Dr. Tim Pychyl is the Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa (Canada). He has researched and written about procrastination for 20 years. A passionate teacher, he has been honored with many awards including the 3M National Teaching Fellowship. He is also the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.

What was your childhood like? Any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?

I was an introverted reader in my elementary years, even a little withdrawn and compliant, but became very outgoing (extraverted, in the sense of gregarious, high activity level) in my teens through sports and school musicals.

Taking on responsibility at the tennis club first helping the club manager and then as a teaching pro taught me a great deal about people and myself. I have drawn on these early experiences throughout my life in terms of skill development and life lessons.

What advice would you give to your 20-year old self?

Let go of others’ expectations. You’re going to be fine if you commit yourself to what you want to do without hesitation or doubt. Have the courage to be you. (This took me a long time to figure out, with a great deal of unnecessary grief and vacillation in the direction along the way.

That said, life is rarely, if ever, a straight path, so perhaps the “vacillations” were part of my explorations and the “grief” just an outcome of my personality.)

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Other professors will often coach students with a “recipe for success” approach. I think this is a bad recommendation in the sense that it undermines the student finding his or her own way in making his or her career and life.

I don’t think much of a “cookie cutter” approach to life coaching. I’m much more a humanist in the sense that each of us has to find our own way and ourselves along the way.

Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

I think the rhythm of our lives mirrors the rhythm of the day/night cycle and the seasons as well. I move in and out of dark and light periods constantly.

They vary in how they manifest, but I’m quite sure they have the same latent qualities as we seem to repeat our mistakes and our bodies have the same periodicity. I typically come out of a darker period by living through them, waiting them out, being patient with myself.

My late father once said to me, “Son, some days you’ll look in the mirror and think you made all the wrong choices in life.” He taught me perspective. Some days, some periods of our lives, just feel that way – dark. The next day won’t. I live with this knowledge and this hope.

My father was a hopeful man. “Let’s see what happens” was another of his constant refrains, and this gave him the courage to move ahead another day.

I realize I haven’t told you about any of the specifics of a “darker period,” but I don’t know you well enough to do that. That would simply be an “over-share.”

What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?

I don’t wait until I feel like it to do something. If I make an intention, I act on my plan. My motivation doesn’t have to match the task at hand. I’ve learned that my motivation will follow my action, and there’s nothing like a little progress on a goal to fuel well-being and motivation.

What is your morning routine?

I typically wake before the alarm around 5:20 a.m. (the alarm is set for 5:30). My dogs have the same routine, so they also ensure we’re waking then in the dark. (To be able to wake at this time, I got to bed “early” so that I get 7.5-8 hours of sleep every night.)

I let the dogs out “to do their business,” and I do the same (sometimes outside as well, because I live in the country with no neighbours). I then grind coffee beans and put on an old-fashioned Italian Espresso maker.

As it is coming up to temperature, I empty the dish drying rack of clean dishes that have air dried, and then I heat some milk (it’s always a latte for my morning coffee and black after that, if any).

It’s now about 5:45, and I feed the dogs (or I hear about it). I move to the porch (it’s my at-home “cottage”–  a spacious wood-clad room with lots of windows and a woodstove) where I stoke the fire if it’s winter, or just settle into my chair with my laptop if it’s not.

I spend the next 45 minutes or so doing email and planning my day. That is, unless I didn’t do yoga the night before, and then it’s a quick triage on my email and then yoga. Yoga is a daily routine, but typically before bed.

At 6:40 a.m., I wake my children (ages 10 and 12), and I begin preparing a breakfast for them (they like pancakes or eggs or hot cereal or somedays we all just have cereal).  (My wife typically heads to work at this time.) I don’t always eat at this point, I just get them moving.

Once they’re up and eating, I tidy the kitchen and then head out to the barn to care for our horses. I feed them some mineral supplement, pick out their hooves, and brush them as needed. I also do some morning chores like moving manure, filling the water trough, etc.

As I’m doing this, I’m typically listening to the radio to hear the news, and this also helps me keep track of the time, as I need to remind my children to pack up their lunches and get to the school bus for 7:48 a.m. I like to walk back to the house to see them off (or chase them out of the house on time as need be!).

On a day when I don’t have an early meeting, for the next 40 minutes, I typically take on a farm chore of some sort just to keep up with things, but some days, it’s a quick shower and off to the university (in fact, some days, I’ll shower quickly before horse chores and leave for the university as the school bus arrives).

My mornings are a well-choreographed dance with an eye on my own agenda, but much of my energy focused on the care of family, furry and otherwise

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?

Taking the stairs.  I work on the 15th floor of one building on campus and the 8th floor of another. I often have meetings on the 20th floor of my office building as well. I have learned to take the stairs wherever I go on campus.

This is not some deep-seated virtue. In fact, most days, as I leave my car at the parking lot, I’m busy trying to excuse myself from taking the stairs. I think things like, “I’m so tired today,” or “it’s too hot” or “my bag is too heavy” or “I’m running late.” Monkey mind, as the Buddhists would say.

When I get to the building, I open the door to the stairwell, and that’s it. I tell myself that I can always take the elevator at the next floor if I really can’t do it.

Of course, I walk the flights, and I feel much better for doing it.  I can do a lot of flights of stairs in a day. I’m stronger than I was a few years ago, and this daily exercise makes a good difference in my life in many ways.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?

I remind myself that all things are relative (another favourite expression of my dad’s), and I ask myself, “what’s the next action I could take right now?”  I don’t fuss over it too much. I just identify a next small step.

Then, I take that step and move forward on something related to my goals and values. These goals and values don’t change much, it’s just that I’ve lost focus, typically because I’m tired or disappointed or disillusioned for some reason. A little progress, perhaps a good night’s sleep, and my focus returns.

What’s a book(s) that have influenced your life the most? Why?

In my early 20’s, although doing a B.Sc. and studying psychology, I read a great deal of philosophy and Zen. A book of stories entitled “Radical Zen by Zhaozhou Congshen” influenced my life a great deal, as the stories succinctly captured wisdom about life.

I draw on these stories often, even when I discuss my research on procrastination.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

From the book above, “Have you finished your rice? [yes] Then wash your bowl.” This simple quote captures so much about moving forward in life and life itself. As the master said, it’s the path to enlightenment.