Etymologically, procrastination comes from the Latin word procrastinare, meaning “deferred till the morning” or “belonging to tomorrow “. Naturally, there is a better side of postponing work where we can use purposeful delaying of our work as a creative way to let ideas and concepts grow arms and legs. The difference between meaningful task delaying and procrastination is when a tomorrow to accomplish that specific work never quite arrives.
A common opinion is that procrastination is about poor time management skills or that procrastination is related to character flaws such as laziness or lack of self-control.
Another school of thought is that procrastination is our inability to regulate our emotions. “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said professor of psychology Tim Pychyl.
From an emotional perspective, procrastination is a coping mechanism for negative emotions such as boredom, frustration, self-doubt, anxiety that we experiment when we associate work with pain (the task is tedious, too complex, too vague, or too far away in the future). Because we crave relief from such intense emotions, we turn our attention to funny videos, social media, the latest news, cleaning around the house, labelling pictures and folders.
Procrastination shares features with addiction. It offers temporary excitement and relief from sometimes boring reality. It is easy to fool yourself, for example, into thinking that the best use of any given moment is surfing the web for information instead of actually reading the textbook or doing the assigned problems. You will start to tell yourself stories.
Oh, don’t I know it too well! On a few occasions, instead of writing an article, I did “productive” procrastination by researching ideas for that article until I ended up with 30-40 pages of unedited content. And what would I tell myself after I “finished” the research? Of course, now this draft is too heavy, better to start fresh with another article.
Case Western Reserve University in Ohio had an exciting study, aptly called Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence Over Impulse Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It! about procrastination. Researchers studied the behaviours of participants who were told they would take an arithmetic test. Before the test, researchers made participants experience bad feelings or happy feelings by reading different stories (good mood versus bad mood).
Then, some of the participants were made to believe that their moods could either be affected or be unchanged (mood can change versus mood is frozen). Later, participants had some time before the arithmetic test. They were told they could practice for the test or engage with any of the other things in the room until the test started.
Some participants had interesting and challenging distractions such as video games or up-to-date popular magazines (exciting distractors). For others, the distracting objects were preschool-level electronic puzzle games or outdated technical journals (boring distractors). After the test, researchers made sure participants left the testing room in a positive mood to undo any potential bad spirits resulting from reading the sad stories.
According to results, procrastination was highest when people were in a bad mood, they believed that their mood could be changed, and the distracting options appeared to be highly enjoyable. However, procrastination was lower when researchers led people to think that their moods were immune to change (frozen).
The study concludes that “the tendency to seek to feel better by indulging in forbidden pleasures may be one common response to emotional distress. If so, its contribution to the many failures of impulse control that pervade modern life may be substantial. Some people may end up paying a very high price for a better mood.”
I must note that I write these articles of self-improvement primarily for myself, to read them when I feel I lost my balance. Not too long ago, whenever I found myself procrastinating, I used to get caught in a self-flagellation act. I berated myself for failing me or others. Still, my attitude about procrastination changed. How? I started following the strategies described below.
Making the first step
There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.
Hitchcock was onto something, as a medical imaging study showed that for people with high levels of math anxiety, the pain centres of the brain lighted up while anticipating an upcoming math task, and the pain disappeared during the math performance itself.
More often than not, we experiment with unpleasant feelings before starting our work. Once we finally start working, we discover that we might end up enjoying the work we tend to postpone.
How to get started?
Before starting, we need to define clear, well-defined, and time-constrained goals, as abstract plans tend to make us procrastinate more. An overwhelming task broken into smaller, actionable tasks doesn’t look daunting anymore.
Then, we can make the procrastination cues invisible as it is easier to avoid temptations altogether than to resist them: the phone is in another room, we use site blockers, we log out from social media sites, etc.
Sometimes, a new environment is better to help break old habits, as we are not fighting against old cues.
Related to the experiment described in previous sections (sad versus good mood), if our jobs don’t depend on it, we might need to skip reading the news first thing in the morning, as we are most likely to become sad and prone to procrastination.
A well-known strategy to start work is to use a few cycles of the Pomodoro technique. Barbara Oakley talks about doing at least one Pomodoro as soon as we wake up, as this method is incredibly effective against procrastination.
Another strategy is one that Tim Pychyl mentions in his book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. He learned to recognize a task avoidance thought (“I’ll feel more like doing this later.”) as a signal to procrastinate. And so, he immediately starts with that specific task.
Start sloppy. Anne Lamott writes in her Bird By Bird book that
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.
Too many expectations from our work build to procrastination. But deliberately creating a prototype to be messy has an incredible freeing effect on the mind: knowing we don’t have to deliver a masterpiece on our first try makes it much easier to start and then to continue.
Start small. The method of starting small and continuing with minor changes is better known as kaizen. Kaizen is a deceptively simple and utterly brilliant system that can bring winds of attitude change as initial resistance starts melting. Instead of focusing on intimidating questions and high expectations, we can break these targets into absurdly little milestones that we will try to hit consistently. Too many times, we tend to overlook the power of small steps. Still, over extended periods, tiny steps will compound into significant results.
Start with a break. Sometimes, I would give myself a 5-minute break before working, and when the timer buzzes, I know I have to start.
Implementation intentions (self-regulatory strategies in the form of an “if-then” plan). Being more specific about our intentions will eliminate ambiguity. The most common procrastination cues are time and location. Thus, we can set implementation intentions using time and location:
I will start studying at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
If [OBSTACLE] happens, then I will do [STUDYING ALTERNATIVE].
We can combine these techniques with the Zeigarnik effect (we tend to remember incomplete tasks more easily than finished tasks). We can have tasks half-finished at the end of our day, so we can quickly jump straight into resolving that task the following day (with a Pomodoro cycle or not).
What comes after the first step?
To continue the first step, a toolkit of strategies is necessary. As I touched on these strategies in other articles linked at the end of this article, I will only post a summary in this article.
Compassion and patience toward ourselves, as we most definitely will fail on some days. No other anti-procrastination strategies will work if we can’t show self-compassion, self-forgiveness and patience when we find ourselves bored or anxious about our work.
One of the most effective techniques to learn self-compassion is meditation. The meditation practice I prefer most against procrastination is RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture emotions. This form of meditation might not come easy as we are not used to identifying and naming challenging emotions or thoughts.
When anxiety, anger, frustration, worry, or other similar feelings arise in our body, we tend to avoid them, control them, hide them, lie about them, deny them, ignore them. We check all the options except listen to them, adapt to them, acknowledge them, welcome them as guests that bring inner change.
Another benefit of practising meditation to combat procrastination is that, when we work on something, and our mind will eventually wander, we learn to return our attention repeatedly to the problem at hand, just like in meditation sessions.
“Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” said neuroscientist Judson Brewer.
After all, procrastination is a habitual activity, and as with any habit, we can break the habit loop. And what better way to break a habit loop than to find a better reward?
When we start fighting procrastination, we need to treat ourselves with rewards for accomplishing our tasks. We need to enjoy the small victories of our new system so we can approach further work.
Rewards will eventually shift from extrinsic (what we give ourselves as treats) to intrinsic (how rewards make us feel).
One of the better methods I found to switch to intrinsic rewards is reframing. A good reframing technique against procrastination is that we don’t need to feel a specific state to start working. Doing is a choice that shouldn’t depend on feeling. Adopting a positive attitude towards challenges, accepting the struggle and embracing the strain are signs we are on the right track against procrastination.
We can reframe our mindset by realizing that we choose between short-term positivity and long-term goals by procrastinating.
Whenever I feel like procrastinating, I remember Cal Newport’s words:
I am going to work on this for one hour. I don’t care if I faint from the effort or make no progress, for the next hour, this is my whole world. Of course, I wouldn’t faint and I eventually would make progress.
