When I’d just about given up trying to understand procrastination, I came across a theory about I’d never heard of, and it completely changed the way I think about procrastination. It made me more sympathetic towards my clients. Listen to this episode and figure out the TRUTH about procrastination.
I’ve read all the articles and listened to all the podcasts about procrastination. I never really understood why other people procrastinated. I know why I did.
Sometimes hacks work. Sometimes an article about how bad a habit procrastination is will kick me into gear and help me get things done early for a change.
When I’d just about given up trying to understand it, I came across a theory of procrastination I’d never heard of, and it completely changed the way I think about procrastination. It made me more sympathetic towards my clients.
The truth is, procrastination is more about our emotions than our tendencies for laziness or just being “bad at deadlines”. At its core, we procrastinate to keep ourselves happy in the moment —which makes complete sense, right? That is, until we’re pulling an all-nighter to meet that client deadline we had weeks to prepare for.
Understanding why we procrastinate allows us to develop effective strategies for getting started on our important projects now, rather than waiting for tomorrow. Here’s what I’ve discovered in my own journey to stop putting things off for later, and the concrete steps I’ve found along the way to address the root cause of my procrastination.
Why we procrastinate?
Procrastination is thought to come from an emotional reaction to whatever it is you’re avoiding
. Researchers call this phenomenon “mood repair”, where we avoid the uncomfortable feelings associated with our work by spending time on mood-enhancing activities, like playing games.
For me its fear of making a mistake and screwing up. So I used agonize and procrastinate before I start. Now I know better. I will share the secret with you later.
According to a researcher at Carleton University, “putting off the task at hand is an effective way of regulating this mood. Avoid the task, avoid the bad mood.”
Of course, the mood lift is inevitably short-term. Studies of college students
have found the habit of putting things off only increases negative feelings later on. While procrastinators tended to be less
stressed and healthier in the first school term, by the second term these results were actually reversed.
This brings us to the second key insight into why we procrastinate: research shows that our brains are actually wired to think about our present and future selves as two separate people. That’s why we’re able to prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though it’s an irrational choice in the long-term.
run by UCLA psychologist Hal Herschel and a team at Stanford University found that participants actually engaged different areas of the brain when they thought about their present selves versus their future selves. In fact, when people were told to think about themselves in ten years, their brain patterns closely resembled those observed when they were asked to think about celebrities they didn’t know.
This separation of present and future self encourages us to make different decisions about ourselves now and in the future. For instance, one study
showed people asked to tutor other students would offer to do so less in the present, but would offer more of their time in the future.
To sum up the research, we procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future happiness.
Another factor that contributes to what we call procrastination is the 6 stages of Changes model.
The following are stages that people go through on the journey of change:
Pre-contemplation (Not yet acknowledging that there is a problem behaviour that needs to
Contemplation (Acknowledging that there is a problem but not yet ready or sure of
wanting to make a change)
Preparation/Determination (Getting ready to change)
Action/Willpower (Changing behaviour)
Maintenance (Maintaining the behaviour change) and
Relapse (Returning to older behaviours and abandoning the new changes)
Stages to Change
Stage One: Pre-contemplation
In the pre-contemplation stage, they are not interested in changing and don't want to consider any kind of help. At this point they will often be very defensive about their habits, behaviour and lifestyle. Any attempt at changing their behaviour or lifestyle is resisted.
They will not focus their attention on change and will feel offended. They are not interested in any kind of change and will not even discuss their bad habit with others. This is stage in the "Alcoholics Anonymous" that is called “denial”.
Do you think you are in the pre-contemplation stage? Consider that you are already reading this. So you are in the stage
Stage Two: Contemplation
In the contemplation stage you are more aware of the personal consequences of your current behaviour or habit. You actually spend some time considering options.
Often although you can consider changing, you are still ambivalent and not committed to change. You may doubt that the benefits of change will outweigh pain of change
In this stage, people are on a teeter-totter, weighing the pros and cons of quitting or modifying
their behaviour. They may consider the negative aspects of their limiting behaviour/ habit and the positives associated with giving it up (or reducing). However there may be ambivalence that the long-term benefits of positive change will outweigh the short-term costs.
Getting through the contemplation stage may take anything from a few weeks to a lifetime.
In fact some may take so long to consider that they may die before they make up their mind.
On the other hand, they can be are more open to receiving information about their limiting life choices, and more likely to consider interventions and reflect on their own feelings and thoughts concerning their current limiting habit.
Stage Three: Preparation/Determination
In the preparation/determination stage, at this point there is a commitment to change.
Their motivation for changing is reflected by statements such as: “I’ve got to do something about this — before it gets worse. I have to change while I still can. What can I do next?”
This is sort of a research phase: people are now taking small steps toward making the change.
They are actively doing research about they will need to do to change.
Or they are trying to find out what strategies and resources are available to help them in their attempt. Too often, people skip this stage: they try to move directly from contemplation into action and fall flat on their faces because they haven’t adequately researched or accepted what it is going to take to make this major lifestyle change.
So what can we do about it?
How to overcome your procrastination habit
Based on the research, it’s clear that we have two ways of dealing with our procrastination:
- Make whatever we’re procrastinating on feel less uncomfortable, and
- Convince our present selves into caring about our future selves.
Investor and entrepreneur Paul Graham uses the term “good procrastination”
to mean working on more important things
than what you’re avoiding. He says working on errands or unimportant tasks to avoid your real work is “bad procrastination”, whereas “good procrastination” is avoiding errands to do real work:
When I talk to people who’ve managed to make themselves work on big things, I find that all blow off errands, and all feel guilty about it. I don’t think they should feel guilty. There’s more to do than anyone could. So someone doing the best work they can is inevitably going to leave a lot of errands undone.
Graham breaks procrastination into three types, depending on what you do instead of that Big Task you’re avoiding:
- You do nothing
- You do something less important
- You do something more important
The trick to “good procrastination”, according to Graham, is avoiding the less important, more urgent things on your to do list (which he suggests may be everything on it) to work on really important work. Your next big idea. The book you keep saying you want to write. The side project you believe in, but can’t find time for.
This is real work, says Graham. Mowing the lawn and filing your taxes can wait, if it means you spend big chunks of time on work that matters.
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