Holiday Procrastination: Delay Can Pay

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Host Michel Martin speaks with psychology professor Tim Pychyl and clinical psychologist Lynn Bufka about holiday shopping and procrastination. Some people procrastinate on purpose; free shipping or last minute sales mean that "delay can pay." For others, they see it as too overwhelming and end up grabbing whatever is left on store shelves. We'll hear listeners' horror stories of the worst gifts they ever bought due to procrastination and get advice on how to react if you are on the receiving end of these bad gifts!

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Christmas Eve for those who celebrate. And today, we are in the Christmas spirit. But we recognize that that spirit means different things to different people. For some people, this holiday spirit is more a feeling of sadness for all kinds of reasons, which we will talk about.

One person we'll speak with: journalist Lisa Ling. Recently, she suffered a miscarriage - which, as you can imagine, made her very sad. But it also gave her the impetus to create a new virtual space where women can communicate about some of the issues that matter most. It's called the Secret Society of Women, and she'll tell us more about it in a few minutes.

But first: Do you mind if I ask where are you right now? Are you headed to the mall for a few last-minute items - maybe all of your Christmas shopping? If so, you are not alone. A report by the National Retail Federation estimates that 12 percent of holiday shoppers still comb the stores on Christmas Eve.

We asked our TELL ME MORE Facebook friends to share with us some of the gifts they gave, or received, because they procrastinated.

Maynard from Norfolk, Virginia, shared this about a really pitiful gift he bought one year.

MAYNARD: I had envisioned that I was going to buy my girlfriend a tennis bracelet, around Thanksgiving. But as Christmas got closer and I had to get ready to go out of town, I had to settle for - not the tennis bracelet, but the next option was a plant from the 7-Eleven. Some ants crawled out of it; the leaves had fallen off almost immediately. And it just was - it looked a lot like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Shortly thereafter, we were broken up.

MARTIN: Hmm. I wonder why?

We wanted to find out more about why people procrastinate, and what to do if you end up on the wrong end of - say, a Chia pet. So we called Timothy Pychyl, who studies procrastination. He's an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. He writes the blog "Don't Delay" for PsychologyToday.com. And he joined us from the studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where we believe he arrived early for this conversation.

Also with us in our Washington, D.C., studio is Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, and she's assistant executive director of Practice Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association

Thank you both so much for joining us.

Dr. LYNN BUFKA (Assistant executive director, Practice Research and Policy, American Psychological Association): Thank you.

Professor TIMOTHY PYCHYL (Associate professor, Department of Psychology): Oh, you're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: So Tim, can I start with you? Professor Pychyl, I should say. Can I start with you? What, exactly, is procrastination? The reason I ask is I bet there are some people who are buying gifts on the late side because they needed another paycheck, for example.

Prof. PYCHYL: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: They just didn't get paid on time. So what exactly defines procrastination?

Prof. PYCHYL: That's so important because all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination. So procrastination is that voluntary delay, despite knowing that this delay is going to cost you somehow. And so it's not if something else comes up that's more important. It's when we should act now, we could act now, and we choose not to act now.

MARTIN: Is there a little voice in their head saying, I should do this? I should do this?

Prof. PYCHYL: Yeah. But we're good at shutting that voice...

MARTIN: Or - you mean it's a conscious thing?

Prof. PYCHYL: It is, but we're good at shutting that voice off very quickly, so it almost feels unconscious. Because if we - we give in to feel good. Like, we face something we don't want to do, we focus on short-term mood repair, and so we're pretty quick at shutting that little voice off by rationalizing it away. So sometimes, people don't even experience it because they've already got these automatic habits of thought that just shut that little voice off. And then off they go, on their merry way, until it's too late. And then they go: Why did I do this to myself again?

MARTIN: Lynn Bufka, do you think that holiday shopping particularly lends itself to procrastination? Or are there other things, and we just happened to be thinking about it right now?

Dr. BUFKA: I'm sure there are other things that lend themselves to procrastination, but holiday shopping is one that gets a lot of press. And people talk about it all the time, and it's easy to procrastinate. Our society has evolved so that if you want to go to the mall and stay 'til midnight the day before Christmas, you can. So it becomes easier and easier to delay doing something. And if you don't enjoy shopping, why do something you don't want to do? You do the things that you enjoy.

MARTIN: Do you think, in a way, we've been trained to procrastinate? Because one of the things I've observed is that the pitches for sales become more and more hysterical. Do people procrastinate, in part, because they're gamblers - because they're gambling, they're betting that the deal will get better?

Dr. BUFKA: That may play into it, for some people. They may think: I'm going to get the best deals the closer I wait 'til Christmas. Or: who knows what I'm going to find if I go now, but I know the sales are going to come up, so I'm just going to wait for those.

MARTIN: Professor Pychyl, you write in your blog that procrastinators either over-wait or under-wait their task. What does that mean?

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, we tend to, when we think about the future, have an optimistic bias called the planning fallacy. And so we always look at the task at hand as a singular event - like we think it's never happened before - rather than looking back at what we call distributed information - about, so how did this go in the past? So we are eternally optimistic and over-waiting our plans for this time, and under-waiting what we know from the past. And so this happens in all walks of life, and Christmas is no different. And so we end up waiting 'til the last minute because we're not thinking about, oh, yeah, lots of other things come up, and it doesn't work as well as I think it might.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of the question I asked Lynn Bufka earlier, whether more people are procrastinating now than perhaps used to because - how can I put this? - mechanisms to enable you that didn't exist before. I mean, back in the day, if you didn't make that pound cake, guess what? It didn't get made. But now, you know, somebody will send you one; you can order one online; you can, you know, run out to 7-Eleven or - and maybe get a halfway decent cake.

