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  — 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.
As any procrastinator will confirm, it's also difficult to break the cycle. Merely 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:
- 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."
- Initially, completing just one important but comfortably achievable task a day. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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". 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.
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.