Procrastination Isn't About Time Management. It's About This Instead...
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
I'll Feel More Like It Tomorrow.
Have you ever been determined to stop procrastinating? You buy a new day planner and colourful pens, block out time slots in your digital calendar and resolve to finally get around to the things that mean so much to you.
But, when the moment comes to take action, here’s what you say:
I don’t want to.
I don’t feel like it.
I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.
I’m no saint when it comes to procrastination. In fact, as I’m writing this I’ve logged into Facebook twice and checked my emails once. I’ve sent three texts and heated up my coffee. In the last month, a short list of the activities I've been avoiding include strength training, launching my group program and going to the bank (I don't know why I hate going to the bank so much).
Why do we procrastinate? Why do we say we're going to read a book tonight and then scroll away on social media for hours at a time? Why do we binge watch Netflix instead of getting more sleep?
Last week I attended the “Bridging Canadian Well-Being Conference,” put on by the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. One of the best sessions I attended was with Dr. Timothy Pychyl on the science of procrastination.
What I learned in the session blew my mind.
Dr. Pychyl is Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). He is the author of the book “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.”
Here's what I learned about what procrastination is, why we do it and how to hack it.
What is procrastination?
According to Dr. Pychyl, procrastination is the gap between intention and outcome. It’s a voluntary, irrational delay despite the expectation of a negative outcome.
That means, we choose to procrastinate even though it’s not logical, and knowing it’s not good for us.
Why would we do that?
Now here’s where my mind was blown.
The reason blocking off times in your calendar to do the desired thing doesn’t get you to do it is because procrastination is not a time management problem—it’s an emotion management problem.
Procrastination helps us avoid negative emotions.
We don’t like things that are stressful, scary, difficult, unenjoyable, tedious, boring, challenging, etc.
When we consider doing the dreaded tasks (doing our taxes, calling someone for an informational interview, sharing negative feedback to an employee, writing our first blog post, going to a networking event or going to F45 for the first time) we anticipate the experience of negative emotions.
So we choose the activity (binge-watching Netflix, scrolling through Instagram, or eating ice cream) that we think will make us feel better.
Procrastination helps us regulate our emotions to our preferred state of ease and pleasure over discomfort and difficulty.
We give in to FEEL good.
We choose to feel better in the short term rather than do what we need to for long-term satisfaction.
Strategies to hack procrastination
1. Think concrete. Think in steps.
Focus on the details—on the steps it will take to do the task.
Use concrete thinking to help you ground a task into a set of steps.
Instead of “I need to deal with the back yard,” start with "I need to put on my shoes and go out back. Then I need to open the shed and take out the lawnmower. I need to mow the grass down to one inch.” The more specific and bite-size the steps, the better.
2. Set Implementation Intentions
An implementation intention is an “if-then” plan that helps you identify obstacles and plan for them in advance. It’s a strong will-power booster to plan for failure ahead of time.
The basic structure of an implementation intention is as follows:
“If X happens, then I will do Y.”
Where: X can be a time, place, or an event. Y is the specific action they will take whenever X occurs.
Examples of ‘if-then’ plans: ■ If I eat chocolate for an afternoon snack, then I’ll stop at the supermarket on the way home and buy some vegetables for dinner. ■ If I sleep badly two nights running, then I will have a quiet evening in (with laptop off by 8 pm) and go to bed early at 10 pm. ■ If I have to work late today (and don’t have time to go to the gym), then I’ll wake up 30 min earlier tomorrow and go for a run before breakfast.
Rather than renegotiating each scenario in your head each time, you simply plan ahead of time for various contingencies.
The idea is that you then make better decisions and are more able to stick with them once you have committed to them.
Subscribers to my website will get an implementation intention planning activity later this week. If you want to receive it, sign up on my home page.
3. Just get started!
Have you ever finally gotten around to doing the dreaded, yet necessary, activity (say, your taxes), and then reflected, “that wasn’t as bad as I thought”? Usually, once you get started on the task your brain will see that the negativity it attributed to it is not as strong as previously assumed.
So you just have to get started. There are two ways to do this.
A) The Seven Minute Rule:
Set a timer for seven minutes. Tell yourself you only have to engage in the task for seven minutes and after that you can stop if you want to. i.e. “I will go to the gym class for seven minutes and if I want to leave after that, I can.” I use this all the time when I have to tidy up around the house.
B) The First Step:
Ask yourself, what is the first, most basic step that I need to do to initiate the task? Instead of saying “ I have to do my taxes tonight” say “ I have to open my computer.” Instead of “I have to mow the lawn” say “ I have to go open the garage door.” Instead of “I have to go to the gym” say “ I have to put on my gym clothes.”
4) Pre-empt that which tempts
Know your temptations and remove them or make them less accessible.
My mom always says “if there’s cake in the house, I’ll eat it.” There’s wisdom to eliminating that which is hard to resist.
You know that reading Facebook in bed at 11:00 pm at night is not going to help you get the amount of sleep you want. So remove the temptation by charging your phone overnight in the basement.
5) Leverage self-control
Leverage your self control by using rewards and accountability to help to motivate you.
Reward yourself for meeting your goal. Incentivize yourself to do what you need to do. For example, you can flip through that magazine AFTER your bike ride.
Or find an accountability buddy to check in with you about how you're doing on your goals.
This may seem counter-intuitive but studies found that guilt and shame don’t help motivate us to do better next time. If we self-forgive after we procrastinate, we procrastinate less next time. A classic two steps forward, one step back dance.
Not all procrastination is bad, but if it's getting in the way of you achieving what matters most to you it may be time to try some of these strategies out.
Let’s get on with life and procrastinate less.