Procrastination, thief of… ooh! wanna watch a movie?

Procrastination. It’s a killer. It’s the bane of my life, and probably yours too. I’ve been working for myself for the best part of eight years and, although I am more self-disciplined now than I was when I started working as a journalist, being stuck in a small room 24 hours a day and having no clear delineator between work and leisure hours does mean one can slip a bit too easily into the ‘all waking hours are for working’ mentality. That, in turn, results in parts of your brain rebelling and then procrastination sets in and I’ll finish this post when I’ve updated my iPod…

There are a whole bunch of theories about time management and why the desire to sit and mindlessly rip CDs into iTunes is more attractive than the thought of doing $arbitrary_task, but recently I’ve read two accounts of dealing with procrastination that I rather like.

The first is from Phillip J Eby, who looks at procrastination and perfectionism from a programmer’s point of view, discussing the inhibitions that cause procrastination in terms of filters in his brain that prevent him from starting work:

I was previously aware in a general way that my impossibly-high standards for myself can get in the way of accomplishing things, and the other evening I blogged about precisely that. What I was missing was that this is actually something I can get my hands around, as it were. It’s not just some sort of abstract concept, it’s a concrete, specific behavior that occurs in a particular context: when considering options for doing something, I’m validating them against criteria.

Instead of allowing himself to start work on a first draft, if you like, he was attempting to force himself to start at the end by producing the finished thing. This is something many creative people do – we compare our first efforts to other people’s final draft without ever taking into account the blood, sweat and tears it took them to achieve it. When we don’t find the comparison favourable, we become insecure about our abilities and this is, in my opinion, the root cause of most creative blocks.

Eby goes on:

[…] I think I know how to fix it. The primary inhibition code I found in my head is, “don’t do the wrong thing”. This is a simplified form of the actual code, of course; it contains a mixture of ideas such as not making mistakes, not redoing work, doing what is justifiably correct with reference to external criteria, and so on. But the primary intent is to “avoid wrong action”, where “wrong” is defined as “not right”, and “right” is a function call to everything I know about what “right” might be, be it with respect to “right for business”, “right morally”, “right technically”, etc. […]

Anyway, the fix is ridiculously simple: just bump down the priority on those criteria, putting a filter in place to only inform me of issues with potentially serious or costly consequences that cannot be undone. Cutting and pasting documentation and doing some rephrasing of it doesn’t count as serious consequences. Another way of thinking about it is this: don’t tell me what’s wrong, tell me if there’s something to do that’s right. (With the exception of serious irreversible consequences, of course.)

In other words, stop being so picky and just get on with it. Unless what you are doing is going to result in death or dismemberment, don’t think about how it might be wrong, think about how it might be right. You can tidy up the loose ends later.

It’s like when people say ‘I don’t know where to begin’ – the answer is ‘Begin anywhere – wherever you begin is the beginning’.

This point of view is supported by Steve Pavlina who writes a great piece on overcoming procrastination. He looks at some of the reasons why we procrastinate, beginning with:

[…] Thinking that you absolutely have to do something is a major reason for procrastination. When you tell yourself that you have to do something, you’re implying that you’re being forced to do it, so you’ll automatically feel a sense of resentment and rebellion. Procrastination kicks in as a defense mechanism to keep you away from this pain. If the task you are putting off has a real deadline, then when the deadline gets very close, the sense of pain associated with the task becomes overridden by the much greater sense of pain if you don’t get started immediately.

He also suggests a few ways to get moving on a task:

  • Realize and accept that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do
  • Think of starting one small piece of the task instead of mentally feeling that you must finish the whole thing. Replace, “How am I going to finish this?” with “What small step can I start on right now?”
  • Give yourself permission to be human. […] Realize that an imperfect job completed today is always superior to the perfect job delayed indefinitely.
  • Guarantee the fun parts of your life first, and then schedule your work around them.

It’s a good read, and I’m going to try the 30-minute method myself tomorrow in an attempt to get done some of the things I need to clear up before I go to Boston on Wednesday. Put basically, the 30-minute method is working at a task for 30 minutes then giving yourself a reward regardless of result. The promise of a reward (always have been one for self-bribery) and the fact that anyone can concentrate on anything for 30 minutes usually results in you achieving more than you would if you tried to complete a set task or work for longer.

As Pavlina says, “Don’t worry about finishing anything. Just focus on what you can start now. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually be starting on the final piece of the task, and that will lead to finishing.”

5 thoughts on “Procrastination, thief of… ooh! wanna watch a movie?

  1. In “The Medici Effect” Frans Johansson suggests that the way to be creative and effective is to start early and let the idea develop over time. Don’t wait till the last minute:

    “… we should start by working hard and in a focused manner on a problem or idea and develop it as far as possible. Then we should wait, move on to something else, and forget about the problem for a while.” [and repeat]

    This approach avoids the temptation to look at a first draft as a final. Just work on what you can, but stop once you hit a wall. Hopefully the wall is not two minutes into it 😉

  2. So it’s not just me then… of course, I’m reading this instead of fixing that upload script that the client’s been after since last week…

  3. I’m not a writer but a techie head, but BOY am I good at being distracted. I opted to try the 30 minute approach in the last 24 hours and can report happy results! I am going to keep ‘starting’ within 30 minutes then rewarding myself. (This comment is actually a little reward after doing work!)

    Also, Steve Pavlina’s piece is just so honest and bare that it is simply beautiful. It spoke volumes to me.

    Thanks to both of you to overcoming your procrastination (even if it was for only 30 minutes) to write these pieces 🙂 It doesn’t feel as lonely out here procrastinating out on the internet.. heh.

  4. The “30-minute approach” reminded me of something I learned from a chronic procrastinator, academic friend of mine. She told me that psychological research shows that the most effective way to use a work hour is to work for 45 minutes straight and then take the last 15 minutes off, no matter where you are when the 45 minutes ends. While you may be able to keep focused and working productively for more than 45 minutes, working for more than 45 minutes at a time reduces one’s productivity over the course of several hours; you can’t sustain it and you start getting less and less efficient. My friend’s method is to start a work session with a goal for what she’ll accomplish in the next 45 minutes, then call my wife and tell her the goal. My wife does the same thing. Then, 45 minutes later, one of them calls the other and they talk about what they’re going to do in the next 45-minute session. Those conversations tend to fill up the 15-minute break (because they talk about all kinds of other stuff, too, not because they talk about their next goal for 15 minutes!), but if they don’t, they’ll do something else until the 15 minutes are over. The idea behind this is that when you divide your hours into 45 minutes of uninterrupted work followed by 15 mintues of break, you can sustain productivity over many hours. But when you start working without a break for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, your productivity drops over time. Whether or not it actually has a basis in psychological research, it works for us.

  5. Danny: Ooh, that 45 minute approach really works! I like the fact that it’s not task dependent, not telling me I have to hit a target or reach some sort of goal. For a start, that means that I don’t waste time trying to figure how which goal, or bits of a goal, will fit into 45 mins, and it also means that I don’t feel I’ve failed if I have to stop a task before it’s finished because it’s time for my 15 minute break.

    Definitely one to continue, I think.

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