In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we have a principle of life we hold dear to. It’s called “Eat the Frog”.
No one would want to eat a frog willingly. Well, perhaps the legs if fried in a little garlic butter and accompanied by a tantalising chilled chardonnay. But not just pop the whole, live creature into one’s mouth and crunch.
The basic idea is that we all have things we put off because we perceive they might be unpleasant. Cleaning up our room for a teenager. Making a phone call to stand up to someone who makes us nervous. Or going for that early morning walk in the rain that our doctor prescribed. Not the rain. The walk.
Eat the Frog – we are indebted to business analyst and personal coach Soozey Johnstone for the tip – see the end of this article for a link to her brilliant new book – simply means “get the shitty stuff out of the way first up – the rest of the day is bound to be an upward curve of contentment”. And it works.
Of course, most people procrastinate from time to time. And most of the time it’s not so harmful: putting off doing the laundry for a few days or taking 15 minutes here and there to get lost in Facebook. In fact, research shows that access to Facebook in the workplace makes workers more productive rather than less – it’s a nice break for the brain.
But procrastination can also create huge problems for many people — at work, at school, and at home. Consider all the people who keep meaning to start saving for retirement, for example, but never do it. Or people with obesity or diabetes who constantly tell themselves: “I’ll start eating right tomorrow” — but never do. Or “I’ll implement those new systems at work because I know the workplace will be happier and more productive if I do” but then are always somehow “too busy” to actually get around to it.
Roughly 5 percent of the population has such a problem with chronic procrastination that it seriously affects their lives.
None of it seems logical. How can people have such good intentions and yet be so totally unable to follow through? Conventional wisdom has long suggested that procrastination is all about poor time management and willpower – basically, personal weakness. But more recently, psychologists have been discovering that it may have more to do with how our brains and emotions work.
PROCRASTINATORS ARE LESS COMPASSIONATE TOWARD THEMSELVES
Procrastination, they’ve realised, appears to be a coping mechanism. When people procrastinate, they’re avoiding emotionally unpleasant tasks and instead doing something else that provides a temporary mood boost. But the procrastination itself then causes shame and guilt — which in turn leads people to procrastinate even further, creating a vicious cycle and even depression.
But getting a better understanding of why our brains are so prone to procrastination might let us find new strategies to avoid it. For example, psychologist Tim Pychyl has co-authored a paper showing that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating on a previous exam were actually less likely to procrastinate on their next test.
He and others have also found that people prone to procrastination are, overall, less compassionate toward themselves — an insight that points to ways to help.
Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, has been studying procrastinators for some 19 years.
He remarked: “When a procrastinator thinks about themselves, they’ll think, “Oh, I have a time management problem” or “I just can’t make myself do it. There’s a problem with my willpower.” And when other people think about procrastinators, they use that pejorative term: “They’re lazy.”
PSYCHOLOGISTS SEE PROCRASTINATION AS A MISPLACED COPING MECHANISM
“But psychologists see procrastination as a misplaced coping mechanism, as an emotion-focused coping strategy. People who procrastinate are using avoidance to cope with emotions, and many of them are non-conscious emotions. So we see it as giving in to feel good. And it’s related to a lack of self-regulation skills.
I can simplify that and say that psychologists recognize we all have a six-year-old running the ship. And the six-year-old is saying, “I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it!”
Pychyl continued: “Recently we’ve been doing research that relates to the work on “present self”/”future self” because what’s happening with procrastination is that “present self” is always trumping “future self.”
Hal Hershfield has done some really great research on looking at how we think about “future self.” He’s shown that in experimental settings, if someone sees their own picture digitally aged, they’re more likely to allocate funds to retirement. When the researchers did the fMRI studies, they found our brain processes present self and future self differently. We think of future self more like a stranger.”
“My graduate student Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon just did three studies, and what she looked at is our ability to imagine the future self. She measured people’s self-continuity. You’d see circles representing present self and future self and choose how much to overlap them. Some people see these selves as completely distinct, and some people see them totally overlapping. The people who see the present and future self as more overlapping have more self-continuity and report less procrastination.”
Well, that makes sense.
So, for example, you could engage with students to think of an image of themselves at the end of the term. And the hypothesis would be that those students who engage with this imagery of future self will then procrastinate less. People will make less procrastinatory choices now because they’ll realize that “It’s me in the future we’re talking about, here. I’m going to be under the gun.”
Pychyl was asked what he thinks is the most surprising thing about procrastination, and what his best tip for avoiding it would be.
“I’m still grappling with that for many people, the experience of procrastination doesn’t match the definition that most of us are working with: a voluntary delay of an intended action despite knowing you’re going to be worse off for the delay. If you speak to people, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t feel voluntary: “I feel like I have no control over it.” For some people, it feels totally involuntary, like they can’t help themselves.
