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The Four Horsemen of Procrastination

01/08/13

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When I asked around about a topic for my first Skillshare class last year, the issue that everyone complained about was procrastination. It seems like all my coworkers and loved ones live in constant guilt about things they aren’t getting around to. One year later, I’m ready to leave the topic but not before capturing what I’ve learned through research and my students’ experiences.

The big thing I learned is that there isn’t one phenomenon called procrastination, with one cause and one solution. Rather, I think there are four, which present themselves in different ways. As a dutiful self-improvement writer, I have arranged them into an acronym: BOTS. Each one took up twenty minutes in class, and I still felt like I was cramming in a lot, so I apologize in advance for the whiplash.

1) Blankness:
If you are delaying the start of a task, the first question is whether you actually feel like doing it. Assuming that the task actually IS a priority, then you have to find some way to bring back all the enthusiasm you once felt. There’s limited space in your mind, and it’s very easy for your passion to write the great American novel to be momentarily replaced by a passion for a great American slice of pizza.

That feeling of blankness is the phenomenon I have struggled most with explaining, and all I can offer here are leads. Passion is dependent on seeing how your actions will lead to a result you consider amazing. It helps to have some kind of short cut to help yourself see that. Companies are onto this with the idea of mission statements–“organizing the world’s information” must have been tremendously motivating to the early employees at Google. And I think it helps a lot to have a personal mission statement–mine is “helping people make fundamental improvements.” There’s something about helping people at a root level that gets me going, and capturing your motivation in a short statement is enormously valuable. I can even shorten it to “fundamental” and that implies everything else to me.

It also helps to have some kind of art that captures your mission symbolicly, because you respond to art in an emotional, very motivating way. My personal example I return to–don’t laugh–is from the end of the film Serenity, when a character acts at an incredible skill level in a way that is presented as beautiful. I’ve also held pieces of music and paintings in this way, and I think that real-life heroes or accomplishments can work as well. The important thing is to select something specific to have at the ready in addition to the more abstract mission statement.

2) Overwhelmed:
This is the key insight of David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done,” that a lot of productivity is lost due to feeling like you have an endless, unorganized task list that all needs to be completed rightthissecond. Allen’s system helps you to organize those tasks in a way that allows you to set them aside and get to a place he calls “mind like water,” where you are just focused on the one thing at a time.

Consider this section of the post an outright plug for David Allen’s book. I have my own variations to the system, but essentially, I don’t have much to say here that he didn’t first.

3) Tedium:
Some tasks need to be done but are just annoying–repetitive tasks especially fit into this category. I hate it. I’m not a fan of the saying, “That’s why they call it work.” Clearly, these tasks need to be minimized as much as possible, through saying no or through delegation. But I think that some tedium is probably unavoidable.

I think this is where gamification and rewards live. Given a stack of envelopes to address, try to see just how many envelopes you can label in an hour and then reward yourself with a cup of coffee when you are finished. Then get back to work and try to beat that time (I am assuming here that you don’t like labeling envelopes and love coffee. Because I am assuming you’re sane). If the work itself is not intrinsically enjoyable, then some kind of external value is necessary. Social visibility is great for the gamification aspect–leaderboards, cohort groups, even reporting to your significant other the number of envelopes you addressed in the last hour (you may get a blank stare and a “that’s nice, sweety”).

4) Self-consciousness:
Toward the end of Randy Pausch’s great Time Management lecture, Randy says, “We don’t really procrastinate because we’re lazy…there’s always a deep psychological reason. Usually because I’m afraid of being embarassed or because I think I’m going to fail at it.”

This is self-consciousness. There are two separate aspects of the completion of a project–the creation and the judgement of what you’ve made so that you can revise and improve it. Properly, a project proceeds in iterations of creation, judgement of the product as it is, research, revision, further judgement, etc. You can think of self-consciousness as (negative) judgement before you’ve even made something. So here the solution is to actually commit to an iterative approach. Commit to it before you’ve even begun. If your first draft is bad, that’s great! You’ve made a first draft and you actually have something to work on. Commit to that and just focus on multiple cycles of improvement, at the end of which you may actually have a product you’re proud of.

What to do with BOTS:
The trick to getting off your butt when you don’t feel like working is identifying which of the four you’re experiencing. Which is easier said than done. Introspection is hard, though it does get easier the more you do it. But the reward is huge: a life of productivity and, just as important, passion.

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