We procrastinate the most when we’re in a bad mood and think we can improve it with something fun.
When we’re in a good mood or when we don’t think we can improve how we feel we screw around a lot less.
So procrastination is a mood-management technique, albeit (like eating or taking drugs) a shortsighted one. But we’re most prone to it when we think it will actually help. In an interesting study by the psychologist Roy Baumeister, one of America’s leading scholars of self-control, and two coauthors, eighty-eight college students were told they were taking part in an experiment to see how aromatherapy and mood affected color matching. They were also told they would be given an intelligence test involving math, and that taking 10 to 15 minutes to practice beforehand was a proven score enhancer. But they could use the practice time as they pleased—in a room that contained what the instructor called “time wasters.”
Now, some students had access only to boring time wasters (preschool puzzles and outdated technical journals) while others were given fun ones (a video game, a challenging plastic puzzle, and some popular current magazines). The students were then asked to read passages designed to put them in good or bad moods. And some students were asked to smell a candle that, they were assured, would temporarily fix their mood. Remember, this was supposed to be an aromatherapy study.
So what did all this effort produce? Well, far and away the most procrastination occurred among the bad-mood students who believed their mood could be changed and who had access to fun distractions. This group spent nearly 14 of their 15 minutes of prep time goofing off! Students who believed their bad mood was frozen (those who were not given a supposedly mood-lifting candle) spent less than 6 minutes goofing off. (Even the good-mood students procrastinated slightly more if they believed their mood could be altered.)
So try to stay happy. (Or believe you are hopelessly miserable.)
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