How to Create More Time – Part 2

  • Reading time:15 mins read

To Achieve Success, Embrace Failure

Photo by Lê Tân on Unsplash

Sum-up: 

Overcome procrastination caused by your fear of failure through 7 tactics:
Divide your task into smaller subtasks;
Imagine the worst possible outcome;
Learn to embrace uncertainty;
Forgive yourself for procrastinating;
Aim to deliver good enough, not perfect;
Do hard things first;
Identify and prioritize important tasks over urgent ones

Last week we explored the deep causes of procrastination, and four general techniques to combat it. I got a lot of interest on the subject. Everybody seems to want more time. Who would have thought? 

So this is part two on how to combat procrastination and create more time for yourself. Let’s recap Part 1, which you can find here. https://victorrotariu.com/2021/03/how-to-create-more-time-part-1/

The deep causes 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]

Four general techniques to combat procrastination: Spread the deadline, 5-second rule, Pomodoro, Plan what you control. 

In Part 2 we will address the main cause of procrastination: [natural: fear of failure]


Fear of failure

[natural: fear of failure] + [modern: unclear tasks]

Much of our procrastination is a way to avoid the risk of failure. The fear of failure is innate. It is a critical survival adaptation. Our ancestors procrastinated tasks where failure could be deadly. It was advantageous to avoid the risk. Or they procrastinated tasks where failure was likely and visible. Failure lowers social reputation. In time this was a significant risk as low reputation would get them a lower share of resources, and could lead to physical harm or even exile.

The modern world is much safer than any of the past. But it is too recent to eliminate our innate fear. Rather its high degree of complexity and ambiguity amplify our fear. Getting a confusing work assignment does not put you in mortal danger in any way. But it feels that way.

There are several tactics to reduce or even eliminate this fear. Without fear, the urge to procrastinate disappears.


Divide and conquer

“Have a bias towards action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” – Indira Gandhi

Big, unclear tasks are like trying to find the cure for cancer. They are so complex and daunting, you don’t know where to start. So you avoid the elephant task. 

These tasks are not actual elephants or monoliths. You can make them smaller by decomposing them. If you break up a big task into manageable chunks, then it is much easier to accomplish.

How do you do this? Grab a pen and paper. Write down the big task. Break it down in as many subtasks of it as you can. Decompose these into even smaller subtasks if needed. The goal is to find the smallest possible subtasks. You are looking to find subtasks you can do today. If you can find at least one subtask that you can complete in the next half hour, you are on the right track. 

Every marathon is nothing but a series of small steps. The same with any project. Nobody can cross 42 km in one step. Every human being is capable of crossing 42 km through a series of many steps. When you deconstruct the project into these steps, it stops being daunting. One step is laughably easy to make. After you make it, the next is also easy. Same with the subtasks. You do one small subtask at a time, and at the end you have completed a giant project.

The initial task of breaking the project into subtasks is the hardest. Many people get stuck in trying to determine if they are covering all the necessary subtasks. It does not matter, you can add and modify subtasks later. For any significant project, I guarantee that you will do this so no need to worry about it.

People also often get stuck on the order of the subtasks. Should I first do X or Y? It does not matter. Pick one and start working on it. 

The key idea is it is more important to start than to have the perfect plan. The plan itself changes as you go along.


What’s the worst that can happen

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” Seneca the Younger

Fear of failure is about avoiding the potential future where we fail. By doing so, we amplify  our fear. 

Fear is a survival mechanism. It pushes you to avoid risky activities and situations. But when you are in the risky situation, fear has no more utility. So it disappears.

You can use this to eliminate your fear of failure. How? By simulating failure in your mind.

Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The Tim Ferriss Show, recommends an exercise he calls ‘Fear Setting. It is a way to confront our fears by asking what is the worst that could happen. What is the actual worst consequence of failing at this project? Imagine it in detail. He describes the exercise in detail in his TED Talk about it. The core is simple. Work through the implications of failure and how you might mitigate the worst of them. But also imagine in detail the benefits of success.

We fear the unknown. By avoiding to think about the consequences of failure, we make it scarier than it is. By visualizing failure, we trick our unconscious into thinking we are living the situation. This prompts survival mechanisms that eliminate fear. 

