I'll just sit here in the dark.

Their friends get tired of seeing them flail about in a thick blue funk, and they tell them that this too shall pass, that it is always darkest before the dawn, that every dog has its day, and several other important cliches. But from the depressed person's point of view, all the flailing makes perfectly good sense because when she imagines the future, she finds it difficult to feel happy today and thus difficult to believe that she will feel happy tomorrow.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Our confusion seems terribly obvious to those who are standing on the sidelines, saying things like "You're feeling low right now because Pa got drunk and fell off the porch, Ma went to jail for whupping Pa, and your pickup truck got repossessed—but everything will seem different next week and you'll really wish you'd decided to go with us to the opera."

At some level we recognize that our friends are probably right. Nonetheless, when we try to overlook, ignore, or set aside our current gloomy state and make a forecast about how we will feel tomorrow, we find that it's a lot like trying to imagine the taste of marshmallow while chewing liver. It is only natural that we should imagine the future and then consider how doing so makes us feel, but because our brains are hell-bent on responding to current events, we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Our Brian Tricks Us

The futures we imagine contain some details that our brains invented and lack some details that our brains ignored. The problem is that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t.

No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details—and with only the details—that the brain has imagined. One of imagination’s shortcomings, then, is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

The far and near future

Studies show that the parts of the brain that are primarily responsible for generating feelings of pleasurable excitement become active when people imagine receiving a reward such as money in the near future but not when they imagine receiving the same reward in the far future.

If you’ve ever bought too many boxes of Thin Mints from the Girl Scout who hawks her wares in front of the local library but too few boxes from the Girl Scout who rings your doorbell and takes your order for future delivery, then you’ve experienced this anomaly yourself. When we spy the future through our prospectiscopes, the clarity of the next hour and the fuzziness of the next year can lead us to make a variety of mistakes.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Predicting the Future

How much reliance can we place on regression to the mean in judging what the future will bring? What are we to make of a concept that has great power under some conditions but leads to disaster under others? Keynes admitted that “as living and moving beings, we are forced to act… (even when) our existing knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis for a calculated mathematical expectation.”

With rules of thumb, experience, instinct and conventions – in other words, gut - we manage to stumble from the present into the future… The trick is to be flexible enough to recognize that regression to the mean is only a tool; it is not a religion with immutable dogma and ceremonies. Used to make mechanical extrapolations of the past… regression to the mean is little more than mumbo-jumbo. Never depend upon it to come into play without constantly questioning the relevance of the assumptions that support the procedure. Francis Galton spoke wisely when he urged us to “revel in more comprehensive views” that the average.

Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods

Imagining the Future

I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of an eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. I know, I know—this is a gruesome exercise and I’m not asking you to do it. But the fact is that if you did it, you would probably give me the answer that almost everyone gives me, which is some variation on "Are you out of your damned mind? I’d be devastated—totally devastated. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I might even kill myself. So who invited you to this party anyway?"

If at this point I’m not actually wearing the person’s cocktail, I usually probe a bit further and ask how he came to his conclusion. What thoughts or images came to mind, what information did he consider? People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom.

But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child.

Indeed, not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play, or making love with his spouse, or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book, or writing a book, or riding a bicycle, or any of the many activities that we—and that they—would expect to happen in those two years.

Now, I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that a bite of gooey candy compensates for the loss of a child. That isn’t the point. What I am suggesting is that the two-year period following a tragic event has to contain something—that is, it must be filled with episodes and occurrences of some kind—and these episodes and occurrences must have some emotional consequences.

Regardless of whether those consequences are large or small, negative or positive, one cannot answer my question accurately without considering them. And yet, not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question. When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Looking Forward by Looking Back

If the past isn’t the way you thought it was, then the present isn’t, either. Letting go of that present may make it easier to conceive of a new future. Things look different from the neutral zone, for one of the things you let of in the ending process is the need to see the past in a particular way, and in doing that you let go of the need to think of the future in the way you always have.

William Bridges, Transitions

Living on Past Victories

Never take it for granted that your past successes will continue into the future. Actually, your past successes are your biggest obstacle: every battle, every war, is different and you cannot assume what worked before will work today. You must cut yourself loose from the past and open your eyes to the present. Your tendency to fight the last war may lead to your final war.

Robert Green, The 33 Strategies of War

Worry that Past Failures will Repeat

Worry about the repetition of past problems is not a sign of healthy thinking. True, it indicates a desire to be rid of the possible plenty of repeated pain, but inevitably it represents its own brand of pain. The individual has clearly specified what must - and what must not - be part of his life, but the mind is so obsessed with preventing old problems that satisfaction is not recognized in present situations. The imperative person is a prisoner of the past.

