18 October 2010

Beating the beast of procrastination in 666 days

The fire of change

Procrastination seems to be occupying my attention lately, not because I'm doing it more than usual — in fact, since beginning this post I've been better than usual at putting off procrastination — but because I've been wondering why I find it so difficult to overcome. The renewed interest arose partly from reading James Surowiecki’s article about procrastination in the New Yorker, but also because lately I've been trying harder to get important things done, promptly. I've also been motivated by disgust with myself over occasional wasted days (like the day before I began this post, when all I accomplished from my long list was to mail my local government voting paper — at the last minute, of course); so disgusted, in fact, that I've felt motivated to prove I'm actually not as hopeless as those days suggest. I've also been intrigued by a recent article about psychologist Ellen Langer, who describes herself as an "anticrastinator" and whose main thesis seems to focus on how mindset influences not just behaviour, but physical change.

That struck a chord with me. The suggestion that thoughts affect physiology as well as behaviour doesn't sound novel, but when she first proposed it she apparently met huge opposition — and still does from some quarters, probably with some justification given the problems with her modus operandi. But the essence of her argument has been said before, for thousands of years; it's been said by people like Buddha, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, Gandhi and many other famous and sometimes wise people. In short — actually, in Buddha's words [1] — we are what we think; the corollary is that if we change what we think, we change who we are. If I think of myself as a procrastinator, I become a procrastinator (if I'm not already); if I think of myself as efficient, effective and productive, I become efficient, effective and productive. That’s the theory.

The problem is that the effect also works the other way: if I procrastinate, I think of myself as a procrastinator; the process is cyclical. As any procrastinator will confirm, it's also difficult to break the cycle. Pigeons at the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, November 2007Merely thinking of myself as efficient, effective and productive won't immediately effect the desired change, nor will just a few days of efficient, effective and productive behaviour. Ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour need persistent effort to change. Conversely, and ironically, the encouraging thought is identical: the process is cyclical, so working on thoughts and actions provides positive feedback — if I work well today this confirms my belief I work well, and if I believe I work well I'm more likely to to work well today.

It sounds easy, but it's not (ask the procrastinator). Procrastination's a habit, and recent research suggests the average time to form a simple habit is slightly more than two months (66 days, apparently). That's two months of near-daily practice. I suspect more complex habits take longer to form, and those that require changing an existing, complex habit will take even longer — given their intransigence, I suspect the average for changing these tasks will turn out to be 666 days. Procrastination’s that kind of beast.

So, I began thinking about how I might change from a chronic procrastinator to someone who gets the important things done — someone who seems comfortably on top of things. Two things seemed important, perhaps essential, for overcoming procrastination in the long term: to start small and to persist, because persistence is necessary and starting small makes persistence more likely. More specifically, I decided to work on five things:
  1. Replacing negative self-talk. I find it easy to lapse into thinking, "Here I go, procrastinating again," so when I catch myself thinking that, I replace it with a pre-prepared phrase —  currently, "I'm getting better at getting things done."
  2. Initially, completing just one important but comfortably achievable task a day.[2] After practising what I'm preaching, I've realised the important point is that the task should be something I don't have to do. For example, I'd booked an eye examination, so all I had to do was turn up for it; I could easily have procrastinated on booking the appointment, but making sure I turned up for it was largely out of my control; procrastination wasn't an issue. In short, I need to do things that could comfortably be delayed. The point at this stage is to succeed: succeeding when the tasks are difficult or unpleasant can come later, when I’m (even) better.
  3. Not worrying if I bomb out occasionally — the recent research mentioned above showed occasionally missing a day's practice, or even two days in a row, seemed not to affect the forming of the habit.
  4. Keeping a simple tally of how many days in a row I've succeeded. The sight of a long row of ticks, with only an occasional gap, must surely help confirm my belief I’m getting better at getting things done.
  5. Putting into practice the adage that the best form of self-control is to put yourself in a situation where self-control isn't necessary. I've forgotten where I read that recently, but it's brilliant — possibly the single most effective piece of advice I've heard on overcoming procrastination. When computer work’s involved, the obvious example is to disconnect from the Internet; the problem is the ease with which one can reconnect. Switching off the wireless adapter or modem isn't particularly effective because it's so easy to power them up again. The New Yorker article mentioned Freedom, a simple (cheap, not free) program that blocks Internet access for up to eight hours and requires a reboot to override, but I find working in the public library or a cafe, where I'd have to pay for a wireless connection, just as effective. At home, the temptation to check e-mail or look up a reference or simply visit a favourite blog or website can be much harder to resist, which is one of the reasons I like to write by hand, with a pen on paper, first thing in the morning. I don't turn the computer on until the writing's done. (That, at least, has become a habit).