The fear of the unknown disappears. There might be objective risks for the failure in your activity. These do not disappear by visualizing the failure situation. However the fear itself goes away. You can both proceed with the action with less need for procrastination, and prepare to mitigate the potential fallout. 


Let go of the need for control

We cannot control everything in our lives. But that does not stop us from trying. In our modern world, with so many possibilities and so much choice, we feel we have the power to control all of our life.

At the same time, we feel more out of control than ever before in history. The more information you get, the more life seems out of your control. This is because you are aware of how many events happen that you cannot influence. In the past, when communication was more limited, uncontrollable events also happened, but you didn’t know about them.

At present, we feel we should have more control because of our many choices, but at the same time that we lack this control. 

This amplifies our fear in the face of uncertainty. We grasp for control for as much of our lives as we can.

What is the link with procrastination? We procrastinate vague tasks because they feel outside of our control. We cannot predict the optimal strategy so we run from the task.

One solution is to accept the absence of control instead of fighting it. Much of life is outside of our control. Even our own actions have consequences outside of our control. We cannot really predict the consequences of our actions. You might do everything to the best of your ability, and yet suffer dramatic failure. Or failure might turn out to be a step towards great rewards.

The Alcoholic Anonymous credo acknowledges this: ‘Change the things that you can change, accept the things that you cannot change.’

The struggle to accept the uncertainty of your own actions is more ancient than AA.. Buddhism understood unpredictable consequences. It is the foundation for its tenant of impassivity and non-judgement. There is a Zen story I like which illustrates this:

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. 

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. 

“How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. 

The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. Many people died fighting in the war. But the farmer’s son was spared because he had not been recruited.

The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer. “

The story can go on and on. Your life is the same as the farmer’s. You never know the second- and third-order consequences of your actions.

Be like the farmer. Accept what happens. You should do your best, but never assume the outcome can be guaranteed. This frees you to be brave, to do uncomfortable, uncertain things, that others avoid or procrastinate to failure.

If you accept this unpredictability, then vague tasks become less scary. If there is an inherent element of uncertainty that you are comfortable with, then you can confront the task, rather than run from it. 

The irony is that by accepting you don’t have complete control, you gain more control by confronting uncertainty. This leads to less procrastination and more decisiveness. In turn this increases the likelihood of success. Success then increases how much control you have over your life: money and social status are power after all. 

It’s a virtuous cycle where confronting fear reduces how much fear you need to face in the future.


Forgive your procrastination

“To err is human; to forgive, divine,” Alexander Pope

‘Budget for human nature instead of trying to conquer it’ Tim Ferriss

When you procrastinate due to fear of failure, it is easy for this to spiral into more procrastination. The fact that you procrastinated increases the likelihood of failure. So you feel more anxiety, which prompts more procrastination. The way out of this trap is to forgive yourself.

It is human to procrastinate. 95% of people admit to putting off work, according to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation

You have nothing to blame yourself for when you procrastinate. It is not a moral failing. It is a survival adaptation. Accept this and there is nothing to forgive. Procrastination happened because it helped your ancestors survive. It’s fine. Afterwards it is your responsibility to make yourself less likely to procrastinate in the future, so you can get things done.


Good enough

Perfectionism promotes procrastination. You keep trying to make a project or task better and never finish it. Or you want it to be perfect, which is literally impossible, so you procrastinate working on something impossible to accomplish.

Seth Godin explains how to overcome this brilliantly in a blog post:

“How do you know when it’s done?

Of course, it’s not done. It’s never done.

That’s not the right question.

The question is: when is it good enough?

Good enough, for those that seek perfection, is what we call it when it’s sufficient to surpass the standards we’ve set. Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.

If you don’t like your definition of ‘good enough’, then feel free to change that, but the goal before shipping is merely that. Not perfect.”

In essence: ship when it’s good enough and move on. Perfect is a fool’s goal.

These strategies combat fear of failure head-on. The next two tactics are about organizing yourself to minimize fear of failure, and procrastination, where it matters most. They are about what to do and when.


