I started researching content for this post yesterday, but put off writing it until today. And before getting down to putting words to paper, I may have read email in multiple accounts, checked my NY Times and WSJ news feeds, reviewed past blog posts, and snuck in a few games of Candy Crush (Sweet!). Though as you are reading it now, clearly I have brought this post to completion and in the process of combating the urge to do anything but blog, joined the ranks of Fight Procrastination Day celebrants. And, whether you view thwarting the urge to do anything but what needs to be done as a religious right or merely as joining the celebration—today (September 6) is the official day to do right now what you would rather (or are genetically inclined—more on that later) to put off until tomorrow.
You could read this post now and tell yourself that the wisdom imparted will help you get in the mood for that important task you should really be tacking instead. Or, you could put off reading it until later and get back to that amazing piano playing cat. In the spirit of the day, I shall assume your decision to proceed immediately, and proceed myself. Read on…
(OK, tell the truth– did you check out the linked cat video before reading on?)
A Short History of Procrastination
It seems that as long as there have been humans with tasks to complete, there have been humans seeking to delay completing those tasks. References to the perils of procrastination have been found in ancient Greek and Roman writings, in Shakespeare’s plays (most notably, the master procrastinator Hamlet –“… that we would do We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes And hath abatements and delays as many As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents; And then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift sigh, That hurts by easing.” (Act 4, sc. 7)), and in present day pop-culture such as comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ admonition to, “Procrastinate now, don’t put it off.”
According to this infographic, based on research ranging from 1978- 2013, 20% of all people are chronic procrastinators, and 95% of all people procrastinate at least occasionally. (I assume the other 5% will at some point get around to it.) That’s an increase from the 5% of people admitting to being chronic procrastinators in a 1978 study—so perhaps this behavior is on the rise, even though another study found that people report procrastination as negatively affecting their happiness (46% of survey respondents reported it having “very much” or “quite a bit” of negative effect, and 18% reported an “extreme negative effect”).
With procrastination being an integral part of the human condition, it is no wonder that there is an extensive body of research and books on the subject. Studies have linked it to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, defined a procrastination doom loop, and even identified procrastination as moderately genetically heritable. (Interestingly, this latter study found procrastination inextricably genetically linked to impulsivity noting that, “procrastination and impulsivity are linked primarily through genetic influences on the ability to use high-priority goals to effectively regulate actions.”)
An article in The Association for Psychological Science Observer, Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination, provides a fantastic overview of what the body of research posits as the causes and effects of procrastination. In summarizing the research, the article suggests procrastination can be defined as “a gap between intention and action” and that, “There’s no single type of procrastinator… Chronic procrastinators have perpetual problems finishing tasks, while situational ones delay based on the task itself. A perfect storm of procrastination occurs when an unpleasant task meets a person who’s high in impulsivity and low in self-discipline.” This gap is one of emotion, rather than time management, and study participants were most likely to procrastinate when they felt they could improve their mood by doing so.
The article also highlights neuropsychological research indicating that chronic procrastination can be caused by deficiencies in the brain’s ability to self-regulate via executive functioning centers in its frontal systems.
A Short Video on Procrastination
If you’re the type of person who would rather do anything than read dense psychological research studies, then the following Ted Talk is for you. In the 14 minute presentation, Tim Urban simplifies the research on procrastination with a humorous look at the “Mind of a Master Procrastinator.”
If a light read is more your style, much of the same content is in this post on Urban’s Wait but Why blog.
Tips for Fighting Procrastination
Identifying the causes of procrastination is the first step in combatting them. The above noted research has suggested genetic components and deficiencies in brain function as root causes, which tends to disprove the common conception that procrastination is caused by laziness. Once we realize that it is actually our emotions (whether you believe those are manifestations of chemical brain activity, or something more ephemerally soulful) driving procrastination, we can take steps to address them.
11 Ways To Beat Procrastination from the Huffington Post suggests ways to help yourself overcome these emotional obstacles including the standard advice of breaking dauntingly complex tasks into smaller easier to manage chunks, and then rewarding yourself for completing them. The post also notes that being a perfectionist is a major procrastination driver—assuming that people who don’t think that they can adequately complete a task are prone to delaying working on it—and suggests cutting yourself a bit of slack in that regard.
Beating Procrastination Made Simple: A Two Step Process is a long post that delves into all aspects of procrastination at a bubblegum level, and provides details on the obvious two-step solution—figure out why you procrastinate and remove the source of your procrastination (duh!). However, the cartoons included in the post make it worthy of a scan as you prime yourself to tackle more insightful advice.
