I’m a tremendously accomplished procrastinator.
In fact, to coin a well-worn analogy, if procrastination was an Olympic event I’d be a Gold Medallist. But I’d be far more than just unbeatable; I’d leave the competition in the dust. The stadium would have long emptied before the silver and bronze medallists finished the race.
I’m not unique in having a serious issue with procrastination of course; to some degree it seems to be part of the human condition.
But whilst flicking through the pages of David Allen’s modern productivity classic ‘Getting Things Done’ seems to turn most people into dynamos of mega proactivity overnight, for me it was the most pointless book since ‘How to Speak Welsh’ was translated into Welsh. (An indictment on me by the way, not the book…or Welsh)
For me procrastination isn’t a problem of organisation or task management, its roots are embedded far deeper in my psyche. My procrastination is of a rarer ilk.
If you’re similarly afflicted with this ‘sub-atomic’ form of procrastination then maybe, just maybe, the following advice will help you (as it does me) to add a little more productivity to your day.
Discharge the Emotion…
My inclination to endlessly pace up and down the hallway, instead of just ‘doing’ with the get-up-and-go of a bloke in a Nike advert, boils primarily down to one thing: – fear.
Deeply ingrained in my subconscious is the inclination to link everything I do with my intrinsic worth. ‘I am what I produce’ goes this insidious subconscious thought process; ‘If whatever I do is mediocre or God forbid…substandard, well that defines me as a person too.’
I don’t think this on a conscious level of course, but that’s irrelevant. Through nature or nurture, the clandestine powerhouse of the brain – the subconscious – propagates that undermining message through my mind.
It’s a message that raises the bar on performance to dizzying heights.
Walking a Tightrope…
‘You raise the task 100 feet above the ground’ to quote the exceptional insight of motivational psychologist Neil Fiore in ‘The Now Habit’.
‘Any mistakes would be tantamount to death, and any failure or rejection would be intolerable.’
Makes pacing up and down the hallway sound pretty reasonable doesn’t it?
Just A Few Inches above the Ground…
If you can relate to this, then the good news is that recognition is half the solution.
When I sense my anxiety levels rising because of this unobtainable need to achieve perfection, I use that negative emotion as a cue for corrective measure – I use it to lower the tightrope back down to a less terrifying height.
And doing so is simply a case of becoming actively indifferent.
I militantly tell myself that I don’t give a sod what people think of my work; I don’t even care myself. It doesn’t matter in the slightest! Whether I attain the perfection of Mozart or the mediocrity of Salieri (according to the skewed reality of Amadeus that is), the quality of my output has no bearing on me as a person.
The relief I feel when I override my subconscious in this way is tangible
It may seem something of a temporary smokescreen, because of course the underlying, deep-rooted subconscious message is still alive and well. But that doesn’t matter; it still works.
Becoming consciously indifferent allays that incapacitating fear of failure, and consequently enables me to get to work.
The reason it works when so many other forms of positive thinking fail, is down to one thing: it’s true. You’re not filling your head with a pile of sophomoric pop-psychology nonsense; you’re acknowledging a fundamental truth: -
Human worth is bestowed as a right of birth, independent of what you achieve.
Thanks to that sheer good fortune, there’s absolutely no need to prove anything to anyone, yourself included. Whether you come across as incompetent as the lowest IQ-scoring member of a guild of village idiots is irrelevant, your identity remains intact.
In fact, it could be even argued that imperfection is one of our greatest traits. As the Nobel Laureate Jacques Anatole Thibault so succinctly put it, “I cling to my imperfection as the very essence of my being.”
Take it from me, learn to both embrace the above philosophy and disassociate your worth from work, and nothing seems quite as important. Fear of failure is replaced by an air of healthy indifference.
Consequently, life, and all its tasks become infinitely more manageable.
All it takes is to rhetorically ask yourself:
Is this really that important?
Do I really need to prove my worth to myself or anyone else?
Am I really so delusional that I think perfection is anywhere near obtainable?
A Healthier View of Intelligence
Maybe you, like me, not only feel the instinctive urge to always prove your worth, but also subconsciously turn your performance into a litmus test of your mental prowess.