But one of the best ways I've found to avoid the need for self-control is simply to set an alarm. I'd been procrastinating on an editing contract recently, but finally finished it in four hour-long sessions by setting an alarm to signal the start of each session. I set a warning alarm for 5–10 minutes beforehand, with the message, "Wrap up what you're doing".[3] Why did this work so well? My guess is that it provided an external imperative rather than requiring me to make a decision at the time; in other words, I'd already made the decision earlier, when it's easier to make these kinds of decisions (the New Yorker article explains that it's called "hyperbolic discounting", but it could be called "beans on toast" for all I care — the point is that it works). To have ignored the alarm would have taken a conscious decision on my part to sabotage my predetermined intention to start working. The warning alarm helped by disabling the excuse "I just need to finish this first" — as we know, those wrappings-up have a remarkable ability to turn into extended explorations of something we hadn't intended to explore. Instead, the warning gave me a short, predefined period to complete what I was doing. I found it enlightening to discover how quickly I could finish scanning my RSS feeds when I knew I had to start editing within five minutes.

So, this is my plan for turning myself from a procrastinator into a paragon of effectiveness, or at least into less of a hopeless case. Could these suggestions work for you? I don't know. They seem to make sense to me, they seem to be working for me, and they're backed by evidence, but I can't guarantee they'll work for anyone else. Moreover, I don't even know if they'll eventually work even for me — I'm still a long way short of even 66 days — but at least I've made a start. For an ex-procrastinator, that's a mighty big deal.

1. “We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Gautama Buddha, on Wikiquote, retrieved 18 October 2010. 
2. Finishing this post was my task for today. It's by no means the only thing I'll be doing, but anything else is extra.
3. I'm currently using the free version of TimeLeft, which only allows one alarm at a time (the paid version allows more). It's good enough for me; a bit fiddly to set up, but the warning alarm makes it worthwhile.

1. In the Lotus Sutra’s Parable of the Burning House,  the house represents our day-to-day world; the fire, suffering. Escape from the burning house can be achieved. But a burning house, one of the most affecting of sights, can be seen as a metaphor in many other ways. (This was a local farmer’s way of dealing with a derelict house on his property, two years ago almost to the day).
2. As far as I know, pigeons and other animals don’t procrastinate. (At the Jama Masjid in New Delhi, just short of three years ago. A lot of water under the bridge since then.)
3. This clock is older than me. It’s right twice a day. Sometimes I’d be happy with an average as good as that.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Prompt and cheerful.

I have thought about that 2 month time, and figure that's why army basic training was eight weeks. I don't think I've ever been as forgetful after, as I was before, that whole life experience of breaking old habits.

Must go read all those links...

leonie.wise said...

I have definitely procrastinationy periods, then end up with a brain that's almost exploding because I've left EVERYTHING until the last minute.

Then, I need lists.

Somehow this kinda works for me in a strange way.

I have read before about establishing a regular practise, though so far haven't managed to achieve it. I've just recently become a student again and am struggling a bit with actually making room in my day (and a regular time) to do my study.

Good luck with your efforts!

(I'm currently avoiding cleaning the house and reading/commenting on your blog instead!)

leonie.wise said...

P.S. that first photo... AMAZING

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, that's interesting about the duration of the military training. Presumably it was recognised from long trial and error. I guess it's a good example of point 5, too: being ordered to carry out tasks, with dire consequences if you don't, must substantially reduce the need for self-control, and eventually I suppose it sinks in that doing things on time is usually easy — or at least easier than it seems at the time.

Leonie, your process sounds very much like mine used to be. Although I've taken a large leap forward in the last couple of weeks, I'm pretty sure I'd been gradually improving over the last few years, perhaps because I no longer worked for an organisation. Working for oneself does tend to foster self-discipline when one's ability to pay the bills depends on it. I've worked from lists for a long time, though — particularly when I have a huge number of tasks (not always unavoidable).
   Thanks for the thumbs up about the photo, too. It's probably the only opportunity I'll ever have to photograph a burning house, and I was fortunate to have the 300 mm with me (I'd just walked out of the Ruahine).
   Good luck with the studies :^) Try the alarm trick — I found it helped me a lot.

Bob McKerrow said...

I think we all fight procratination within and externally. Over the years I have found that no matter how hard you train, coach and motivate your team, there are always one or two who think too hard, plan too hard, philosphise too much, but never implement. Hence the saying I love, "If you want a job done, give it to a busy person."

I think the perfect person is a mixture of the doer, the procrastinator and the philosopher.

pohanginapete said...

Bob, overplanning's a great way to procrastinate — it's one reason I'm trying to keep my approach as simple as possible. I like your idea of the perfect person, too. Maybe the philosopher has the wisdom to understand what's really worth doing and what can be harmlessly procrastinated?

Relatively Retiring said...

What is the opposite of procrastination....because that's what I am? Always too early, always ahead of myself by hours and sometimes days.
And I've been even more so since my Supervisor in counselling annnounced that people who are late only do it to draw attention to themselves!

pohanginapete said...

RR, thanks to a friend who directed my attention to this blog post, I can say you sound like an hesternissator ;^) The other options are a nuncator (if you do things immediately) or a prohodiernator if you do things promptly but not immediately.

Why do these all sound like words that shouldn't be spoken in polite company?

Relatively Retiring said...

Yep - I continually hesternissate - and I thought I had spatiotemporal organisational difficulties of brain biopotentials. Thank you. I feel better!

Word verification is GRIGLIA - I think I've got that, too.

Anonymous said...

hesternissator I am not.... In fact, I am still procrastinating a good response to this excellent post. Cheers, Maureen

pohanginapete said...

But you got it done, Maureen! Thanks :^)

Avus said...

" I've been better than usual at putting off procrastination". Loved that, Pete! By putting it off you were procrastinating about it...a no-win situation, ain't it?

pohanginapete said...

Avus — true. But perhaps the only way to win is by accepting defeat?

beadbabe49 said...

I think one of the realizations that helped my procrastinating tendencies was to really take to heart the saying, "the perfect is the enemy of the good"...having to be perfect kept me from finishing so many things...

pohanginapete said...

Beadbabe, that's an excellent point. The link between perfectionist tendencies and procrastination has been well documented (and I know some good examples — I was one, and still have that tendency in some areas). I've gradually come to learn that not everything I do has to be perfect; in fact, I increasingly enjoy the satisfaction of completing tasks on time and to a "good enough" standard.

Michael said...

I wonder if there is some sort of survival benefit to procrastination? We all do it to some degree. Perhaps it's programmed by our genes. If so, then what would be the benefit. You'd think that it would be a trait that would have been selected out. Or is it a new phenomenon? A product of leisure time. Perhaps we are programmed to rest when our survival is not at stake (fresh mastodon meat in the cave). The conflict comes when we decide we need to work against this human biology.

I like to blame my family and household duties for my lack of writing production, but I know that argument only goes so far.

pohanginapete said...

Interesting thoughts, Michael. I don't know any plausible answers, but I do wonder about the degree to which some animals think ahead. We tend to assume they have next to no foresight, but I'm sceptical of that. It's easy to get caught up in teleological thinking too — birds migrate "because they're avoiding the winter", etc. Do they really have any understanding like that (in very loose terms), or are they simply responding to environmental cues that create the urge to migrate? It'd take some pretty shrewd experiments to work that one out.