Overcoming the art of avoidance
This week the newsletter is all about procrastination, what it is and approaches to kick it into touch. Before researching into procrastination, I’d assumed it was a relatively new state brought on by smartphones and access to limitless data however, it turns out that it has been around for centuries and ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle created a word to describe the behaviour: Akrasia.
‘Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.’. In modern terms it’s ‘Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing a task or set of tasks.'
“A day can slip by when you’re deliberately avoiding what you’re supposed to do” – Bill Watterson
So, why do we procrastinate?
Behavioural psychologists have discovered something called time inconsistency, which helps explain why procrastination pulls us away from our good intentions. Time inconsistency is the tendency for the human brain to value immediate reward over future reward.
Think of you as 2 people, your future self and your present self. Your future self is ambitious and driven and has decided that it wants to get promoted, it has decided on the benefit and value of doing this, therefore, it sets the plan for how to go about it and all the actions that it needs to do. However, it’s not your future self that makes it happen, it’s the present self that does the work. Your present self likes the instant gratification and short-term reward, or dopamine hit. You go into a project knowing all the great things to do to make it perfect and an example of why you should be promoted and provided more opportunities, however your present self does the minimum required to fulfil the user requirements and nothing more, it might even cut corners if there is no perceived issue.
A great example of this is an experiment that has been carried out numerous times when a group of subjects are offered a sum of money (£20) right now or a larger sum (£50) if they will wait a few days. There are no strings attached to either amount of money, yet consistently most of the group opts for option 1. This provides instant gratification and removes the fear that the future won’t happen or isn’t worth it.
You will have experienced procrastination at some stage, some more than others. For example, you have a presentation deck to create and the deadline is a few weeks out, you don’t really know what you want to talk about or how to sell your approach, so you keep putting it off. During this time there will be a nagging feeling of concern in the back of your mind as you know you need to do it. The week of the presentation comes along, and that pain has grown as you now must do the work ASAP to meet the deadline. Your present self then realises that there will be consequences if you don’t complete the presentation and gets on with the work, and as you do the work the concern and pain starts to subside.
This is something you need to overcome or control better if you want to continue being highly productive and excel at work.
Here are a few options that I have found beneficial when dealing with procrastination
Reward immediate action
With this your focus is bringing the benefit of the future self goals more immediate and you can do this with temptation bundling. Temptation bundling is a concept that came out of behavioural economics research performed by Katy Milkman at The University of Pennsylvania. Basically, you bundle a behaviour that is good for you in the long term with a behaviour that feels good in the short term.
Only [DO THING YOU LOVE] while [DOING THING YOU PROCRASTINATE ON].
Here are some examples:
Only listen to your music while writing reports
Only get a fresh coffee while clearing down your emails
Only listen to your favourite podcast while doing exercise
This way you are receiving a positive feeling while doing to action you are putting off and therefore it’s more ‘tempting’ to get on with.
Make to consequence more immediate
Often you won’t see the consequence of procrastination until it’s too late. If your goal is to get fit but you put off going to the gym, you won’t suddenly be unhealthy but over time you will be moving further away from your goal. A great way to overcome this is to find a gym buddy and agree the days and times to meet, and also what your end goal is. This applies some pressure to be at the gym at the right time as there is now a consequence on the day to day rather than the future self goal timeline.
There are a few approaches here that I like.
Firstly, for reports and presentations, commit to an earlier deadline for pre-reads or having a review by a peer.
Secondly are status reports or progress metrics. If your long term goal is to have a net promoter score of 80 by the end of the year and you’re at 60, then start to publish the score and target on a weekly basis as this will drive you to improve and show progress as others can now see it. These sorts of ones are key as it’s almost impossible to fix a metric type goal at the last minute, in the same way if you want to lose 5kg for your holiday and you have 3 month then that’s ok, but you can’t lose 5kg in the last week as you kept putting your diet off.
Finally, you can sign up to a site like StickK where you set a goal and then put money on the line if you don’t meet the goal
Design Future actions
Something psychologists love to use to overcome procrastination is a commitment device. It’s something to help you stop procrastinating by designing your future actions in advance
For example, these can be deleting apps from your phone that you regularly use to avoid doing the tasks you should be working on.
Ordering set packaged food rather than bulk buying, so you don’t overeat.
My number 1 here is to turn off the email notification on your phone and computer, as nothing draws you away from work than seeing that little dopamine inducing envelope. You can then move to processing email at set times rather than using it as a little escapism.
Finally, you can use apps to block internet browsing or social media on your devices for set periods.
These can all be a bit more like a pill than a cure as it’s masking the urge, however, they can help break the habit.
Make the tasks achievable
The tasks that cause you to procrastinate can often be big and daunting, which then feeds the procrastination. Therefore, start to breakdown your tasks into small, achievable steps. This makes them feel easier to do and you will see the reward of completion faster. Take a big report, you could break it down into:
With this you’re setting distinct tasks to be done that don’t feel anywhere as big as a whole report in one go and it will give you a consistent feeling of achievement as you go.
“Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday” – Napoleon Hill
I hope you found this of value. As with most thing I discuss, I recommend giving one thing a go at a time, see what works for you and then either stick with it or try another one. There is never a one size that fits all and that’s the beauty of life
Let me know how you get on and feel free to reach out if you have any questions or topics you’d like to hear about
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