When I was at university I would agonise over every assignment because in my mind performance and intelligence were inextricably linked. I remember almost having a mental breakdown when I only scored 68 percent on one assignment.
Like a havoc wreaking poltergeist, that mode of thinking followed me into my working life too; raising that performance bar once again to‘100 feet above the ground’. Again, the overwhelming fear of failure produced a lot of stress, but not much work…and got me fired a couple of times as well!
Poles Apart…‘Fixed’ and ‘Incremental’ Intelligence…
This destructive association between intelligence and performance is, according to the eminent motivational psychologist Carol Dweck, a product of an extremely rigid view of intelligence; one which sees intellect as a fixed entity, much like a physical attribute.
In a number of studies Dweck illustrated the corrosive effect that such a mindset has on children’s performance.
Her research shows that children who believe that their intellect is a fixed quantity (most likely because they tend to be praised for their abilities as opposed to the effort they put in) are predisposed to giving up easily on, or shying away from difficult tasks.
They perceive any inability to solve a problem as a scathing indictment on their intellect…something to be avoided at all costs.
In comparison, those children who see their intelligence as non-fixed (or “incremental” as Dweck puts it) see such challenges as opportunities to advance their mental skills.
They have a reverse attitude that screams, “Bring it on!”
Be Flexible In Your View…
Of course, those of us who were lumbered with a ‘fixed intellect’ mindset can’t go on a time-travelling mission back to our formative years. We can’t reprimand our parents and teachers for damage already done.
And in any case, they had good intentions. Their misguided praise was intended to bolster confidence. I doubt any ‘You’re so clever’ parent ever imagined they could be inflicting similar long-term psychological damage as telling a kid, “You’re so dumb!”
But despite the absence of a functional time machine, we can do the next best thing. We can actively adopt a more flexible mindset; one that rejects the notion that performance is a benchmark of innate ability; and instead views intelligence as a malleable entity: – one capable of growth and improvement…just as long as we have the courage to stretch it.
My Malleable Mind…
Since making the conscious (and continual) effort to adopt this healthier perspective I find myself more at peace.
I’m no longer compelled to stay within closely guarded performance parameters or to shy away from tasks because I fear a potential fall from grace. Likewise, I’m less prone to frustration and despondency when tasks seem beyond my current grasp.
Put simply, it’s softened that core fear that led me to put off and avoid all but the tasks I knew I could excel at.
Like Jacques Anatole Thibault clung to his imperfection, I cling to the malleability of my intellect. With that mindset there is nothing to prove, just opportunities to grow; and consequently…no need to procrastinate.
How you choose to view your abilities is up to you.
You can see your intelligence as either set in stone or as an infinitely adaptive entity.
Choose the former and you’ll endemically underperform; choose the latter and not only will it stop you stalling, but it’ll motivate you to try harder, push further and ultimately, to excel.
It’s a no-brainer of a choice, really, isn’t it?
Compartmentalise Your Time
I procrastinate for another core reason: an absolute inability to prioritise. By nature, everything always feels equally urgent to me…and the arising indecision can be immobilising.
As Edward Hallowell M.D. aptly puts it in ‘Driven to Distraction’, “paying an unpaid parking ticket can feel as pressing as putting out the fire that just got started in the waste paper basket” for people with such impulsive, short focused, single tasking personality leanings.
That incessant ‘fire in the waste paper basket’ mode of thinking - “Should I work, maybe eat, exercise, shower, read, wash the dishes, write, play the guitar, go for a walk…or just run screaming down the street?” – typically left me so conflicted that I’d just end up pacing up and down the hallway and smoking another cigarette.
So how in our fast-paced, task overloaded world can you possibly survive without the ability to ‘prioritise’ and ‘organise’? Character traits that when all’s said and done are considered modern-day necessities; and which no self-respecting C.V. forgets to mention.
Grains of Sand…
A single paragraph I read several years ago in ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ by Dale Carnegie answered that question.
Carnegie relates the story of a young army officer caught up in the chaos and carnage of World War II. Overwhelmed with the ceaseless task of disinterring the bodies of soldiers hurriedly buried in the heat of battle, this officer found himself in a military hospital on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The trite sounding, but ultimately life-changing advice the officer was given by an army physician was this:
“Think of your life as an hourglass… There are thousands of grains of sand at the top… [But] nothing you or I could do would make more than one grain of sand pass through the narrow neck without impairing the hourglass…There are hundreds of tasks [each of us has to accomplish each day]…But if we do not take them one at a time and let them pass through the day slowly and evenly [like grains of sand through the narrow neck of an hourglass]…then we are bound to break our own physical and mental structure.”
Carnegie relayed that message a good fifty years before ‘single-tasking’ ever became a buzzword. And I wish I’d read the book sooner, because like that army officer, I’ve found that simple analogy deceptively powerful.
Permission to Single Task…
Regardless of how utterly disorganised I am, no matter how many errands and chores remain outstanding, from that simple analogy I’ve learned to pick one task and simply let go of the rest.
The analogy of the hourglass legitimises my right to just switch off from everything else and to give my full undivided attention to just one thing at a time – maybe for an hour, maybe until it’s completed or maybe just until I get bored.
As long as what I’m doing is productive and positive, I don’t care; and short of an imminent heart attack or Armageddon, I feel justified in remaining oblivious to everything around me, no matter how urgent it may seem.
If it’s that urgent, I’ll single-task it next.
Single tasking is undoubtedly one of the keys to productivity. The trick however, is to find a mindset that offers the peace of mind to put it into practice.
For me at least, thinking of my time as the narrow neck of an hourglass and each task as a grain of sand passing through, does just that… it gives me permission to allow each task to pass through ‘slowly and evenly.’
Let go of the incapacitating anxiety and pressure that arises from constantly reflecting on the zillion things you have to do. Pick the most important grain of sand, single task it through the neck of the hourglass, take a break and then move on.
Nothing meaningful ever gets achieved when you’re consumed by the pressure of multiple ‘urgent’ tasks. Bearing that fact in mind alone provides the only excuse you need to single-task guilt free.
Like a River
You’ve probably heard of the concept of ‘flow’ – the state of mind whereby you become so fully engrossed in the task at hand that your sense of time and self seem to evaporate into thin air.
In a state of flow, all your focus is projected outward onto the task – and as such, anxieties and distractions melt away, whilst a sense of calm and effortless attention engulf you.
With that description, you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a very productive (and creative) frame of mind to attain – one that can prevent a build-up of all the mental strain that tends to turn tasks into unbearable, effortful chores.
But how do you get into a state of flow that effectively limits your need to take sanctuary through inactivity?
Most of what I’ve suggested so far helps you to do just that, at least in part. Being able to let go of all those niggling performance anxieties, as well as having the permission to place your undivided attention on just one task at a time are all conducive to maintaining a flow state.
Flow Before Starting…
Entering a flow state before you turn your attention to whatever you want to do however, that’s the tricky part; simply because what works for one individual won’t necessarily work for another.
Some people for example meditate, some people exercise, some stare at the sea – if fact, I do all three.
But here’s my simple advice: Find a task that you both find genuinely absorbing and moderately challenging and let it naturally draw you into flow.
I have a flow inducing repertoire I often go through on my guitar before I start work; whilst at other times I’ll absorb myself in a book that sparks my interest and challenges me to think.
Sometimes I play chess online; although in all honesty, if I lose that can be a recipe for flow shattering disaster. I’m a sorer loser than Chewbacca; and with no arms to rip from a physical opponent’s shoulders, a lost game of chess can result in a flow state with the consistency of overcooked porridge.
But I digress.
The key is to find an activity that draws your focus entirely into the present; an activity that’s moderately mentally challenging, engaging and that you enjoy.
If you can’t think of anything that fulfils that criteria, try flOw, a free skill-adaptive game developed by graduates from the University of Southern California which is designed to do just that. It really is worth taking a few minutes to figure it out because it really does draw you into that flow state remarkably effectively if you give it half a chance.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, and as my own flow state starts to wane and my head begins to hurt (as I’m sure yours is reading) I will start to draw to a close. But before I do, let’s move a little away from the philosophical, and consider a couple more practical techniques that add a few more sticks of TNT to any brick wall of inactivity.
Consider the Consequences
Dislike of a task, particularly administrative tasks, can leave me so consumed with resistance that on many occasions I have sweated and stressed for weeks rather than take immediate action.
