Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Friday, December 2, 2011

Procrastination: taking the thief captive

Do you procrastinate a lot? Do you live in the moment, caving in to impulses? I know I do, even though people think I’m productive. If I do accomplish anything, it’s generally out of remorse for having wasted yet another day getting very little done. Next thing I know, the days become weeks; weeks, months; then years. Getting something done at last takes on the note of self-flagellation. I must be punished.

It shouldn’t be this way for me or you. I honestly don’t believe it’s in our genes, which should come as good news, since it means we can do something about it.

The why of it:

Its formula is very simple. We don’t find hard work pleasurable, especially when it prevents us from engaging in socializing with friends, indulging in TV, web-surfing, or the social networks. Besides, we work all day. When we get home, other duties await us. Hey, give me a break!

Now this isn’t all bad. If we practice a structured procrastination that allows us to reward ourselves along the way, we actually might feel up to doing the laborious, but meaningful. The problem ensues when diversion turns into all play and no work. Johnny doesn’t finish his broccoli by first eating dessert.

Coping strategies

Say no

This is very hard. Behaviorists, in my mind the most insightful in the psychological sciences, have empirically demonstrated our relationship with other animals in being conditioned by stimuli-response mechanism. Behavior gets reinforced by the pleasurable and discouraged, even extinguished, by the unpleasurable.

Procrastination is a matter of being unable to control our urges. We confuse our desires with our needs. Fortunately, we can do exercises that strengthen our will power and, in the long run, foster our happiness. Try saying no to that extra portion or that invite out. Work on saying no to that impulse urge to buy those Bose noise cancelling headphones.

You can help yourself say no to interruptions by setting up time-space parameters. Set up a scheduled time slot, preferably in the early morning while your energy level is still high and before you do anything else. Work in a specific setting, conducive to focus, i.e., away from family, friends, loud noise, etc.

Say no to interruptions of any kind apart from emergencies. This is your time. Your space. Your closet from the world. Be ruthless.

Related to achieving impulse control, or delay of gratification, is improving your ability to focus. It’s why I’m high on yoga, meditation, or games of skill such as chess, sudoku, or scrabble. Besides, they stretch our brains as well. (See my previous post.)

The great pioneer in self-control studies was Walter Mischel of Columbia University and, later, Stanford. Ultimately he came up with the marshmallow test in which school children were offered a choice between an immediate treat or two treats if they could just wait a while. Those able to delay gratification seldom cheated, were more intelligent, more socially responsible, and more ambitious and likely to succeed. Being able to say no says something about you. It isn't innate. It's acquired. (For a fascinating look at Mischel's work, see David Akst, We Have Met he enemy: Self Control in an age of Excess, Ch.8 (2011).

Set up daily tasks

I recommend shooting for one task per session, or daily. Take writing, for example. For longer pieces, I like to go for quantity, say five pages or a chapter. If learning a language, a minimum of 30 minutes or say 15 minutes for review, 15 minutes for new material, 15 minutes for listening practice. If it’s a household or outdoors project, spread it out, maybe into several days with specific goals established for each day. The idea is to take things in steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the aphorism has it. I’ve always liked the Chinese way of putting it even better: “The longest journey begins with the first step."

Be clutter free

You probably won’t see this mentioned very often when it comes to overcoming procrastination, but high on my list is a conducive work space. I just know I’m more motivated if I have a clean desk, organized shelves, good lighting, a comfortable chair. If nothing else, a clean space gives me a sense I’m in control. Hey, I can actually find things, whether in the office or shed. Your space should make you glad to be there.

Reward yourself

Try to make it fun. Take a break, maybe every 30 or 60 minutes. Pour another cup of coffee, or get into those freshly baked cookies. Don’t linger. 10 minutes and you should be back at it. Reward yourself for every step accomplished, not just at the end result. And when you do achieve the end result, hey, go for the Bose headphones!

Create time

How often have you said to yourself, fine and good, but I just don’t have the time? That’s nonsense. It’s been estimated that a commuter on a train or subway, just reading 15 minutes a day, could read several hundred books over a three year period or through a set of encyclopedias. I average a book nearly every 10 days simply by reading while waiting for a TV program or just to relax in bed before falling asleep. At the doctor’s office, I always have a book or smart phone along for e-books. You get the idea!

In college, I was an English major, specializing in Victorian literature. In the flow of things, I came across Anthony Trollope, one of the era’s most talented and prolific novelists. Trollope got some of his contemporaries mad. He was a postal inspector riding frequently on trains. He’d write for 20 minutes or so, then put the pen and paper away. Ultimately he wrote 47 novels, many of them still esteemed, and dozens of short stories.

Settle for imperfection

Chances are you won’t get it right the first time. Be easy on yourself. It isn’t where you begin, but how you end up.

Vary your routine

Doing things the same way day after day leads to staleness and diminished interest. Try shaking up your routine by substituting new tasks, new approaches, different rewards, etc.

Start right now

Resolutions are only as good as their implementation. Ben Franklin in his inimical wisdom, put it best: “You may delay, but time wiil not, and lost time is never found again.”