JUST GET STARTED
“One of my pet expressions is “Just get started.” And it’s important you don’t say “Just do it” — that’s overwhelming. But just get started.
Whenever we face a task, we’re not going to feel like doing it. Somehow adults believe that their motivational state has to match the task at hand. We say, “I’m not in the mood.”
Our motivational state rarely matches the task at hand, so we always have to use self-regulation skills to bring our focus to it. So at first, it will be “Ok, I recognize that I don’t feel like it, but I’m just going to get started.”
The wisdom of the ages would seem to back this view up. Roman thinker and poet Horace once aid: “The task that is started is half finished.”
What’s the hard evidence, though, that just beginning a task, even in a very small way, makes it easier to follow through?
“We know from psychological research by [Andrew] Elliot and others that progress on our goals feeds our well-being. So the most important thing you can do is bootstrap a little progress. Get a little progress, and that’s going to fuel your well-being and your motivation. Back in the 1990s, I put pagers on students and paged them [eight times a day for five days before an academic deadline]. And when they finally started working on the project, empirically we found that they didn’t see it as as difficult or as stressful as earlier in the week. So their perceptions of the task changed. There’s lots of reasons to think that that’s what happens to us when we get started.”
But what about getting distracted?
“[Peter] Gollwitzer and his colleagues for years have shown us that implementation intentions make a huge difference to even deal with things like distractions. Implementation intentions take the form of “If, then.”
So: “if the phone rings, then I’m not going to answer it.” “If my friends call me to say we’re going out, I’m going to say no.” So you’ve already made this pre-commitment. You can use implementation intentions to keep yourself focused: “If I’ve finished this part of the article, then I’m going to immediately turn my attention to reading the next part.”
Pychyl argues that procrastination it’s all about self-deception — you aren’t aware that it’s going to cost you, but you are. When there’s no more self-deception and you face yourself, you either (pardon the term) shit or get off the pot. As he says: “You’re either going to do it, or you’re not going to do it.” Stop kidding yourself.
Indeed, indeed. And we at the Wellthisiswhatithink desk have long suspected that one of the best ways to deal with the overflow of stimuli and work in today’s world is never to procrastinate if an opportunity presents itself to deal immediately with something minor, instead of adding it to the list of things to do.
This seems counter-intuitive to the idea of avoiding distractions, not to mention time-blocking and a heap of other good stuff like ADCB task prioritising. But we nevertheless believe that is outweighed by the positive boost of not endlessly extending the “To Do” list. There’s a note on our desk (we are as prone to procrastinating as anyone else) that simply reads “Do it now.”
Pychyl believes he’s a living example of the principle of “getting things done”:
“I really like my life, and I like to make time for the things that are important to me. [Robert] Pozen, who’s written a book on extreme productivity, has the OHIO rule: only handle it once. And I’m like that with email. I look at that email and say “I can reply to it now, or I can throw it out,” but there’s not much of a middle ground. I’m not going to save it for a while. And so if I can deal with it in two minutes — this is David Allen’s work — I deal with it.
I used to procrastinate, and now I don’t because I got all these wicked strategies. And it’s every level: some of it’s behavioural, some of it’s emotional, some of it’s cognitive. And now my biggest challenge is how do I teach my kids this. That’s really hard.”
Further reading: Pychyl’s book from 2013: “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change”
“Why wait? The science behind procrastination.”, a review of the contemporary research by Eric Jaffe
“I am the problem” 9 problems that hold back managers from business success and what to do about them. Soozey Johnstone with Stephen Yolland.
Further listening: Pychyl also hosts a podcast, called iProcrastinate, which often features interviews with other psychology experts in related fields and is also heavy with tips and tricks for overcoming procrastination
BEST BUSINESS TIP – USE THE “RED DOT SPECIAL”
Many years ago, someone shared with us a brilliant tip to avoid procrastinating in the office that we have told hundreds of people, and it really works.
Many people have desks that are covered with papers. They seem unable to reduce the load on the desk, and frequently find it deeply depressing that their workspace is so cluttered and confused. They waste time finding what they need – but the real problem is they just look at the desk and murmur “tomorrow”.
If I am describing your world, here’s a really clever and simple tip for getting started on tackling the problem. Every time you touch a piece of paper on your desk – every single time – and especially if you simply pick it up and move it from side to side or front to back – put a little red dot with a felt tip pen on the paper. Don’t do anything else – just “red dot it”.
It’s revelatory. Very soon, you will find some pieces of paper or files that are covered in a ridiculous amount of dots. These are the matters you are deliberately avoiding.
Answer? Deal with them, delegate them, bin them, or file them somewhere else. Your stress levels will reduce substantially and you’ll become much more productive.
[Some of this article first appeared on Vox]