The Ultimate Guide To Fighting Procrastination from Business Insider provides a list of concrete things you can try to get yourself moving, such as taking control of and managing the time you spend on email, taking short breaks throughout your workday, and identifying the time of day at which you are innately most productive (there’s that genetic thing again).
The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It, suggests that deadlines are a key way to break the procrastination cycle and get yourself moving. Tim Urban’s “Panic Monster” embodies this idea as well. Research bears out this conclusion, with one study finding that while self-imposed deadlines provide some ability to quash procrastination, deadlines imposed by outside sources are far more effective.
And, when it comes to helping you impose your own deadlines and combat your innate predisposition to procrastinate, there is of course an App for that. Control yourself: 6 apps to help fight digital distraction details several of them designed to track exactly how much time you spend goofing off online, cut-off your internet ramblings, or remind you to concentrate on work instead of play. The apps bridge the gap between external and self-imposed deadlines. Thus, while you do have the ability to turn them off or change the parameters after your better angel sets them, if you are lost in the wanderings of procrastination you’ll likely forget to do so and have to deal with (and hopefully learn from) the consequences.
The most ingenious and devilish of these apps is Flowstate for iOS and Mac. Flowstate is designed to help writers write, by punishing the fear of the blank page with the actuality of a blank page. You set a time frame for a writing session, and then begin typing—if you stop your keystrokes the text begins to fade out, and if you halt typing for 7 seconds it disappears completely and you’re back at a blank page. While this may seem draconian punishment for a momentary lapse, the app’s creators say, “Flowstate is guided by a simple philosophy: flow, then react. It is the first writing tool to emphasize the distinction between writing and editing. Unlike other writing programs, Flowstate features a sacred space for initial creation, with rigid laws enlisted to unleash a person’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas like water… The way out is through. Obstruction, not options.” Can such an app really be helpful? According to this post Flowstate is, “Terrifying, risky, and strangely effective.” (Maybe I’ll try it tomorrow.)
Leveraging the Advantages of Procrastination
While there aren’t quite as many voices touting the advantages of procrastination as there are warning of its perils, there are a notable few. 5 Times When Procrastinating Might Actually Pay Off, from Fast Company, notes that there are advantages to delaying the start of a big project including avoiding wasted time on a task that may be significantly changed. It also suggests that giving yourself time to reflect on major decisions such as financial matters, hiring new employees, or creating important presentations can produce better results than making expeditious (often gut-based) decisions.
Interestingly, research confirms that delaying the decision process in favor of collecting additional information is likely to lead to more accurate, and by correlation effective, decisions.
My own personal experience in writing these blogs conforms to the research. As I approach a topic such as this one, I typically scour the Internet for related research, commentary, and posts related to it. That search can take hours as I get caught-up in the topic and in the link chains, and it is sometimes quite difficult to abandon it in order to get down to the business of actually writing the post. Even when I’ve compiled a more than comprehensive set of sources to include, it can be easy to indulge in ever more research, even though the content for a perfectly adequate post was obtained hours ago. However, at times that uncontrollable need to locate just one more source can lead to the one that turns good into great, merely interesting into thought provoking, or academic into entertaining. In such cases, procrastination truly does work for me— likely because (harking back to breaking the Procrastination Doom Loop) finding that killer piece of content provides the mood change I need to pivot from research to writing.
Another view on the advantages of procrastination comes from designer Tobias van Schneider (formerly of Spotify) who calls procrastination “the ultimate productivity hack” because he has found that he can use it to trick himself into allowing it to defeat itself. He acknowledges that procrastination is an integral part of his character and that fighting against it is useless. His “hack” is based on having a very full plate of prioritized tasks, with the top ones being the ones you are least inclined to tackle. He suggests that you can indulge in procrastination by finishing the tasks at the bottom of the list instead of working on those at the top—and that by doing so (and continuing to re-order and add to the list) you will eventually accomplish everything you need to do. While this approach is intriguing, it appears to be based upon the premise that when faced with a daunting task a chronic procrastinator can convince himself to work on a less daunting one rather than play Candy Crush or watch cat videos, even if his plate is dangerously overflowing. (If you just clicked on the cat video link, this hack is not for you.)
Procrastination Now and Later
Given all that, you may be fired up and in the mood to fight your procrastinatory instincts and get to work. But if you’re still not ready, don’t despair. You can always wait and celebrate National Procrastination Week next March.
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