Les Carter, Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control


Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.” It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Who is best at predicting the future

(In a contest involving hundreds of geopolitical questions) a small number of forecasters began to pull clear of the pack: the titular “superforecasters”. Their performance was consistently impressive. With nothing more than an internet connection and their own brains, they consistently beat everything from financial markets to trained intelligence analysts with access to top-secret information.

They were an eclectic bunch: housewives, unemployed factory workers and professors of mathematics. But Philip Tetlock (who teaches at the Wharton School of Business) and his collaborators were able to extract some common personality traits. Superforecasters are clever, on average, but by no means geniuses. More important than sheer intelligence was mental attitude. Borrowing from Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born British philosopher, Mr Tetlock divides people into two categories: hedgehogs, whose understanding of the world depends on one or two big ideas, and foxes, who think the world is too complicated to boil down into a single slogan. Superforecasters are drawn exclusively from the ranks of the foxes.

Humility in the face of a complex world makes superforecasters subtle thinkers. They tend to be comfortable with numbers and statistical concepts such as “regression to the mean” (which essentially says that most of the time things are pretty normal, so any large deviation is likely to be followed by a shift back towards normality). But they are not statisticians: unlike celebrity pollsters such as Nate Silver, they tend not to build explicit mathematical models.

But superforecasters do have a healthy appetite for information, a willingness to revisit their predictions in light of new data, and the ability to synthesise material from sources with very different outlooks on the world. They think in fine gradations. 

Most important is what Mr Tetlock calls a “growth mindset”: a mix of determination, self-reflection and willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. The best forecasters were less interested in whether they were right or wrong than in why they were right or wrong. They were always looking for ways to improve their performance. In other words, prediction is not only possible, it is teachable.

Prediction, like medicine in the early 20th century, is still mostly based on eminence rather than evidence. The most famous forecasters in the world are newspaper columnists and television pundits. Superforecasters make for bad media stars. Caution, nuance and healthy scepticism are less telegenic than big hair, a dazzling smile and simplistic, confident pronouncements.

From a review in The Economist of the book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

the advantage of thinking like a child

Great strategists.. respond to the moment, like children. Their minds are always moving, and they are always excited and curious. They quickly forget the past – the present is much too interesting.

The Greek thinker Aristotle thought that life was defined by movement. What does not move is dead. What has speed and mobility has more possibilities, more life. You may think that what you’d like to recapture from your youth is your looks, your physical fitness, your simple pleasure, but what you really need is the fluidity of mind you once possessed.

Whenever you find your thought revolving around a particular subject or idea – an obsession, resentment - force them past it. Distract yourself with something else. Like a child, find something new to be absorbed by, something worthy of concentrated attention. Do not waste time on things you cannot change or influence. Just keep moving.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

What you’ll be like a decade from now

Why do people get ill-advised tattoos, marry questionable partners, or make financial-planning decisions they come to regret? A new study suggests that part of the reason is that we aren’t very good at predicting how much we’re going to change in the future. We are prone to believe whatever we think and value now will hold true. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert led the study and says, “People really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now.” Gilbert tells, “At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

The Harvard University study survey of more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68. People act as if history shaped them and then ended, leaving them in their final form. The researchers call the effect “the end of history” illusion.

Younger people in the survey did not expect to change as much as their the elders changed within the same time frame. The researchers made an effort to make sure that the people in the survey were not just overestimating past change but rather underestimating future change by comparing the results to predictions made on another survey a decade ago.

Although we aren’t very good at predicting our future selves, most of us are able to see that our values, preferences and personalities are different from a decade ago. We just can’t predict how much change will come looking forward the same length of time.

We may be motivated by the desire to comfort ourselves. We tell ourselves that future change won’t be very dramatic. We know ourselves and the future is predictable. Our present selves are permanent, so this thinking goes.

Other studies show you are less likely to change the older you get, but you will still change more than you expect.

Gilbert offers this advice: Take care when making long-term decisions to include a “margin for escape”. If you are buying a ticket to see your favorite band in ten years, you might want to pause before buying a ticket.

But there is another side of the coin to consider before including a 10 year opt-out clause in your wedding vows: Research shows that when people feel they have the ability to change their minds, they're less happy with the choices they've made.

You can read more about the study in the journal Science.

Stephen Goforth