Break Free From Procrastination by Washing Your Hands


Do you sometimes get into an unescapable procrastination frenzy at work?

You know what I mean. It starts with something seemingly innocuous like receiving a Facebook notification on your smartphone. Then half an hour later, you’re still mindlessly browsing over these cute puppy photos your friends just posted.

When you are in an office, you can get back to work quickly as everybody around you is working. When you are working remotely and there’s nobody around you to remind you to get back to work, your sidewalk adventure can last much longer.

And it can be painful to realize you have given in to procrastination and lost so much time. Not only is it wasted time. It also makes you feel guilty for not following through on your work. Even worse: you might continue wasting time as “your workday is ruined anyway”.

How to avoid this slippery slope?

I’m going to wash my hands of…

You know the expression “I’m going to wash my hands of…”. People say that as a substitute for “I’m going to move on” or “I’m going to disassociate myself from something”.

But is this just a nice metaphor or does it also have tangible effects? Imagine how convenient it would be if removing dirt and contaminants from your hands could also clean yourself from moral transgressions such as procrastination at work?

Fortunately, this effect has been studied in different studies. And indeed, it has been found the body does influence the mind. Cleaning your hands does remove that guilty feeling your get after having procrastinated.

Let’s see how…

The body influences the mind

In 2006, Zhong and Liljenquist studied this phenomenon over several studies. Interestingly, they found that moral transgressions leave a “dirty” feeling in one’s mind. When people had to recall an immoral behavior, they were more likely to choose an antiseptic wipe over a pencil as a free gift, indicative of a desire to clean (Zhong and Liljenquist, 2006, study 3).

In another separate study, the researchers had participants recall an immoral behavior of their own (Zhong and Liljenquist, 2006, study 4). After that, one group of participants was given an antiseptic wipe to use, while another group (the control group) did not. When individuals did not use an antiseptic wipe, they felt guilty about their past transgressions, and they were more likely afterward to participate in a separate volunteering project, as a way to cleanse their minds from their guilt.

These studies suggest that physical cleaning *does* help to increase our sense of moral purity.

This means the simple act of washing your hands can help to cope with the guilt you feel after misconduct such as procrastination.

The part you wash is important

This idea is worth pursuing. But for maximal impact, it turns out the part of your body you are going to clean is crucial.

In 2010, researchers Lee and Schwarz had participants complete a role-playing task in which they conveyed a malevolent lie by voice mail (using their mouth) or e-mail (using their hands). Then participants evaluated several consumer products including mouthwash and hand sanitizer. As expected, participants who lied by voice preferred the mouthwash products whereas those who lied using their hands preferred the hand sanitizer.

In my case, when I procrastinate, it is most commonly by using the keyboard to navigate distracting websites, so I find that washing my hands is effective. But if you use voice commands on your phone to get distracted, maybe you would need to use mouthwash or wash your teeth for maximal impact!

It also makes you more creative

Last but not least, here’s another noteworthy effect when washing your hands.

In 2017, researchers Ping Dong and Spike W.S. Lee conducted several experiments on goal priming that show cleansing helps people move on to new pursuits.

When people have a goal or make a decision, they are usually strongly attached to it. For example, someone might suggest you a new problem-solving technique, but you refuse to give it a try and stubbornly continue using the same strategy you’ve been using.

The physical act of cleaning your hands increases your ability to let go of your previous decisions and embrace fresh ones. That is, you are better able to revisit old ideas and generate new ones.

This means there’s also an additional boost of creativity when washing your hands. And this boost of creativity is so welcome. When you procrastinate, it can be as a way to escape from the struggle of solving a complex problem. So washing your hands would encourage you to tackle the problem using different, more creative strategies.

In other words, washing your hands has 2 benefits when you intend to get back to work after you have procrastinated:

  • they motivate you to give another shot to the current problems you face by making you more open to new ways of solving them.

I hope this was inspiring. I’ve been using this technique over and over. At the office, colleagues even started to wonder if I had a cleaning compulsion!

It’s also a very easy practice. So why not give it a try?

Featured image by Nathan Dumlao

About the author 

Alex Philippe

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