Procrastination: why do we deceive ourselves?

arleton University faculty and staff experts answer life’s perplexing questions. At end-of-year exam time, Dr. Tim Pychyl of the Department of Psychology answers the question:

Procrastination: why do we deceive ourselves?

We’ve all procrastinated in the face of deadlines only to pull all-nighters to get the job done. Why? Because humans tend to put off distant rewards in favour of immediate rewards. This delaying action toward long-term goals creates dissonance within us. We reduce dissonance not by changing our behaviour but by changing the way we think.

In her Psychology honours thesis for Pychyl, Nicole McCance found that students who procrastinate used emotion-focused coping (e.g., wishful thinking) and thoughts such as “I work best under pressure” to distance themselves from their task. However, when they finally began doing their task, students no longer thought about the benefits of working under pressure. In fact, they lamented their needless delays. It appears that the things we say to ourselves about our task delay may be something we do to deceive ourselves enough to reduce the discomfort we’re feeling about discounting future rewards and putting off until tomorrow what should really be done today. A little less self-deception may lead to earlier action and a lot fewer “all nighters!”

Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl is a faculty member in both the Department of Psychology and the Centre for Initiatives in Education at Carleton University. For more on his research on procrastination, see

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