by Elliot Berkman, University of Oregon and Jordan Miller-Ziegler, University of Oregon

“I love deadlines,” English author Douglas Adams once wrote. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

We’ve all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don’t care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot – and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.

So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?

These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate – and how to overcome this tendency.

To do, or not to do

It all starts with a simple choice between working now on a given project and doing anything else: working on a different project, doing something fun or doing nothing at all.

The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment – what psychologists call its subjective value. And procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.

This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things. You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two.

For example, instead of cleaning my house, I might try to focus on why grading is personally important to me. Or I could think about how unpleasant cleaning can actually be – especially when sharing a house with a toddler.

It’s simple advice, but adhering to this strategy can be quite difficult, mainly because there are so many forces that diminish the value of working in the present.

The distant deadline

People are not entirely rational in the way they value things. For example, a dollar bill is worth exactly the same today as it is a week from now, but its subjective value – roughly how good it would feel to own a dollar – depends on other factors besides its face value, such as when we receive it.

The tendency for people to devalue money and other goods based on time is called delay discounting. For example, one study showed that, on average, receiving $100 three months from now is worth the same to people as receiving $83 right now. People would rather lose $17 than wait a few months to get a larger reward.

Other factors also influence subjective value, such as how much money someone has recently gained or lost. The key point is that there is not a perfect match between objective value and subjective value.

Delay discounting is a factor in procrastination because the completion of the project happens in the future. Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the tendency to procrastinate closely follows economic models of delay discounting. Furthermore, people who characterize themselves as procrastinators show an exaggerated effect. They discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people.

One way to increase the value of completing a task is to make the finish line seem closer. For example, vividly imagining a future reward reduces delay discounting.

No work is ‘effortless’

Not only can completing a project be devalued because it happens in the future, but working on a project can also be unattractive due to the simple fact that work takes effort.

New research supports the idea that mental effort is intrinsically costly; for this reason, people generally choose to work on an easier task rather than a harder task. Furthermore, there are greater subjective costs for work that feels harder (though these costs can be offset by experience with the task at hand).

This leads to the interesting prediction that people would procrastinate more the harder they expect the work to be. That’s because the more effort a task requires, the more someone stands to gain by putting the same amount of effort into something else (a phenomenon economists call opportunity costs). Opportunity costs make working on something that seems hard feels like a loss.

Sure enough, a group of studies shows that people procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. These results suggest that reducing the pain of working on a project, for example by breaking it down into more familiar and manageable pieces, would be an effective way to reduce procrastination.

Your work, your identity

When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.

In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.

It was for this reason that the writer Robert Hanks, in an essay for the London Review of Books, described procrastination as “a failure of appetites.”

The source of this “appetite” can be a bit tricky. But one could argue that, like our (real) appetite for food, it’s something that’s closely intertwined with our daily lives, our culture and our sense of who we are.

So how does one increase the subjective value of a project? A powerful way – one that my graduate students and I have written about in detail – is to connect the project to your self-concept. Our hypothesis is that projects seen as important to a person’s self-concept will hold more subjective value for that person.

It’s for this reason that Hanks also wrote that procrastination seems to stem from a failure to “identify sufficiently with your future self” – in other words, the self for whom the goal is most relevant.

Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.

The ConversationConnecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.

Elliot Berkman, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon and Jordan Miller-Ziegler, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Do you sometimes feel you need a vacation from your vacation?

by Jamie Gruman, University of Guelph

Lots of people will take a vacation this summer, but for many of them, their vacations won’t be the relaxing, recuperative getaways they were hoping for.

Research shows that about 40 per cent of people return from their vacations and feel either no better, or even worse, than before they left.

This happens because many of us make mistakes that compromise how enjoyable and satisfying our vacations can be. Below are some simple recommendations that you can implement before, during and after your vacation that will help ensure that your time off this summer is pleasurable, gratifying and fully recharges your batteries.

Plan ahead

Vacations can be stressful. Minimize your stress by planning out key parts of your vacation before you leave.

Reserve a flight outside of rush hour so you don’t get stuck in traffic. Book your scuba diving adventure a few weeks in advance.

Coordinate your decision-making and expectations with travel mates before you leave for vacation.

Coordinate your decision-making and expectations with travel mates before you leave for vacation. Image: Pixabay

Before leaving make sure that you and your travel partners are clear on everyone’s vacation priorities and have a general agreement about how you’ll spend your time.

