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Don’t Wait Until Later



When faced with a task, an experiment shows a brief rest can help avoid procrastination

When Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the University of Calgary, was asked to appear in a marketing video about avoiding procrastination, he didn’t put the request off until later.

He quickly accepted, seeing the opportunity to widely promote an area of his research as well as the field of I-O.

It all started earlier this year with a call from droga5, a New York City-based advertising and marketing firm, wanting him to appear in a video for a client, Prudential Financial, Inc.

Zach Foster, brand strategy director at droga5, explained the agency was creating a campaign for Prudential designed to encourage people to look ahead to their financial future and well-being.

The “Taking On Your Challenges,” campaign, included a segment called “I’ll Do It Later,” or “How to get over procrastination and get ready for tomorrow.” (The I’ll Do It Later video can be viewed at www.bringyourchallenges.com/ill-do-it-later)

“We did a lot of homework to find someone to work with us on the video and Dr. Steel’s name kept surfacing. Procrastination is a behavioral challenge, and he is a highly regarded thought leader in his field. He is laser focused on procrastination and ideal for the “I’ll Do It Later” video,” said Foster.

He said the campaign was web based and is available on various social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook as well as bringyourchallenges.com

The video is intended to inspire people who have been considering a financial plan but have been “dragging their feet” to take action and avoid procrastinating.

Steel said procrastination is “extremely prevalent. Although virtually all of us have at least dallied with dallying, some have made it a way of life.” He says about 95% of people procrastinate at some part of their lives.

Why do people put things off until later? Is it laziness or is the brain to blame?

Actually, says Steel, it is both.

In his book, The Procrastination Equation, Steele says “the real reasons for procrastination are partly genetic and can be traced to the fundamental structure of our brains, which is why procrastination is seen in every culture and throughout history.”

“There are people who put things off to a fault and could be characterized as lazy, but most people have good intentions to get things done and complete tasks and usually do despite the delays,” he said.

How is the brain involved? “The responsible part of the brain controls the impulsive side and with every decision it gets worn out and is more likely to lose the battle to the impulsive side. That’s when procrastination begins.”

Faced with hundreds of decisions each day from what to wear in the morning, making choices in the workplace, and catching up on uncompleted chores in the evening, people are bombarded with what-to-do and when-to-do-it moments.

In fact, procrastination is everywhere especially in the financial and insurance industry. One of the largest companies, Prudential, says two-thirds of Americans feel they are behind in their financial planning.

It is that concern that led to Steel being involved in the “I’ll Do It Later” video.

How do we fight the urge to procrastinate? Steel was asked. “There are lots of theories. An interesting one is to fight procrastination with procrastination. So, we conducted an experiment.”

Twenty-four people were divided into two groups. Both were given a booklet filled with tedious tasks designed to simulate a long day of decision making. After completing the booklet, Group A participants were given a break and relaxed by surfing the web, talking with each other, and playing with some puppies. Yes, puppies.

Meanwhile an exhausted Group B was asked to perform yet another tedious exercise but was given a choice: Do it now or take it home and do it later. One-third of them chose to put off the test.

When Group A participants returned from their break they were given the same choice. All of them chose to stay to complete the second booklet.

After that they were given a questionnaire to determine the effectiveness of the break. Ninety-four percent was better able to absorb information, 74% said they were less discouraged about the task at hand, and 71% indicated they were more likely to finish the work following a break.

What it all showed, Steel said, is the next time you have a task to perform and feel like putting it off, schedule a little break and rest your mind. But it has to be the right kind of break.

“More often, breaks alone are not recuperative. They interrupt us from our target task, such as tackling our finances, and replace it with ones only marginally less demanding, such as checking email or answering a text. Online games may distract us from the reality of our tiredness, but they can leave us feeling no more refreshed once we put them down,” he explained.

“You want to restore your mind, not just redirect it. You can recharge your brain by: (a) doing nothing or (b) doing something positive. For those who are feeling tired, relaxed daydreaming is the ideal low-tech solution. If the workplace supports it, meditating or napping shouldn’t be out of the question,” he said.

If simply bored, a better strategy is to engage in activities or learn something new. For example, to rest the brain, focus on the body. Walks and stretches are good choices. In addition, positive actions often lead to positive affect. Helping a friend or a colleague is connected to a boost in vitality.

Aside from learning something new, science provides one more surprising suggestion. Watch a kitten or a puppy video. Or, better yet, spend time with a pet. Seeing cute young animals triggers positive emotions that restore attention.

That’s the reason there were puppies for Group A participants to play with during their break.

“So, in effect, by taking a rest or procrastinating for a short time, one is likely to avoid the longer procrastination,” Steel said.