Prof. PYCHYL: Yes, I think that plays into it. But we - there's interesting research done by Joseph Ferrari, from DePaul University, that shows that yes, as we survey people in the malls closer and closer to Christmas, the trait procrastination scores get higher. So we do see an effect of our basic tendency to put things off. But you're absolutely right. These things make it easier to wait, and we can rationalize it away even further. And of course, there are people who aren't procrastinating at all. They are waiting for those deals, because they're happening, and they know they can make it.

Your caller's instance of, you know, getting the plant instead of the tennis bracelet is the opposite of what some people do. They end up buying a much more expensive gift. My sister just told me that they ended up paying full price for an iPhone, for example, because they waited too late to get one earlier. So it can go both ways.

MARTIN: I think she listened to our show about buying a smartphone as a last-minute gift. I think I did that. I'm sorry. I think it's my fault.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But another response from our callout on Facebook - for example, to your point, here's Amy from Cleveland, talking about a gift her boyfriend gave her last year.

AMY: I opened the first gift that he had wrapped up and realized that it was a Hickory Farms gift set, with sausage and cheese in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMY: And it was nice. It wasn't what I was expecting. In fact, when I opened the package, I thought that it was a joke. But it was good, and I think that he just got sucked into the kiosk shopping at the mall.

MARTIN: To your point, you know, get that - maybe that wasn't what he was planning to come up with, but he figured he'd better represent with something kind of nice.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Tim Pychyl. He writes the blog "Don't Delay" for PsychologyToday.com. Also with us, Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist. We're talking about people who spend hours, maybe minutes today looking for the perfect, last-minute gift. Why do we do that? Why do we procrastinate? We - oh, what did I just say here; what did I just reveal here?

So let us talk about: Is there something that can be done about this? Let's assume that, like Professor Pychyl was saying, that this is a choice - maybe an unconscious choice or conscious choice - but this is not a function of the fact that you just got paid, and so you really couldn't go shopping until the last minute - setting aside the question of perhaps you could have been putting a little bit aside all along, anticipating that you weren't going to get paid until the last minute. But for some people, that really is not possible.

So let's assume that this is a conscious choice, and you know that this is your issue. Is there anything that you could do about it? For example, Lynn Bufka, what about making a list - does that help?

Dr. BUFKA: Lists can help, but I think one of the challenges is, for most people, they aren't very conscious about the fact that they procrastinate. As Dr. Pychyl was saying, people tend to think, oh, I can get to it later. It's not something I really am that interesting in doing. I have plenty of time for it. And if you wind up successfully getting your gifts in the end, you kind of think the procrastination paid off. It wasn't that big a deal. You forget about the stress, and you manage to get it done. So you never really learn from it.

MARTIN: Why doesn't the disappointment weigh in? In fact, I had a producer once who was constantly assigned to international stories because he was so good at it. He was a classic. He would never go shopping until the last minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And then one year, he got sent to El Salvador at the last minute, and he came up empty on Christmas because he had not done any Christmas shopping. And I thought to myself: Why do you do this to yourself? Because you know that in your line of work, this is a possibility. So that's my question. Perhaps, Professor Pychyl, you want to address that. Why doesn't the disappointment weigh in? I mean, why - you know what I mean? The idea that you might disappoint somebody, why isn't that a bigger factor?

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, we've got this short-term gain in the delay, so it got rewarded many times. And, of course, that big disappointment you would think would be more punishing, but at the same time, he has an excuse. I got called away, and there's some understanding there. But we have these Stone Age brains in this modern world that really is hooked on short-term gain. And so we're always looking at immediate mood repair.

And so that's why, when you talk about what can we do about it, my mantra is: Just get started. We know from our own research that a task begun is a task half done. A little progress fuels motivation. And so it really comes down to exerting just a little bit of self-control to just get started, and then we see that we've primed the pump. Because it is aversive, and - for many people, at least, it is, because you might fear you can't get the perfect gift. It's kind of an ought-task rather than an ideal self working there. So if you could just get started, we often find that this isn't so bad. And off we go.

MARTIN: Give us a tip here that we can take away with us. Just get started. Just - you know?

Prof. PYCHYL: Well, that's my mantra that way, is to just get started - because in all our tasks, you know, it comes down to the exertion of will. We can try to trick ourselves into things. But another thing I would say is, we'd make an implementation intention. Rather than just a vague goal intention of, I'm going to get my Christmas shopping done, you would say: At time X, I'll do behavior Y. After work on Tuesday, I'll go straight to this store and buy a certain gift. Now, what happens is - what that signals to you, after work, it comes to mind: Oh, yes. I said I was going to do something. I'm going to go to this store. Because now, you've put the cue for the behavior into the environment, and that helps break habits. And that's a very powerful technique that Peter Gollwitzer has shown - through repeated research - will help us act on our intentions.

MARTIN: OK. And so, you know, I have to ask: Is all your shopping done, Professor Pychyl?

Prof. PYCHYL: Yes. It was done - and I - you know, I used a strategy there. My wife and I take a weekend. We go away together, and we do all our shopping at one time, and we also make it a little holiday. So we've learned to mix some fun into it, and that makes it so we're not just running and running from store to store to store, fitting it into other times.

MARTIN: Show-off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What about you, Lynn Bufka? Are you done?

Dr. BUFKA: Mine is done, but my husband's is not.

MARTIN: Oh, oh, well. OK. Maybe we'll give him a little push. OK.

Lynn Bufka is a clinical psychologist and assistant executive director of Practice Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association. She was here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Tim Pychyl is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he specializes in the study of procrastination. And as he told us, he's done.

Thank you both for being with us, and Happy Holidays to you both.

Dr. BUFKA: Thank you. Happy Holidays to you.

Prof. PYCHYL: Thank you, Michel. Merry Christmas.

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