While you are away you don’t want to engage in potentially stressful negotiations about how to fill your days. Even a single negative incident on vacation, like an argument with a spouse, reduces how much your time away improves your health and well-being.

Put away the electronics

A necessary ingredient for recharging your batteries on vacation is mentally disengaging from work. It’s not enough to physically leave the office, you have to mentally leave the office.

This is called psychological detachment. If you’re on the beach constantly looking at your phone to see what’s happening back at work, you’re not psychologically detached. If you check your email three times a day, you’re not psychologically detached.

If you don’t psychologically detach you won’t replenish yourself much on your trip. Turn off the electronics and clear your mind. That said, if you get anxious about the mountain of emails that will be waiting for you when you get back to work, you will also have trouble chilling out. So, engage in email triage.

Once every three or four days, check your email and delete anything you can dispense with immediately. Then, reply quickly to anything that can be addressed with a simple, token response, and mark as unread anything that needs some thought and should be tackled when you get back. This cuts the huge mountain of emails down to a small pile, which will put your mind at ease and allow you to unwind.




Read more:
The importance of actually unplugging on National Day of Unplugging


Enjoy yourself

Be a little bit selfish on vacation and ensure that you get to do what floats your boat. Enjoying yourself is a necessary ingredient in making sure your vacation is recuperative.

Make sure to do things you enjoy.

Make sure to do things you enjoy.

Vacations are supposed to refresh you and alleviate the burnout you suffer at work, and research shows that when you enjoy yourself and are satisfied with your vacation, your level of burnout drops significantly while away, but when you are not satisfied, your level of burnout barely changes.

Similarly, whether or not you enjoy your vacation strongly affects how refreshed you feel when it’s over. Take time for yourself and participate in activities you find pleasurable and satisfying. This is your vacation. You’ve earned it.

Staycations are OK

Not everyone has the disposable funds for travel vacations. But that’s OK. Staycations can be as effective as exotic getaways if they are done right.

Staycations can be great. But get out of your routine!

Staycations can be great. But get out of your routine!

The main mistake people make during vacations at home is that they stay in their normal routine. They cook, they clean, they watch TV. In short, they don’t “vacate” their normal lives.

If you stay at home on your vacation, shake things up. Visit local tourist attractions. Eat different foods. Take day trips to neighbouring communities. Getting out of your normal routine can make a staycation feel as novel and recuperative as an excursion to a foreign land.




Read more:
How to turn your long weekend into a vacation


Come home a little early

We usually come back from our travel vacations on Sunday night so we can return to work Monday morning. We do this because we think that maximizing our vacation time means making the vacation last as long as possible.

But the goal of our vacations shouldn’t be to make them as long as possible but to make them as effective as possible. If you return home Sunday night you’re likely to run around trying to hurriedly unpack, water your plants, do laundry, pick up some groceries, check your phone messages and various other things you need to do to get back into the swing of things.

However, scrambling about is stressful and can quickly undo all the health and well-being gains you made while on vacation. Research shows that people who return from vacations a little bit early report being in a better mood for longer than those who return on a Sunday.

Arrive home with enough time to relax and organize before work on Monday morning.

Arrive home with enough time to relax and organize before work on Monday morning.

Bookend your vacation with as little stress as possible. Come home early enough to leisurely get back into your normal routine, and ease back into work retaining your vacation benefits for as long as you can.

People often complain that they need a vacation from their vacation. When we return from our time off feeling just as depleted and tired as before we left it is usually because our vacations didn’t allow us to replenish our drained resources, satisfy our needs or adequately disengage from our normal routines.

The ConversationImplementing a few simple tactics before, during, and after your vacation can ensure that your time off this summer fully recharges your batteries and lets you return to work feeling healthy, happy and productive.

Jamie Gruman, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, University of Guelph

This article was originally published on The Conversation.



As Mark Twain once said, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’

by Randy Malamud, Georgia State University

When I overcame a flying phobia, I resolved to make up for lost time by visiting as much of the world as I could.

So in the course of a decade, I logged over 300,000 miles, flying everywhere from Buenos Aires to Dubai.

I knew intuitively that my travels would “make me a better person” and “broaden my horizon,” as the clichés have it. But I’ve come to believe that travel can, and should, be more than a hobby, luxury or form of leisure. It is a fundamental component of being a humanist.

