Research Mythbusters: Do we work best under pressure?


“We can all remember a time we procrastinated and it really paid off. We hang onto that like gold.”

My ears perked up. I was driving home from the supermarket when Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of Carleton College’s Procrastination Research Group in Canada, appeared on NPR to discuss “Why We Procrastinate.” My thesis, never far from my thoughts, immediately came to mind. I listened closely as Pychyl explained procrastination: what it is, why we do it, and whether it gives us what we want.

Update on my thesis stack: 18 books in my room (and another ten in my locker in Firestone)!

Pychyl highlights a common misconception: that we work best under pressure. I know graduates who wrote the bulk of their theses in the final two weeks, justified by the notion that productivity and creativity are most accessible when facing a tight time constraint. Stress, however, according to Pschyl, doesn’t produce the best work — it just forces us to complete tasks. He discusses an experiment where students were made to text in their feelings about work throughout the school week. Earlier on, students justified their procrastination with the common myth of last-minute creativity. However, as deadlines approached, nearly all wished they had started earlier.

So why is procrastination such a common practice? Pychyl says it has to do with rewards processing. If we do well on a task that we complete last minute, that behavior is reinforced. Success remains fresh in our mind, while stress fades in our memories. It masks the fact that we might have done even better — and slept a whole lot more — had we allowed ourselves more time.

So how can we overcome procrastination? Pychyl believes that it starts from understanding that procrastination is a choice. It is also less an issue of time management, and more one of “emotional regulation.” When faced with something we do not want to do, we may choose to put it off as an easy way of dealing with that negative feeling. I’ve been seduced by the notion of “fun now, work later” — ignoring an assignment because I know I can get it done last minute. Indeed, procrastination is instantly gratifying.

Therefore, to avoid procrastination, we must realize that unappealing tasks do not grow more appealing with time. Think about your future self, he says. Realizing that you will never be in the mood to start a difficult task might prove helpful. After all, waiting for a moment of inspiration to come is not only inefficient, but also highly stressful. Instead, we must overcome our initial resistance to starting. Pychyl suggests taking small, achievable steps. Psychologically, this fuels motivation and wellbeing. Practically, it advances your project in a less stressful manner across a period of time. (For more tips, check out McGraw Center’s procrastination-related events in late March and early April.)

In addition to research, Pychyl maintains an online procrastination-related comic strip!

I cannot end this blog without talking about my thesis. The story truly inspired me, and over the last month I’ve set out to do a little bit every day. That might mean an intense hours-long writing session. But it often means something simpler, like ordering a book from BorrowDirect, skimming a new article, or jotting down ideas in a notebook. Beyond making the process more manageable, it makes it fun. Ideas are always percolating in my mind, and I find that nerdily satisfying. After all, I chose my topic because it interests me (more on that here and here!). Dialing down the stress means that I can truly enjoy it.

— Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent