What follows are my key takeaways from Timothy Pychyl’s The Procrastinator’s Digest: A concise guide to solving the procrastination puzzle. I highly recommend the book, but for your benefit, my personal sparknotes are below:
When people are procrastinating, the act doesn’t make them feel better than working, even in the short term. There are numerous reasons for this, which I will go itno more detail below. Anways, procrastination is bad for your health. Procrastinators tend to stress out and to delay beneficial practices like exercising, healthy eating and sleeping.
Putting off pursuit of our goals is putting off what is most important in life, for the sake of short term mood. When people look back on their lives, they don’t regret what they did but what they didn’t do. To get more out of our life, we need to fully engage in it. Time is of the essence.
To head off procrastination it is important to consider: short term consequences, long term consequences and, perhaps more importantly, to understand the benefits both in the short term and, it goes without saying, the long term.
Preventing procrastination is about not giving in to feeling good now. I give in feel good way too often: eating, smoking and drinking too much. When we procrastinate, we do so because we are unwilling to regulate ourselves. We choose not to self-regulate because we “give in to feel good”. For procrastinators, short term mood takes precedence. Even worse, we feel a momentary positive emotion or relief when we avoid an aversive task, reinforcing the failure to act.
We need to understand that when we want to do something later, we are doing that to avoiding the negative emotion of dealing with the task now, not because it makes sense to avoid the task. It takes emotional intelligence to recognize this, and no wonder emotional intelligence is negatively correlated with self-control and procrastination. Thankfully, emotional intelligence is something that we can improve and grow (see my post on Mindset).
There are many ways to convince yourself to avoid a task. The two most important are avoidance/distraction and falsely projecting that you will be more inclined to work on it later. The author says that, “the first step at the moment of procrastination is to stay put.” If you let yourself wander, you’re lost.
The key is to be prepared for this moment when you are about to let yourself turn away. “Implementation intentions” are critical in forming good habits such as these. An implementation intention is a predetermined reaction that you will have for a give event. When you have predetermined your intention, then you won’t need to use as much will power in the moment to convince yourself to implement the intention. For example, you can say to yourself, “When I come home from work, I will change and go to the gym.” Making this pre-decision will help you follow through. When you become aware that you want to procrastinate, the author suggests forming this implementation intention:
“If I feel negative emotions when I face the task at hand, then I will stay put and not stop, put off a task or run away”.
However, we don’t have to focus purely on the punitive. Lean into the negative feelings, but work from the positive feelings we get from things like curiosity and desire to succeed.
Traps to avoid
Don’t trick yourself. You won’t feel more like doing something tomorrow.
Studies show that we are not very good at forecasting our mood, or “affective forecasting.” When we perform affective forecasting, we tend to: (1) polarize our forecasts, that is very negative or positive outcomes, (2) underestimate the effect of future events on our point of view or personality (focalism), (3) overestimate the importance of the present in our predictions of the future (presentism).
How does affect our decisions to procrastinate?
When we intend a future action, such as putting off a task, our forecast state is often very positive. There are two main reasons. Firstly, we are getting a brief positive jolt due to the decision to put off our work, and our forecast state is skewed positively due to our presentism. Secondly, we are imagining a righteous future action that we think will make us happy. Imagining something pleasant that is in the future is very easy to do and very rewarding emotionally. In the moment of procrastination, we think, yes this will be great to do tomorrow, when really it probably won’t.
Psychologists recommend two main strategies to deal with affective forecasting bias. You can imagine the future as vividly as possible to reduce bias. The other method is to simply expect to be wrong about your forecasts. Then, realize that you can’t listen to yourself.
The author champions two related concepts when fighting procrastination:
Just because you’re not motivated to do something at the moment, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. Attitude and emotion follow behavior as much as behavior follows attitude. Just get started. Facing the task, not allowing yourself to stray and just beginning is the most important part. Once again, attitude follows behavior. You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.
Our aversive attributions for the task will change once we just get started. Along with the good feeling of getting something done, this reinforces the good behavior.
Excuses and rationalizations to be aware of
- Discounting future rewards in relation to short term rewards
- Underestimating the time things will take and how much we can do
- Prefer tomorrow over today
- Protect self-esteem by not starting, not trying
- Manufacturing rationalizations that make it ok to forego our previous intentions
- Distraction, forgetting, trivialization, self affirmation, denial of responsibility, saying things could have been worse
In the end, the only choice to avoid procrastination is to change your behavior. What helps is to form implementation intentions i.e. If you see any of these rationalizations, then realize what they are and stay put, just get started.
- Make concrete plans
- Get organized
- Be ready to deal with distractions (pre-decisions come in handy again)
- Realize that it will be hard work to change your habits; practice self-forgiveness. Treat setbacks as learning opportunities and minor hitches, not a reflection of your true personality or a terminal diagnosis of procrastinitus
- Willpower is a limited resource. Use it strategically. Also, exercise it to make it stronger!
P.S. Maybe this post will help be finally finish the second half of the learning business from family post…