I’m not talking about the likes of annual audits here either, I’m talking about simple, everyday tasks that could have been done and dusted in ten minutes – writing a letter, paying a bill, speaking to some far-off-shore customer services representative of my friendly and caring bank.
Instead of sacrificing ten minutes, I’ve made the majorly irrational decision to allow these things to fester away for weeks.
But my simple technique for overcoming this type of task-loathing resistance is now to ask myself: -
“What are the potential consequences of not taking action here…what do I stand to lose?’’
That negative question is a true motivator for me. The harrowing prospect of ending up in court, or paying an excessive overdraft fee to help fund my bank’s next office party, or the lights going off when the electricity company pulls the plug, fills me with such dread that it compels me into action.
It’s a powerful ‘push’ form of motivation that repels me from a greater evil.
A basic psychological principle backs up the legitimacy of my strategy: we are more motivated by the fear of loss than we are by the potential for gain.
Not convinced? Well, here’s a simple test:
Which would affect you more…losing a tenner or finding one?
Psychologists reckon that the average person attaches twice as much negative emotion to a loss as he / she attaches positive emotion to an equivalent gain.
This quirk of the human mind must explain why I felt pretty nonchalant about spending £20 on a few drinks last weekend; but I’m still mourning the loss of the £10 note that must have dropped out of my pocket on the way home.
Me and that tenner…we would have had such a great life together.
BUT the above ‘focus on the negatives’ advice comes with a disclaimer.
Because although this loss-averse instinct seems to compel me into action with unnerving predictability, research into goal achievement (which obviously involves having the motivation to take action) suggests that my brain possibly doesn’t work within normal parameters.
Large scale studies conducted by Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, suggest than the reverse tends to be true.
In general, Wiseman’s research, which has involved thousands of participants, indicates that individuals are far more likely to achieve their goals when focusing on the potential benefits of achievement. The charge of positive motivation they experience pulls them towards their goal (and of course, into action) like a magnet.
So according to this model, mulling over the future benefits of working towards a career advancing qualification (e.g. I’ll have more opportunity for career advancement, a chance to make partner, a bigger car) is a substantially more robust form of motivation than focusing on the career stagnation and the dodgy old banger you could end up driving if you fail to take action.
For me however, focusing on the benefits isn’t as effective. The horror of inaction outweighs the motivational power of the reward of action every time. But hey, who am I to disagree with overwhelming research to the contrary? Maybe my brain really is wired back to front and upside down.
The bottom line I think is this: Find what works for you.
You may find, just like me, that loss aversion pushes you into action with tremendous efficiency; alternatively, you may find that a realistic appraisal of the benefits of action pulls you out of inactivity and towards your goal.
You may find of course, that each of these opposing strategies lends itself particularly well to specific circumstances, while the other falls short.
The human mind is too complex to be constrained by the dogma of research or to a one-size-fits-all approach; so try each one to suit your mood and your circumstances.
Whichever one pulls you out of a procrastination rut is the one that works.
Ask yourself either:
“What will happen if I fail to take action…what do I stand to lose?”
“What are the benefits of taking action…what do I stand to gain?”
Personality, circumstance and your emotional state will dictate which is the more effective of the two. Those variables aside however, one of the two will undoubtedly stir you into action.
Getting started is always the hardest part; hence the reason you’d be hard pressed to find a procrastination tip list that didn’t recommend working in small bursts.
A commitment to work for 30 minutes for example, whilst limited enough to overcome that sense of pre-task foreboding, is also sufficient to get something productive done.
Anyone can bear anything for 30 minutes (short of physical torture of course); and the culmination of several 30 minute sessions over days, weeks or months can move mountains.
Believe me, if that were not the case you wouldn’t be reading this rather lengthy, but hopefully helpful post now.
But there’s more to the story, because working in short bursts doesn’t just allay the fear of starting, it triggers a subtle but powerful psychological force that pulls you back to the task time and time again.
The Zeigarnik Effect
Known as the Zeigarnik Effect, after the young Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first noticed it in action, this psychological phenomenon seems to be hardwired into our brains to ensure we both finish what we start; and then mentally let-go of tasks we finish.
