It’s early in the morning, you sit down at the table, cup of tea in hand, laptop in front, ready to work. Hours have passed since then, and an open Word document on the toolbar catches your eye. You open what was supposed to be a draft chapter of your dissertation, only to find it almost completely void of content. ‘Wait a minute,’ you think to yourself. ‘How then have those hours been spent?’ You open your web browser and examine the search history.
After beginning the day in earnest (the first few search results reflecting the topic which you are writing about), a different pattern soon emerges – articles on how to be more productive. The irony is, you probably discovered this article during your quest to be more time efficient. The result of which is what productivity gurus term as “procrastination”. A sense of guilt begins to emerge… quickly escalating to shame considering that this has happened before, from cute puppy videos to TED talks on body language; far too many times. It feels as if it is an uncontrollable, self-fulfilling reoccurrence when you set about a task of value. Well thankfully, we humans are capable of moulding our behaviours.
“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” – Christopher Parker, actor
We know it is bad
In one of the most memorable scenes of “Dead Poets Society”, Robin Williams’ character urged his classroom, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” In an era where living life to the full is (rightly) extolled as a virtue, not overcoming this habit when we need to produce will limit our potential to achieve. Procrastination occurs in two different stages: pre-work and during work.
Let’s use the analogy of training for a half marathon to illustrate pre-work procrastination, which occurs before we take any action. We know that we need to go for that initial 5km run to steadily build up for race day. However, it just so happens that there is a slight sore in the right knee; we do not want to risk any injuries, do we? It just so happens that the skies today are overcast; we do not want to risk a cold should it rain, do we? And so, we do not lace up; instead, we comfort ourselves by vowing to run tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, it just so happens that we did not have a good night’s rest and feel groggy. This cycle of justification and “vow to do better” repeats itself until it is too late: the half marathon is just a week from now and so we push ourselves in the last few days of training, or we simply do not turn up on race day.
During work procrastination
This second form occurs post action. Now suppose you run out of ideas after writing a 300 words paragraph as part of your 12,000 words dissertation today. However, you are still some way off from the daily goal of 800 words. Frustrated, you decide to let off some steam by catching up on “House of Cards”, and to continue with your work after. THREE episodes later (yes, the TV series is that addictive), you comfort yourself at the progress made today, and commit to making up for the 500 words you “owe” tomorrow. Although progress is made, this form of procrastination results in achingly slow progress, which potentially may lead to the same outcome as pre-work procrastination: last minute cramping or giving up.
So why do we do it?
Although procrastinators are aware of the consequences of repeated delaying of necessary work, why does this behaviour not cease? The most obvious of those reasons is a warped perception of time. ‘The half marathon or submission deadline is but three months away, I have plenty of time!’ you argue. Another reason is a lack of appetite for the boring, and often uncomfortable drudgery that is necessary in accomplishing something of value. The most destructive reason however, is the complete self confidence in ability to rise to the occasion and produce when it matters. What is frightening however, is that these reasons do not exist independently. Often, they come together in a toxic cocktail served with a few cubes of complacency, and garnished with a heavy dose of indifference.
“When we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong.” – George Loewenstein, economist
How to make it work
1.Mental: Don’t trust yourself that you can beat it by trying harder
Game theorist Thomas Schelling contends that we think of ourselves not as united beings, but different beings, whose interests are diametrically opposite of each other. One half makes plans whereas the other half fails to carry out those plans; one half is ambitious and has long term goals whereas the other half is only interested in immediate gratification. So how do we bridge this gap, how do we get anything done if we can’t even trust ourselves to prioritize our long-term interests?
Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson in “The Thief of Time” suggest that we rely on external mechanisms to aid the half which wants to work. The author Victor Hugo famously wrote naked and instructed his valet to hide his clothes to ensure that he could leave the house when he was supposed to be writing. Alternatives to this ritual would be to make bets with friends whereby you must pay a hefty fine if you do not meet a deadline, and downloading apps such as Anti-Social, RescueTime and Self Control for Study which restrict social media use. This is the essence of such mechanisms: instead of trusting yourself, rely on external tools to make you do what you actually want to do – work.
2. System: Focus on one thing for uninterrupted chunks
Once you have outside nudges to make you work, it’s time to shut up and work. People often procrastinate because the task seems so overwhelming that it is not worth starting. Author Steven Pressfield in his book “The War of Art” terms the obstacle that prevents us from living to the full as “Resistance”, a repelling force whose aim is to ‘shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.’ However, he goes on to say, ‘this very moment, we can change our lives… This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.’
What will work best is a combination of uninterrupted blocks of two to three hours, and a time management technique known as “timeboxing”. The idea of timeboxing is that the best way to tackle a big task is to break it down into a set of small tasks, and then limit the time available for you to complete them. For example, once you have decided on writing 800 words today, you set a timer and off you go. What inevitably happens is a sense of panic that ensues from a rush of thoughts and items that scramble for your attention, making it an unproductive struggle to focus. Timeboxing encourages you to stick to one thing and finish it before you consider anything else. Drawing from Gary Keller’s “The One Thing”, ask yourself, ‘What is the one subheading that I can complete now, what is the one area of data which I can analyse now?’ Combining this narrow focus with uninterrupted hours of thinking about the matter, progress is being made each time.
3. Faith: Trust patiently
What remains is to be quietly confident that external mechanisms and discipline will see you through. However, know that you are going to take longer than you originally planned. Pressfield acknowledges the reality that any job, whether it is a novel or dissertation, ‘takes twice as long… and costs twice as much.’ Social scientist John Elster explains that people underestimate the time ‘it will take them to complete a given task, partly because they fail to take account of how long it has taken them to complete similar projects in the past and partly because they rely on smooth scenarios in which accidents or unforeseen problems never occur.’
Therefore, do not risk filling your mind with unrealistic dreams of heroic success that comes with a 100m dash. Instead, conserve your energy and prepare your mind, for the work you are contributing to the world requires stamina and endurance. Be at peace and trust that the words will flow, and progress will be made if you persist.
You have come to the end of the article; 10 minutes have passed. Now that you know what to do, it’s time to close your web browser and get back to work!
- James Surowiecki, ‘What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?’ http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/11/later
- Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art” http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-war-of-art-steven-pressfield/1005669518
- Gary Keller, “The One Thing” http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-885167-77-4
- The Thesis Whisperer, ‘Shut up and Write!’ https://thesiswhisperer.com/2011/06/14/shut-up-and-write/
Aaron Lim is a practicing lawyer, and co-founder of WordPeckers.org