At its core, humanism is about exploring and debating the vital ideas that make us who we are. We study music, film, art and literature to do just that. And while it’s important to explore these ideas in our own communities, people and places that are not like us have a role to play that’s just as crucial.

This is where travel comes in. It’s what sent me packing to see some of the places I have spent so long reading about. And it’s what compelled me to write “The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist,” in which I wanted to make a case for a new approach to travel.

The imperialist tourist

In academia, travel studies have long looked at the intersection between imperialism and tourism, describing how they flourish in tandem.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, European empires gobbled up territories around the world, planting their flags and building embassies, banks, hotels and roads. Imperialists traveled to collect cinnamon, silk, rubber and ivory, using them, upon returning home, for pleasure and profit.

The golden age of travel roughly coincided with that period. Not long after the military and commercial incursions began, tourists followed imperialists to these far-flung locales.

Both tourism and imperialism involved voyages of discovery, and both tended to leave the people who were “discovered” worse off than they had been before the encounters.

Globalism’s impact on the way we travel

Over the last century, globalism – a vast and daunting concept of transnational corporate and bureaucratic systems – has replaced imperialism as the dominant network of international relations.

Globalism can be overwhelming: It involves billions of people, trillions of dollars, innumerable inventories of goods, all ensconced in a technocratic vocabulary of geopolitics and multinationalism that’s anathema to those of us who approach the world on a more human scale.

It has also made travel much easier. There are more airplane routes, more ATMs on every corner and international cellphone service. You can travel elsewhere without ever leaving the comforting familiarities of home, with McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Holiday Inns now dotting the globe.

But why bother traveling if you want familiar comforts?

I would argue that we need a new travel guide that acknowledges the sweeping interconnectedness of globalism, but balances this with a humanist mindset.

Because beneath the innocuous activities of visiting cathedrals, lounging on the beach and collecting souvenirs, travelers can still harbor selfish, exploitative desires and exhibit a sense of entitlement that resembles imperial incursions of yesteryear.

In a way, globalism has also made it easier to slip into the old imperialist impulse to come with power and leave with booty; to set up outposts of our own culture; and to take pictures denoting the strangeness of the places we visit, an enterprise that, for some, confirms the superiority of home.

The right way to be a tourist

Humanism, however, is proximate, intimate, local. Traveling as a humanist restores our identity and independence, and helps us resist the overwhelming forces of globalism.

There’s nothing wrong with going to see the Colosseum or the Taj Mahal. Sure, you can take all the same photos that have already been taken at all the usual tourist traps, or stand in long lines to see Shakespeare’s and Dante’s birthplaces (which are of dubious authenticity).

But don’t just do that. Sit around and watch people. Get lost. Give yourself over to the mood, the pace, the spirit of elsewhere. Obviously you will eat new and interesting foods, but think of other ways, too, of tasting and “ingesting” the culture of elsewhere, of adapting to different habits and styles. These are the things that will change you more than the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Psychologists have found that the more countries you visit, the more trusting you’ll be – and that “those who visited places less similar to their homeland became more trusting than those who visited places more similar to their homeland.” Immersion in foreign places boosts creativity, and having more diverse experiences makes people’s minds more flexible.

With the products and conveniences of globalism touching most parts of the world, it simply takes more of a conscious effort to truly immerse yourself in something foreign.

My own empathy, creativity and flexibility have been immeasurably enhanced by such strange and fascinating destinations as a Monty Python conference in Lodz, Poland; a remoteness seminar near the North Pole; a boredom conference in Warsaw; Copenhagen’s queer film festival; Berlin’s deconstructed Nazi airport; a workshop in Baghdad on getting academics up to speed after Iraq’s destruction; and an encounter as an ecotourist with Tierra del Fuego’s penguins.

There’s an especially vital argument to make for travel in these fractious times of far-right ideologies and crumbling international alliances, burgeoning racism and xenophobia. The world seems as if it’s becoming less open.

A trip is the greatest chance you’ll ever have to learn about things you don’t experience at home, to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. You’ll probably find that, in many important ways, they are the same as you – which, in the end, is the point of doing all this.

The ConversationHumanists know that our copious insights and deliberations – about identity, emotions, ethics, conflict and existence – flourish best when the world is our oyster. They dissipate in the echo chamber of isolationism.

Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English, Georgia State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.