Why do we procrastinate on the good stuff too?

A Community Contribution from Sarah From

A recent article in the New York Times highlights new research on a fascinating phenomenon: the procrastination of pleasure. Not only do we Procrastinationavoid the tasks we dread, we also put off activities we enjoy. Redeeming gift cards, using frequent flier miles, and visiting hometown landmarks all belong to the category of activities we express the desire and intention to do, but chronically put off to another day.

When we put on our GTD glasses we can see one relatively simple approach to this problem: clearly define the very next action. Like all forms of procrastination, pleasure procrastination can result when we are not sure what to do next. Faced with an ill-defined task, we find it easier to ignore the item than to figure out how to do it. It takes shockingly little to derail us into full-on procrastination. Consider what happens if I put “use Target gift card” on my Next Action list. Though I am excited to use the gift card – I need new storage containers for my closet, and the extra money is much appreciated – months pass with no trip to Target. Each week, “use Target gift card” reappears on my Next Action list. What’s going on here?

When I finally address this question during a Weekly Review, I realize that “use Target gift card” is actually not a task, but a project with multiple steps. Since I intend to use my gift card to purchase storage containers to fit in my closet, I need to measure my closet first. I want to check out a newly opened Target I’ve never been to before, so I need to map out how to get there. And since I can only go after work on a weeknight, I need to find out how late the store is open before I make the trip.

If not properly identified, any one of these simple pre-shopping tasks is enough of a roadblock to cause me to procrastinate indefinitely. Once I clarify that my next action is actually “measure the closet,” my trip to Target can really get rolling.

While clarifying the next action isn’t the key to averting pleasure procrastination in every situation (I think refocusing our attention on the present is a big part of it too), one thing is certain: even our best intentions can be derailed when we are not sure what to do next.

What’s your perspective? Are there other components of the GTD system that can be helpful in addressing pleasure procrastination?