A cause of persistent procrastination: present identity vs future identity

Like the affluent, secluded uncle who dwells within his palatial beach house named after his first wife (her name was Bettie – or Betsy), the New Year came, motivated us to absorb more alcohol than our pre-frontal cortex would normally allow, psyched us into kissing anything with a stable blood pressure, and then drunkenly staggered into obscurity, not to be heard from until next year. Sometime before or during that annual flirt-fest, we made a promise to ourselves – to lose ten pounds of “unsightly” protoplasm, to attend the gym until we have buttocks like Beyoncé or the shoulder-to-hip ratio of Todd the Demigod (my imaginary workout buddy), to quit smoking cigarettes (around the dog). 

Unfortunately for our physique and canine companion, most of us failed to keep our promise, to follow through with our life improving resolution. Hell, some of us even procrastinated to start our resolution for several weeks until the old “Oh, I’ll get to it eventually” excuse became a self-assuring mantra for justified complacency. So now it’s February, already. And we still haven’t done a damn thing to transfer our resolution from an idealistic schematic to a fruitful accomplishment, so with arms akimbo and chin to the stars, I’m compelled to change that. But before we can sketch a logical, realistic plan that will enable us to one-inch-punch a path to sustainable, beneficial habits, it’s imperative that we analyze a possible psychological cause – the everlasting conflict between our present and future identities — for our predilection to consistently delay actions that could potentially transform us into the powerhouse of excellence we wish to be.

The Physiological Side for “Putting Things Off”

There are several factors that contribute to our comfort and repeated engagement with procrastination, such as inefficient time due to working 76+ hours a week, the fear of failing to achieve a goal that we put every grain of effort into (because failure denotes incompetence, and as Americans, we’re not incompetent; we’re minimally exceptional!), and not knowing how or where to actually begin. Vik Nithy, a twenty-year-old entrepreneur and psychology student with a passion for cognitive neuroscience, discovered how, within the structures of the brain, factors such as these generate the negative feelings we associate with acts that are beneficial in the long run yet inconvenient in the moment (i.e. everything that doesn’t deliver instantaneous pleasure-tingles). 

Using myself as a chic, well-proportioned character (my jaw line matches my chiseled belt buckle), let’s imagine, while incorporating Nithy’s research, that I’m a lethargic good-for-nothing (which isn’t that far from the truth) who’d rather experience The Dull Outdoors virtually, on my video game system, than take a redundant step into a forest or hiking trail or Wal-Mart Garden Center – because nature, even when artificial, is dumb, especially when coupled with fatigued breath and back-sweat. However, mostly because of my mother’s concern, I begin to feel that I should force myself to get outside more often, to receive adequate amounts of Vitamin D and work off a bulbous midsection amassed from years of refusing to vacate the couch. So I decide that my New Year’s Resolution will be the vague “go outside more often; hate nature less.”

But every time I think of putting on my hiking shoes and readying my skin to be pierced by chaffing sun rays, I hesitate. Negative thoughts consider the difficulty of the task and the unhappiness it will cause. These assumptions grab my optimism and wrestle it down to the scuffed wooden tile. Within my mind, a bar fight erupts between my limbic system, a part of the brain interconnected with the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain, and my pre-frontal cortex, the section responsible for complex cognitive reasoning, in which the limbic system has the upper hand. Not being able to understand the concepts of “peace,” “change,” or “fair fight,” the limbic system tags in his brawling buddy, the amygdala, to strike the knockout blow. As the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response that processes fear, the amygdala thrashes the cortex from the blind side with a cluster of anxiety (in the form a Guinness mug) — a climactic blow that convinces me to stay on the couch, play more video games, and consider maybe giving the outdoors a try on a better afternoon.

A Psychological Cage Match

The physical processes of the brain that contribute to procrastination don’t act on their own accord; they are either supported by or produced from a variety of theoretical cognitive thought processes, my favorite and most relatable being the fight against our present and future identities. 

(Using the more realistic version of myself as an example) When I first began my beautiful, stress-filled, bull-crap journey that is college, the battle between my present and future identities was fought on such a massive scale, one side actually considered nuking the other with Jaeger Bombs. At eighteen years of age, my present identity was a decent dude: he took pride in being a student, loved being around his friends (and women), and was a pretty good balance between cowardly and arrogant (I was still pretty shy). His one weakness – partying. Let me rephrase that: partying AND girls. It didn’t matter if he had four exams and a headless torso to deal with the next morning – if the word “party” or “girl” was spoken timidly by one of his friends, he’d put off studying, sleep, hydration, learning, and swashbuckling to pull an “all-nighter.” 

Before he could consider pulling an “all-nighter,” though, he received a violent visit from his future identity. Now, the future identity is the forecasted, hypothetical version of us that has achieved all of his goals, trimmed down some of his idiosyncrasies, and adopted all the good habits he’s ever felt would make him the apex of success and masculinity. He’s the person, based on our lifetime itinerary, that we think we know we’ll become in the coming years, and my version was a megaton stud: he was college educated, had an amazing job in business administration (I was a business major at the time), and was as ripped as a flag is patriotic. So whenever my present identity thought that maybe he should take it easy, study, and avoid procrastinating, my über ripped, over-educated future self would punch him in the throat, put him in a headlock, and say, “Dude, look at me. Look at what you’re going to become. Party-it-up while you’re young; you only live once.” And thus the cycle of procrastination continued. 

Thankfully, as the years added experience, and numerous successes and failures nurtured my maturity (I’m still a dork), I realized that my future identity would never manifest as long as I continued to procrastinate the tasks that were most advantageous for my physical and mental advancement.  I mean, I still occasionally delay that which I know will, in the long term, improve my quality of life. Yet I believe with fist-clenching authority that if we know of and understand the factors that contribute to procrastination as well as truly understand the value of our goals and resolutions, we can learn to manage procrastination in a manner that will bestow the idealistic traits of who we realistically wish we could be — to the person we are at this very moment

by Jedediah Hoy

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