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Promises to yourself

When the pressure is on, farmers get amazing things done. Now, a new technique called WOOP can help you score when the pressure is off as well

Farmers are good at getting things done under pressure. When the crop needs to get in the ground or the hay has to be baled before the rain, farmers follow through.

But when there’s no deadline, farmers can fall prey to procrastination just like everybody else, says Carleton University professor Dr. Tim Pychyl, who also farms near Carp, Ont.

We shouldn’t be surprised, says Pychyl. Any of us can procrastinate when we don’t like a job, when we find it boring or frustrating, or when it makes us anxious.

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Contrary to popular belief, it’s a matter of emotional regulation, not time management, he says. Avoiding a task is a coping mechanism. “We’re removing the negative stimulus” by avoiding a job we don’t like, he explains.

It’s why we’re good at setting goals but often procrastinate when it comes to following through. So, for instance, Pychyl says we’re good at making a New Year’s resolution that we’re going to exercise more. But what we’re really doing is foisting the problem onto our future self instead of taking concrete steps right now.

Pychyl, who has been studying procrastination for 20 years, says it’s important to separate procrastination from other kinds of delays. Some things must wait while we do other more important jobs, or sometimes it makes sense to delay things because we realize we need to think a little more or prepare in other ways, he says.

Here’s when you know it’s procrastination. “Procrastination,” says Pychyl, “is the voluntary delay of an intended act despite the expectation that we’ll probably be worse off for the delay.”

So, once you’ve identified that you are procrastinating, what’s the solution? Pychyl says it’s surprisingly simple. “Just get started. Ask yourself what the next step would be and do that.”

Research shows that when people begin to work on tasks for 10 minutes (after previously procrastinating), they often discover the task isn’t as onerous as they thought. Pychyl points to time management guru David Allen, who says a little bit of action fuels motivation. “It primes the pump,” says Pychyl.

Pychyl says he sometimes tricks himself into getting started on a project this way. “I say to myself, ‘I’m not going to do it but if I was, what would be the next logical step?’” Usually that’s enough to get him started, he says.

Using the exercise example again, Pychyl says people will tell themselves “I’m too tired to ride the exercise bike tonight” but if they do it for a few minutes, they often have a perception change and think “I’m ready for the Tour de France.”

We all struggle with procrastination sometimes, but if you find procrastination is regularly preventing you from achieving your goals, try to make sure you get enough sleep. Being tired makes you more prone to procrastination, says Pychyl. Studies show people waste more time at work when they are lacking good, quality sleep.

The researchers also noted two other interesting findings in studies on the impact of sleep on procrastination. The quality of sleep was more important than the quantity of sleep. And people who already scored low for self-control and self-discipline were impacted even more by being tired.

Unfortunately, with the distractions of the internet and our mobile devices, bedtime procrastination is becoming a big problem. “We don’t go to bed when we should, which doctors say is a serious health behaviour,” says Pychyl.

Pychyl says the problem may stem from a sense of entitlement, ie. the feeling that we deserve some time to ourselves at the end of our busy day. However, realistically there are only so many hours in the day and cutting into the hours needed for sleep (the sweet spot is seven to eight hours a night, on average) isn’t the answer. Research shows getting insufficient sleep not only puts us at increased risk for procrastinating but also heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and injury.

Likely we can all remember at one time or another making a resolution to adopt a healthier lifestyle habit such as going to bed earlier or drinking less alcohol, but failing to make the desired change. This isn’t really surprising — research has shown the average success rate is just 30 per cent.

But that success rate jumps to 80 per cent for people using a tool called WOOP developed by New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen. WOOP is an acronym for wish, outcome, obstacles, plan, and refers to the four steps of applying this tool for achieving a desired behavioural change.

Based on 20 years of research into motivation, WOOP (its scientific name is actually MCII, i.e. mentally contrasting with implementation intensities) has proved successful for both children and adults and has been used successfully by people from all walks of life.

Peterborough, Ont. writer Ann Douglas (author of The Mother of All Parenting Books) credits her use of WOOP as one of the major reasons she was able to lose 130 pounds and keep it off for the past five years. (She discovered the technique while doing research for her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, due out in February.)

Douglas recounts how she used this tool to help her achieve her incredible weight loss goal. Doing a WOOP analysis, Douglas says her Wish (or goal) was to be more physically active in 2013.

The outcome she desired was to be healthier, live longer, and be more energetic and more relaxed.

She determined that the Obstacles to achieving her goal, identified through brainstorming, were a lack of motivation, that walking (she had a goal of walking 10,000 steps per day) was boring, that she was too busy and, that when she travelled, it would be difficult to exercise.

Then she created a plan to tackle these obstacles. To help her keep up her motivation, she purchased a fitness tracker which served as a visual reminder of her activity level, and she created a network of supportive friends and family to cheer her on.

To help beat the boredom of walking, she found a walking buddy and listens to podcasts while she walks.

To help ensure that she didn’t skip exercise when she was busy, she scheduled two walks per day at regular times, usually going for one in the late afternoon and another after dinner (tying the activity to her dinner routine anchors the activity into her existing pattern, thus making it easier to adopt and stick with).

On days when she is travelling, she makes plans to stop at a mall or park along her driving route so she can still walk, or she walks laps around the airport instead of having a coffee and muffin.

Douglas emphasizes the importance of self-compassion when it comes to achieving her goal. Almost 90 per cent of the time, she manages to take two 30- to 40-minute walks per day (she has determined that 70 minutes of walking is enough to achieve her goal of 10,000 steps) but when she does miss her mark, she is gentle with herself. That critical voice in our heads can sabotage our efforts, she says. “Remind yourself you’re doing the best you can.”

In addition, Douglas keeps track of what she eats using an online food diary. For her, walking and tracking her food intake have been a winning combination for achieving and maintaining her weight loss and healthier lifestyle, and demonstrate how WOOP can be used to achieve real outcomes.


  • (Carleton University): Dr. Pychyl’s website showcases his research findings on procrastination.
  • The Procrastination Puzzle, a book by Dr. Tim Pychyl.
  • White board animation (YouTube) of Dr. Tim Pychyl’s book, The Procrastination Puzzle.
  • Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (2015), a book by Gretchen Rubin.
  • Provides detail on the WOOP strategy for behavioural change with examples of how to apply it.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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