Procrastinate another way another day

5 minute read

I wrote this while procrastinating on ten other post ideas [1].

When we have options, we can wait. We wait till time runs out, our options are gone, and we rush our task in some last-minute effort where we convince ourselves that necessity is the mother of invention. And then we talk about the many all nighters we pulled to finish the project/write the essay/digitize our written reviews of chocolate bars [2], only to repeat this cycle the next time a longer dated project comes around. We complain about it, but don’t want to stop it or don’t know how to.

Tim Urban, author of wait but why, defines two types of procrastination in a TED talk here: ones which occur with a deadline, and ones without a deadline. Procrastination in either situation is bad, but particularly so for tasks without a deadline. A project without a fixed deadline is going to be pushed off forever. Even worse, such projects are usually important to us, and we put them off because it seems there is no easy starting point e.g. starting a new exercise plan, finding a new job, figuring out whether your distribution list still wants to get your emails or is too polite to unsubscribe [3].

What can be done about this? One approach I’ve liked for myself is structured procrastination, as first suggested by John Perry:

However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list.

What John suggests is to do smaller, productive tasks, as a means of avoiding larger, difficult to start tasks. Note that the smaller projects are still things that add value when they are completed. Me writing this as a means to avoid writing other harder posts as a means to avoid reading that unfinished book next to my bed is probably still net beneficial. Me checking twitter in the middle of writing this post is probably not. I find that starting on smaller, easier items can give me enough momentum to overcome the inertia of less tractable problems, particularly if you can work long enough on related problems to get into a flow state [4]

This approach has its critics though, who claim that it muddles the definition of procrastination:

Psychological scientists have a serious problem with this view. They argue that it conflates beneficial, proactive behaviors like pondering (which attempts to solve a problem) or prioritizing (which organizes a series of problems) with the detrimental, self-defeating habit of genuine procrastination. If progress on a task can take many forms, procrastination is the absence of progress

If your version of structured procrastination replaces the large, meaningful task with a small, meaningless time-killer, this may not be the best approach for you. Tim Urban’s site suggests a few other approaches, and the post itself is worth reading in full:

Solicit external support by telling one or more friends or family members about a goal you’re trying to accomplish and asking them to hold you to it.

Create a Panic Monster if there’s not already one in place—if you’re trying to finish an album, schedule a performance for a few months from now, book a space, and send out an invitation to a group of people.

Set an alarm to remind yourself to start a task, or to remind you of the stakes.

Minimize distractions by all means necessary. If TV’s a huge problem, sell your TV. If the internet’s a huge problem, get a second computer for work that has Wifi disabled, and turn your phone on Airplane Mode during work sessions.

Lock yourself into something - put down a non-refundable deposit for lessons or a membership

Aim for slow, steady progress

Of these, I prefer the ‘create a panic monster’, ‘set an alarm’, and ‘aim for slow, steady progress’ approaches. He does caveat that telling others about your goals might be counterproductive,. I also think that minimisation of distractions is usually unfeasible in a typical work environment, and the sunk cost effect by locking yourself into something disappears quickly, e.g. how many people pay for a gym and don’t use it. The more important takeaway though is to figure out what works for you.

All three of the approaches I like are related to creating obvious, measurable deadlines. This deadline imposition is similar to what Ariely and Wertenbroch found in their procrastination study:

(a) Do people self-impose costly deadlines to overcome procrastination? (b) Are self-imposed deadlines effective in improving task performance? (c) Do people set self-imposed deadlines optimally? The answer to the first two questions is “yes,” and the answer to the last question is “no.”

While it’s unfortunate that self-imposed deadlines are not as optimal compared to external deadlines, they’re one way of correcting our tendency to procrastinate and worth trying.

Imposing arbitrary cutoff criteria can force us to just start, which might reduce a difficult task into a more manageable one e.g. transforming a goal of becoming a writer, to starting off with writing every week instead [5]. The insurmountability of problems is an impediment to even beginning. Transforming a vague goal into something concrete but small goes a long way to reducing the hurdle in starting out.

Footnotes:

  1. And the list of things I procrastinated with while writing this post include checking twitter, checking reddit, checking my email, checking twitter again, and making a cup of tea. I leave it up to you to decide whether I’m following my own advice.
  2. Might have been inspired by true events. Might
  3. I take comfort in the fact that I haven’t received a CAN-SPAN violation notice. Yet
  4. Cal Newport also writes about the concept of deep work and why we need to set aside enough time to achieve that. Working on smaller tasks as a prelude to working on bigger ones in the same session might help you with that
  5. This is why Jason Zweig says the best way to write better is to just start writing. His posts on writing are also worth reading through, might be a subject of a future post eventually.

If you liked this, sign up for my monthly finance and tech newsletter: