Shrink the Black Hole of Procrastination
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I used to procrastinate all the time. I spent more time procrastinating than I did doing the things I planned to do. I browsed the Internet, played games, read, doodled, tidied up, ate, cooked, smoked instead of doing what I wanted to do. I wasted time.
Then I felt so guilty about wasting time, I found other distractions to avoid the unpleasant feeling. This is what usually happens. We have the best intentions. We set out to do something productive and meaningful for us. But then we procrastinate. We give in to the temptation of instant gratifications. Then we feel guilty. We feel like losers for procrastinating. Instead of confronting this feeling and dispelling it by doing the productive activity, we run from it into more distractions, more procrastination. We fall into a vicious cycle of wasting time.
Procrastination is natural. Everybody does it.
The difference between people who get things done, and people who don’t is not their urge to procrastinate. All people procrastinate. For example a 2007 study on U.S. students estimated 80 to 95 percent of college students engage in procrastination.
All successful people procrastinate to some degree. Tim Urban is a declared procrastinator. So much so that he had a TED Talk about procrastination. He was worried he would fail at his TED talk because of his procrastination. His TED talk is now the most popular TED Talk of all time.
Procrastination is natural. If we understand what drives it, we can create habits to overcome it.
Causes of procrastination
What are the drivers of procrastination?
[natural: energy conservation] + [natural: fear of failure] + [modern: unclear tasks] + [natural: work is play] + [modern: work is opposite of play] + [modern: endless to do list] + [modern: meaningless tasks] + [modern: lack of survival pressure] + [natural: impulsivity] + [problem: attention loss] +[modern: being alone] + [natural: habit formation]
All of these factors push you to procrastinate. Let’s look at the most important.
[natural: energy conservation] to maximize our survival.
Now we conserve energy by procrastinating the difficult task.
[natural: fear of failure] + [modern: unclear tasks]
We evolved to be risk averse because most risks were deadly in our history. The same instinct leads us to protect ourselves by procrastinating unclear tasks which thus seem likely to fail.
[natural: work is play] + [modern: work is opposite of play]
Despite our modern perception of work as drudgery, it was the same as play for most of our history. Children played at being adults. Then as adults they did the same tasks for real. Work was survival.
Now work is an aggregate of unpleasant tasks, divorced from our immediate survival. It’s like we designed it to be as unpleasant as possible to our unconscious, and thus likely to be avoided.
[modern: lack of survival pressure]
Multiple factors in modern work make us lack motivation to do it. No motivation leads to procrastination. Motivation is a signaling system for humans to optimize their energy expenditure towards tasks that are worth doing. Low motivation aided survival by preventing energy waste.
Modern work lacks the survival pressure that work has had throughout human history. Until very recently from a biological perspective work was survival. Humans worked to get food and shelter, avoid death and produce offspring. Every action was motivated by our core motivation: survival. Modern work has none of this motivation. There is no immediate effect on your likelihood to survive. There might be a long-term effect, in that losing your job and having no income is a risk to survival. But it is too vague and far off to matter.
[modern: meaningless tasks]
The nature of modern work, especially knowledge office work, further decreases our motivation. Not only does it not aid survival, most people cannot see the meaning for their job activities. In his book ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’ anthropologist David Graeber cites research that estimates that around 50% of all modern work is considered bullshit by the people doing it. What does ‘bullshit’ mean in this instance? That the world would be the same, or even better off, if that work did not get done. The 50% is a mix of people considering their jobs are bullshit in totality, and people considering parts of their jobs are bullshit.
How motivated are you to do something that you consider meaningless? In the Sisyphus myth, the protagonist is not miserable because he pushes a boulder. Sisyphus is miserable because what he does is meaningless.
We have succeeded in enacting this mythical punishment in reality through such bullshit work. Is it surprising that we try to escape this hellish situation through procrastination?
[modern: endless to do list]
For the past hundred years, humans have developed a fetish for productivity. The world is full of gurus and solutions promising to help you do X times more.
The problem is that productivity is not natural. Hunter-gatherers worked much less time than modern workers. Their work was low in volume, but high in quantity. Hunting is an activity where you either succeed and eat, or you fail and starve. Thus humans have evolved the capacity to become highly skilled at tasks, but we have not evolved the capacity to do a very high amount of tasks. Productivity tries to solve this, but it is like trying to learn how to breathe underwater. You might hold your breath a bit longer, but you will never grow gills.
To our hunter-gatherer mind, the never ending to-do list is overwhelming. Like Sisyphus with his boulder, we finish one task, only for another to take its place. No matter how quickly we push, the tasks never end. This feels like a trap. Procrastination is the escape from this trap. For our unconscious it’s not not illogical. It’s the rational choice.
[problem: attention loss] is a core issue behind our increased procrastination. Our loss of control over our own attention is a big problem that I tackle in the book. And I will also cover in future newsletter editions. It is too big to get into here.
[natural: impulsivity] + [modern: being alone] + [natural: habit formation] favor procrastination rather than being direct causes.
In my book I explore 22 different strategies and techniques to reduce your own procrastination. None of them rely on willpower. Some tactics are general, while some focus on overcoming a specific cause of procrastination.
In this post I will focus on only four general techniques to reduce procrastination: Spread the deadline, 5-second rule, Pomodoro, Plan what you control.
Spread the deadline
Procrastination happens until the very last minute when the pressure of the deadline moves people into action. A solution is to have multiple deadlines along the duration so this motivation effect happens earlier and more often. Instead of delivering the whole thing in three months, maybe deliver one third every month. Research shows this improves how much people respect deadlines, and improves the quality of the work almost two times.
This is part of what makes Agile methodologies so efficient. They have intermediate deadlines baked in, through sprints, frequent stand-ups to report on progress, frequently updated boards, decomposition of big tasks into smaller, more granular ones.
The five-second rule
This is a technique popularized by Mel Robbins in the book with the same name.
It is very simple. When you feel yourself hesitating in front of a task, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action.
This 5 second window is when we decide whether to tackle it or avoid it. By not giving yourself the chance to procrastinate, you don’t.Even if you don’t know what to do for that task, you should still go into action.
Maybe you have a work task that is unclear and has high risk. When you think about it, it’s unpleasant so you want to avoid it. The five-second rule says that when you have the thought about it, you count to five and start doing it.
Or maybe it is a difficult personal issue. Maybe you need to say something unpleasant to someone close. It is human to avoid conflict. But it is not beneficial. Unsolved conflicts fester and grow into bigger and more difficult problems. Our relationships need moments of conflict for both parties to be satisfied. The five second rule means you go and talk to that person as you think you should, you don’t avoid it and then become passive aggressive or start fights on unrelated subjects.
As Mel Robbins’ say ‘You are never going to feel like it.’ The actions we want to encourage with this rule feel unpleasant, you want to avoid them. If you did not, you would not need the rule. It’s not going to be easy to implement the rule. Especially at first your unconscious will fight you. But pushing through, and doing the actions, will bring great satisfaction.
In time the five-second rule becomes a habit. If you train your unconscious to confront uncomfortable tasks instead of avoiding them, it gets easier and easier to do. In time this brings success and satisfaction.
The Pomodoro technique is simple:
You put a timer for 25 minutes. For this time you work only on one task. No distractions, no multitasking, no email. Just that one task.Then you take a five minute break where you don’t work on any task.
Repeat for the next task.
For each four Pomodoros, take a 20 minute break.
This technique is great because it leaves no room for procrastination. You have strict time intervals to work within, rather than letting time lengthen uncontrollably. The more you split the day into manageable chunks of time, the more unlikely you make procrastination. On one hand, because the implied deadlines of timeslots motivate your unconscious. On the other hand because it makes the negative effects of procrastination more visible. It is easy to procrastinate for most of the day without realizing it. But when you see you had two Pomodoro intervals where you achieved nothing because you were procrastinating, then it feels more real.
It does not need to be within these fixed parameters. You can adjust the work time and the break time. Maybe 25 minutes seems too much. Start with 15 minutes work. 10 minutes. Even 5 minutes of continuous work is an improvement for many who are constantly switching tasks now.
Plan what you control
Sometimes procrastination appears because our tasks need input from other people. We get stuck waiting for their input, and procrastinate. The solution to this problem is simple. You should only consider tasks the things that are under your control.
For example, let’s say you have a big work project. You did your initial part, but now you need feedback and input from two colleagues to continue. If your task is to complete the project, then you are stuck in an open cognitive loop waiting for them to provide their part. Open loops lead to procrastination.
You can avoid this by setting as tasks only the things you can control. Your tasks should be to finish your part and request input from your colleagues. With a task planned in the future to follow-up on the request. This way there is nothing blocking you from achieving your tasks. Thus there is no open loop when you wait for colleagues’ input.
These are four powerful tactics to beat procrastination. If you want to see beneficial change, implement one of them tomorrow.
What would like to see in the next newsletter? Do you want me to detail other tactics to beat procrastination or do you want to see strategies for another problem? Send me an email at email@example.com to let me know.
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