I would like to think I put the “pro” in procrastination (maybe not the “fun” in funny, but alas). I relate well with what author Robert Mckee once said:
I hold Olympic records for procrastination. I can procrastinate thinking about my procrastination problem. I can procrastinate dealing with my problem of procrastinating thinking about my procrastination problem.
Mckee and I are surely not alone in being the masters of our procrastination domains. Statistics would agree, revealing that procrastination is a widespread malady. According to The American Psychological Association, an estimated 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators, costing one trillion dollars a year for businesses.
Yes, Dr. Evil, that was one trillion and not one million (or even billion). Procrastination is a problem, as you can see, layered like Shrek and confounding like Donkey.
There are solutions, though. They involve realizing we’ve misdiagnosed and mischaracterized procrastination for far too long. It’s time to know the enemy even if the enemy is mostly us.
Procrastination Is Not About Time But Emotion
In The Atlantic article The Procrastination Doom Loop, Derek Thompson provides an extensive evaluation on procrastination. Thompson quotes several experts, one a prominent psychologist who declares that procrastination “really has nothing to do with time-management. To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
In essence, we procrastinate because:
– We delay action because we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task.
– We assume that our mood will change in the future.
All of this results in what is called a procrastination “doom loop,” where that negative mood begins a continuous feedback of anxiety, guilt and anger, all due to the very notion of confronting a task.
Here is a doom loop diagram from the article:
To combat the doom loop, Thompson’s research offers these remedies:
– Schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Last-second reminders tend to exorcise any negative moods and ignite our fight instinct.
– Have others create deadlines for us. Deadlines imposed by outsiders tend to be more effective than personal ones, even from friends or family.
– Fool yourself into thinking a task is enjoyable or leisurely. Procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded it’s not truly work.
Procrastination Is Not About Being Passive But Impulsive
This might seem like a surprise, but an insightful article in Lifehacker offers the Red Pill to this aspect of procrastination. It’s actually very logical.
The articles explains:
In reality, impulsivity simply means that you act immediately on your impulses. When the mood strikes you to do something, you do it. Your actions are largely dictated by whatever your most immediate desire is, regardless of the long-term consequences of that action.
Procrastination is not so much about choosing not to work, but choosing the easiest task first, that proverbial low hanging fruit. As an example, we might decide to check Facebook instead of starting a report. Also, unhinged impulsiveness leads to unhinged anxiety, shutting down productivity across all spectrums.
People with ADD and substance abuse problems are pathologically impulsive. They tend to make the wrong choices to experience instant gratification. For the rest of us, it’s just damn Daniel all the way as we struggle with facing our projects.
– Practice mindfulness (even two minutes of meditation a day can assist in nurturing a poised mind).
– Learn your red flags and plan around them (cursed be that “buy now” Amazon button!), as well as recognize your triggers and weaknesses.
– Indulge in some productive procrastination. Scheduling some social media time at work can actually improve productivity, no matter what the HR people caw about in their memos.
Procrastination Is Not Fear of Beginning A Task But Fear Of The Big Picture
As research explains, for procrastinators a journey of a thousand miles starts with breaking down the journey into a thousand pieces. Both subconsciously and consciously, people may feel stupefying anxiety at visualizing an entire project—much in the same way the crew of the Millennium Falcon felt when they saw the Death Star in its entirety.
A piece from PsychCentral states:
The whole may be too much to contend with, so the easiest way to overcome a tendency to put things off is to break a project or task into smaller pieces. Call them bite-size chunks.
Not only is the resulting amount of work more manageable, it doesn’t loom as overwhelming. Besides, once you complete the smaller pieces of the task, you can relish the feeling of accomplishment. This helps reinforce your determination to tackle other things on your list.
In other words, when it comes to procrastinations, seeing the trees and not the forest might be the best way to go on that journey of a thousand miles…or inside the Death Star’s trash compactor, when things don’t go well.
Procrastination Is a Ritual That Can Be Destroyed By Rituals
Perhaps you should worship St. Expeditus, the patron saint of procrastinators. Expeditus was not the founder of Expedia Travel, but a Roman in the 3rd century who decided to convert to Christianity. Allegedly, the Devil appeared to Expeditus and urged him to wait until the next day to switch dogmas. Expeditus refused and faced his task that day. These days, one might see icons of St. Expeditus turned upside down like an hourglass.
Okay, St. Expeditus might not solve procrastination, but he might, when he’s seen as a representation of something greater.
Find rituals that work for you or at the very least entertain you. All that matters is that you believe these rituals. The examples are legion from notable figures—like poet Edith Sitwell lying in an open coffin before writing because she believed it increased her focus; or Charles Dickens placing ornaments on his desk in a specific order to help him concentrate on the task at hand.
If you’re just too secular-minded, there are more practical (albeit) extreme rituals you can incorporate into your existence. Here are some illustrations from famous individuals:
– French novelist Victor Hugo wrote both Les Misérables and The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame in his birthday suit. Being butt-naked meant he wouldn’t be able to leave his house. As an extra precaution, he also instructed his servant to hide his clothes.
– Greek orator Demosthenes would shave half of his hair off, making him look ridiculous, but it forced to stay home and focus solely on his projects.
– Herman Melville reportedly had his wife chain him to his desk while he struggled to finish Moby-Dick.
If you’d rather embrace more gentle and superstitious rituals, understand that some have compared rituals to mind algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result, and these can scientifically fight back impulsiveness, anxiety and other negative symptoms of procrastination.
These solutions are not necessarily meant to be employed collectively. Yet if you draw from this pool of procrastination-killers with healthy doses of self-knowledge, you will find some silver bullets to finishing projects.
It’s your onion and your Death Star. As a last piece of advice before you shave your hair and strip naked in the middle of the office, I recommend Steven Pressfield’s book, The Art of War. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book:
“Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.”
The problem is that tomorrow always seems to come, doesn’t it?
As a bonus, enjoy this time-management infographic: