Conquer Procrastination by Meeting Your Future Self | Issue 217


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Do you consider yourself a confirmed procrastinator?

Are you guilty of putting off working on your dissertation until you "have more time"? Do you excuse continued delays by assuring yourself that you will catch up when things slow down—during weekends, holidays, or vacation time?

If so, your chances of becoming "Dr. You" in 2017 will fizzle out faster than the bubbles in your New Year's Eve champagne. But your year does not have to end on a disappointing note.

To succeed, you need to root out a common, insidious assumption that quietly steals your momentum and replace it with a realistic perspective. Let me explain.



What common belief holds many procrastinators back?

Your procrastinator brain has the crazy idea that your future self is not really you but rather some stranger. In that the default mode, your brain aims to make life cushy for Present You—while shamelessly shifting current burdens (such as saving for retirement or writing your dissertation) to the Future You.

It's as if your future self is someone else, not a continuation of you. This false assumption can be hard to shake without conscious interventions.

Without a deliberate mindshift, Present You lacks connection and empathy for Future You, as shown in this episode of The Simpsons:

Marge: Someday these kids will be out of the house and you'll regret not spending more time with them. 

Homer: That's a problem for future Homer. Man, I don't envy that guy!




How would you feel if you woke up one morning to a sinkful of dirty dishes and food-encrusted pots and pans left the previous evening by some stranger (or a most inconsiderate roommate) who expected you to do them gladly?

Would you ever dodge your responsibilities by burdening someone else so shamelessly? Probably not.

But if you are like most people, you've done it to yourself, time and time again. And if you are a habitual procrastinator, Present You has now inherited an overwhelming To Do list from Past You. How grateful do you feel to your past self for dumping this on you?

That is the essence of procrastination: Present You is passing the buck to Future You—and they are one and the same person.

You, not some stranger, must pay the cost incurred by putting things off. Worse, the bill often accrues interest, making it even more difficult.

Yet this is the kind of self-sabotage you commit every time you delay unnecessarily—e.g., when you don't get around to writing that tricky chapter, or when you put off making requested revisions, or when you delay completing the IRB forms.

Are you ready to end this painful legacy? Check out these two research-informed strategies.

Procrastination is like a credit card: It's a lot of fun until you get the bill. ~ Christopher Parker



Procrastinators do not feel much of a connection with the future self, researchers observe. Making your future self more salient now can help you make better decisions. For example, to get a sense of your future self, go to the app the AgingBooth and plug a current photo of your face. The app (available free at iTunes and GooglePlay) will then add decades to your appearance by adding wrinkles, jowls, and gray hair. Using a similar technology, a Stanford study showed that becoming more acquainted with an image of one's future self could enhance financial prudence.

A simpler strategy might be to accept your brain's misconception that your future self is a different person—and then develop and practice some empathy for him or her, note the researchers.

Leverage your inner kindness and generosity, allowing your altruism to flow toward this distant, unseen person. Savor the awareness that you are providing an enormous benefit for this person. When possible, allow your present self to be grateful to your past self for having done its part in creating the kind of life you enjoy living.

Your new mantra: "Do something today that your future self will thank you for."



Callousness toward your future self is just one explanation for habitual procrastination. Researcher Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., provides another one: Maybe you simply believe that Future You will be better equipped to handle the challenges that drag you down now.

While right now you feel stressed and pressed, you might be optimistic that Future You will somehow have more resources, including more time and energy than Present You. Your courage or willpower is wavering, and so you end up knowingly, but hopefully, passing the burden to your Future Self.

But is that really fair? Here's how Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, frames it:

"Ironically, many of us demonstrate courage and acts of willpower in the service of others but not to self. Perhaps, to the extent that we can identify future self with the deserving other, we will muster up the will and/or courage to act on our intentions so as not to burden future self."

If you are honest with yourself, you'll admit that putting things off makes the easy stuff harder. And it can make the hard stuff downright impossible.

Doesn't your Future You deserve a better fate? Leverage your sense of justice and fairness to tackle the hard tasks now.

Thinking of my future self as my respected teammate reminds me to stop shirking my duty. I then start working harder on my current challenge instead of leaving most of the battle to her. I play fair.

For extra power in meeting challenges, call on your character strengths, which help you be your best self. (Take the free test at If you need someone in your corner, get a writing buddy or a dissertation coach. You can do hard things when you are at your best and when you have social support.

Naturally, circumstances may dictate the occasional temporary delay, but overall, the best practice involves maintaining an attitude of empathy and fairness toward Future You as well as Present You that motivates you to get things done today.

When you master that perspective, you are well on your way to ensuring that your future self will bear the title of "Doctor" proudly!


Recommended Resources




An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resource 

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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