In a 1920’s Viennese restaurant, Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters typically had no difficulty recalling a customer’s order before they’d paid; but ask them about the order once the customer had settled the bill and they’d draw a blank.
Back in her research lab she emulated the phenomenon time and time again; observing that test subjects interrupted in the middle of a task recalled the intricacies of what they’d been doing in miniscule detail, whereas those left to finish the task quickly forgot.
It was as if the mental blackboard had been wiped clear by the completion of the task.
The point to all this is that once you start something, your mind refuses to let go until it’s done. The task remains at the forefront of your mind, like it or not.
We all know what it’s like to have something playing on our mind: – when something’s left unresolved we experience a mental discord that’s hard to lay to rest.
And in fact, the only way to do so is to take action to resolve it.
Were it not for the Zeigarnik Effect, my subconscious wouldn’t have had the power to involuntarily drag me back to my PC at 1AM on Sunday morning to write this ‘Limiting Time’ part of the post. I was, after all, watching a really good film on TV – Dog Soldiers.
But thanks to the effect, I felt restless, I couldn’t relax into the film, my mind was elsewhere; and like an addict in need of a fix, I felt compelled to leave my late-night entertainment in order to resolve the tension.
Motivating the Demotivated…
I find the Zeigarnik Effect particularly effective when I’m feeling really demotivated in general, for whatever reason.
And when those times hit hard, as they all too often do, here’s how I get it to work for me:
I’ll force myself to work for 30 minutes (which does take a bit of willpower admittedly) but then, even if I feel inspired to continue after those 30 minutes are up, I’ll stop.
And the beauty of this technique is that it doesn’t matter if I’m feeling so generally demotivated that breathing in and out seems like a chore, the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in – and like it or not, consistently drags me back to work.
Working in short bursts doesn’t just make a task appear less daunting, it also makes it haunting. One short burst will lead to another, and then another, as your mind craves to achieve resolution.
A resolution that I’m glad to say I’ve just achieved, temporarily at least, with the completion of this section.
Yes, I’ve missed the film, but it’ll be on again; and anyway, I’ve gained a greater reward…648 words written and a peaceful, non-Zeigarnik Effect-disturbed good night’s sleep to follow.
Those are six powerful techniques I routinely employ to overcome my own activity inertia. I have more, but to save you the inconvenience of going blind, I’ll leave them for a later post.
Whilst some of these strategies will only help if you suffer from a fear of failure born out of similar (and disturbingly common) unhelpful subconscious beliefs as my own – such as a dysfunctional association between work and worth, or performance and intelligence; others such as compartmentalising tasks, working in flow, considering the consequences and limiting time should be universally beneficial.
Cherry pick the techniques that work for you, discard the ones that don’t. Procrastination is merely the universal symptom of a problem that can have any number of underlying causes. So as I said before, a one-size-fits-all solution simply doesn’t exist.
But if you’ve just read the entire 4200 words or so of this article in one go, more than anything you can take solace from the fact that you’re probably built from stronger stuff than you thought.
You can shut-down your overheating PC safe in the knowledge that whatever problem you have with procrastination at the moment isn’t terminal, it will never indefinitely hold you back.
A nod and a wink to…
Tammy at The Great JollyHoombah, whose comments about ‘people pleasing’ on my last post got me thinking, once again, about how our tendency to crave the approval of others can so powerfully undermine our lives. A train of thought that clearly influenced her latest post ‘No Bossing’ too.
Tony, the master of prolific output at We Only Do This Once for his recent article ‘How to Break Habits Down Into Chunks’ which fired off enough synapses in my tiny mind for me to remember to include the section on ‘Limiting Time’ and ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’ – both of which I rely on as such a matter of course that they almost slipped beneath the radar.
Amy at Strong Inside Out, whose willingness to expose her insecurities in Being Ok with Not Being Ok: The Process I Use to (Try to) Accept Any State in order to help others, reminded me that it’s OK to sometimes show the chinks in your armour; and whose enthusiasm, initiative and willingness to help others through her 30×30 Project is inspirational.
The six procrastination-busting strategies I’ve written about in this post; without which I’d never have started this article, let alone finished.
And last, but by no means least, everyone who takes the time to read all this…I really hope it helps. Let me know.