Hard things first

The hard things in life, the things you really learn from, happen with a clear mind. Caroline Knapp

Our instinct is to postpone the hard tasks. We do first the easy things. This is a type of procrastination in itself. Just because you are procrastinating by doing other tasks, does not mean it is not procrastination.

On top of that, by postponing the difficult tasks, you are setting yourself up to avoid it. We have the power of conscious override over our unconscious impulses. This is the mythical willpower in which we put so much stock. However this willpower is a scarce resource. We have very little of it. 

Think of willpower like a precious elixir. You have a few drops everyday. You need to use them to bypass emotional unconscious urges like fear or anger. You can use willpower to overcome procrastination. But only a little. The few drops get used up quickly. Then you are mostly out of willpower until you sleep.

This is an oversimplification of course. Willpower is mostly centered around the PreFrontal Cortex’ (PFC) ability to inhibit other areas of the brain. It acts like a limited resource because the PFC is extremely energy intensive. Due to the survival value of energy conservation we have a sort of in-born regulation mechanism to control energy. This mechanism shuts down the PFC’s ability after uses to conserve energy. However willpower is not only in the PFC. And the PFC inhibition does not function only based on conscious control. It’s all much more complex. The oversimplification of a scarce resource suffices to understand how the ability gets depleted.

When you do easy things first, you use up your precious willpower elixir. Even easy tasks have a cost. You pay it and have nothing left for the more difficult tasks.

Do the most difficult task first in the day. In the morning you have a deeper willpower reserve. Finishing the difficult task first provides a sense of accomplishment and motivates you for the rest of the day. The easy tasks then become easier to do. You are using willpower reserves with the difficult task, but completing it can also recharge you.

By doing this every day at the same time, you create a habit. For example if you start your work day with the most difficult task of the day. You teach your brain that is the time of day when you focus, and you don’t procrastinate. Each time you do it makes it easier. In time it becomes almost automatic. Start the day with a win, and it will be a better day.

Urgent or Important

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower

As we procrastinate difficult tasks by doing easy tasks, we also procrastinate important tasks by doing urgent tasks.

Most people have a lot of tasks for each day. Our instinct is to prioritize based on urgency. This is not a good strategy. You put out fires but never build anything.

Our propensity to prioritize urgency came from our evolution for immediate survival. Urgent tasks were important tasks.

Now the world is different. Importance and urgency are divorced. Urgent tasks are not necessarily important. Rather they tend to be of low importance. Most important projects are over long timelines with distant deadlines. This makes them have constant low urgency, despite their high importance. They are easy to abandon for urgent, but trivial, tasks.

It is against your best interest to do so. The long-term important projects are those that make a difference in your life. 

How do you decide which tasks to do to avoid this inherent procrastination?

The American president Eisenhower defined a formal tactic called the Urgent/ Important principles.

Important tasks are those that advance your goals and development, either professional or personal. Urgent are tasks that have a short deadline, regardless of their importance.

Eisenhower’s Principle is to categorize your tasks on these two dimensions: Importance and Urgency. This categorization creates four categories of tasks: Important and Urgent, Important but not Urgent, Not Important but Urgent, Not Important and Not Urgent.

The first and the last categories are easy to deal with. Not Important and Not Urgent is at the end of the list of things you should do. Important and Urgent is at the top, the first to be done.

The category we overlook are Important but not Urgent tasks. After you identify them, you should prioritize them right after Important and Urgent. This is the main benefit of this analysis. 

Where do you get the time for Important but not Urgent tasks? From Not Important but Urgent tasks of course. Because you have identified they are not important, you can let go of the pressure to do them right away. You can postpone, or even cancel them in favor of more important tasks.

This analysis is an extra effort. It is one that pays off by overcoming our tendency to procrastinate important tasks through urgent ones.

Sum-up: 

Overcome procrastination caused by your fear of failure through 7 tactics:
Divide your task into smaller subtasks;
Imagine the worst possible outcome;
Learn to embrace uncertainty;
Forgive yourself for procrastinating;
Aim to deliver good enough, not perfect;
Do hard things first;
Identify and prioritize important tasks over urgent ones

What do you want in the next newsletter? Continue on the theme of procrastination and explore how to make work more fun? Or explore another topic? Send me a reply to let me know.