In his Atomic Habits book, James Clear describes a conversation with an elite baseball coach. Clear asked the coach:
What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most don’t?
He mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: “At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”
Efficient people feel the same lack of motivation and boredom as everybody else. The significant distinction is these people still act, especially when they don’t feel like working. They use a better framing that motivates and drives them to push their limits. Remember the name of the study with good versus bad moods? If you feel bad, do it!
Temptation bundling is one way to make the work we tend to delay more attractive by pairing an action we want to do with an activity we need to do. E.g. after studying for half an hour, I will enjoy a 10-minute break watching YouTube.
Another technique that can help with the perceived value of a reward is consequence mapping, and it consists of answering: what are the consequences if I do this, and what are the effects if I don’t?
Time blocking is a productivity method where we split each day into time blocks of variable length, from 20 – 30 minutes to 1 hour. In each block of time, we single-task and focus only on that specific task associated with the current time block, with no context-switching. Instead of managing to-do list items, we control the time when we can implement those particular items. Time blocking can help us beat procrastination as we do not keep asking ourselves, “what should I do next?” and get lost in decision fatigue. The plan is already laid out.
Planner – on a planner or a journal, we can track our goals, the steps required to reach them and changes in our routines that worked and changes that didn’t. Personally, the most significant catalyst for change was not meditation or rewards but planning the next day. Each evening, using Todoist and a paper notebook, I time block the next day. The last thing that I read before going to sleep is my plan for the day, and every morning the first thing that I read is the plan again (the Zeigarnik effect in action). Also, research shows that writing a to-do list the evening before can make us fall asleep faster.
The Stoic exercise of the dichotomy of control states that things are either up to us or not.
We would gain more if we focused our time, attention and efforts on variables we can control. Emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. We can’t completely control when or for how long an emotion will visit us. How much sorrow, pain, betrayal, hurt, disbelief we endure when we navigate the shallow, toxic waters of “if-only”:
If only my work wasn’t so boring, I would be working.
If only I wasn’t so scared about failing my exams, I would be studying.
If only I had been feeling motivated in the morning, I would have worked all day.
Adopting a Stoic mindset lets us focus on input, the variables that we can control (how we react to feelings, work, other people), not on the final output (getting a promotion, passing exams) that might make us procrastinate.
In his book, The Procrastination Equation, researcher Piers Steel discusses the procrastination equation:
Image credit: Alex Vermeer
Motivation – in this case, the opposite of procrastination.
Value – the enjoyment we get by either doing the task or completing the task.
Expectancy – the expectancy of success to either complete the task or get the task’s reward.
Impulsiveness – the tendency to get distracted instead of working on the task. Low impulsiveness means we tend to stay focused on our work.
Delay – the time until a task is either completed or rewarded. The more significant the delay, the bigger the procrastination.
Alex Vermeer created an exemplary flow chart based on the procrastination equation here.
Let’s assume we need to write a report for school or work. To avoid procrastination on this task, we want to increase the task’s value or pleasantness. E.g., making the first step, rewards as we progress, temptation bundling.
Likewise, we need to increase the expectancy of success or reward. E.g., consequence mapping, reframing, Stoic mindset.
On the other hand, we need to decrease impulsiveness by removing distractions and maintaining our focus. E.g. invisible procrastination cues, meditation, Pomodoro cycles.
Also, we need to reduce the delay of the reward by establishing more immediate deadlines. E.g. clear, well-defined, and time-constrained goals (smaller weekly deadlines), planner, timeboxing.
When we deliberately alternate between procrastination-free work and mindful breaks, the final reward comes at the end of the day. Time can strike like an angry sea during a day, but our new anti-procrastination system sheltered us. Then, while the day ends, guilt-free relaxation makes it possible to enjoy the slow flow of time. After all, sometimes we are human doings, and sometimes we are human beings.
Also published here.
Resources related to procrastination:
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