I promised a post on productivity when I resumed writing last month, but as I’ve been gathering notes and writing drafts I’ve realised that it’s a really huge topic, and probably better treated in chunks. I’m starting here because procrastination is one of the most serious common roadblocks to productivity – no matter how robust your task-tracking methods or efficient your “inboxes”, if you regularly balk at certain tasks then progress is impossible.
So what are we up against?
Procrastination has one major root cause – fear. There are many sources of fear; some (fear of death, fear of pain) are hard-wired into all of us; others (fear of embarassment, fear of inconvenience, fear of failure) are learned responses to past conditions. All fears originate in the subconscious, and herein lies the problem.
Our subconscious has a highly vivid imagination – it’s always looking out for the wildest, worst scenario that could befall us, and steering us clear. Sometimes that’s good – it’s what stops us accepting rides home with drunks and playing with matches. Other times, it’s disastrous, holding us back from speaking in public, paying a bill or asking that cute stranger if they fancy a coffee. Our subconscious, designed to keep us safe from harm, has a hard time differentiating between Real Harm (certain death) and Not Actually Harm (“sorry, I’m dating someone”).
The very thing which makes us human – the ability to spot patterns, imagine scenarios and weigh up alternatives – can be a crippling burden if left in the control of the subconscious. Luckily, all those things also combine to afford us a defence against ourselves – rationality.
Fighting fear with rationality takes some practice, but it’s a useful skill to have. Training yourself to fight your subconscious knee-jerk reaction against getting something done provides you with a better chance of fighting stronger, more primally-driven fears (fear of flying, or spiders, or clowns).
Take that, fear!
Overcoming fear-driven procrastination is a fairly simple process. First, you need to recognise that you’re procrastinating. If there’s a simple one-step task that’s been on your todo list for several weeks, that’s it right there. It’s very rare that you don’t have time to do simple things – even when I was working 16-hour days finalising Flickr’s international launch, I still had time to pay rent, wash up dishes and so on.
Once you’ve found your procrastinated task, you need to consider it for a moment. Just think of the task at hand, and wait for that little itch; that “put it off for now” urge to rise in your mind. This is your subconscious kicking in with the fear. Grab that feeling and pick it apart. Why are you stalling? Your mind will likely offer up very sensible-sounding reasons for the delay, and in doing so, it betrays the fear which is driving it.
Now that you know your fear you can consciously work against it. Almost all procrastination-driving fears are irrational, and there’s an easy way to test the irrationality of the fear – ask yourself “will this situation change 3 months from now?” Only if the answer is “yes” is there a possibility that you’re rationally deferring a task. An example of a rational fear might be a cost which you can’t (or can only just barely) afford to pay right now, but which will be easier in the medium-term.
If the fear is honestly rational then you can consider putting the task off until the situation changes, but you must follow 3 golden rules:
- Don’t defer if it will be disadvantageous – if you need to get a medical opinion or pay a bill which will otherwise go into debt collection, find a way to do it now.
- Work out a reasonable deadline by which you believe conditions will have changed.
- Regardless of the situation, only ever defer a task once – otherwise, you’re just tricking yourself into more procrastination.
Most fears are irrational. Dentistry will hurt as much in 3 months as it will now – probably moreso. Not paying an overdue bill because you’re embarrassed to talk to the customer care center about it means you’ll be embarrassed to speak with a debt collector in 6 weeks’ time…
Now comes the rational thought. Work through each fear (there may be several) to find a counterpoint, and once you’re done bolster your case against yourself by listing the concrete advantages of acting now.
Let’s put it into practice, dispelling two of my own big procrastination-points…
It sounds ridiculous, but I have a real problem with this. I can often find the two-hour window at home needed to do laundry, but once it’s done it’ll sit in my bedroom in a laundry bag. I can go several weeks picking items out of the bag as I need to wear them; on occasions I’ve gone through a whole laundry load without ever actually putting it away. Why?
Grabbing the fear
When I think about folding laundry, I think:
- It’ll take ages, and I have other things to do which are surely more important.
- Folding laundry is a waste of time – picking it out of the bag works fine.
- I don’t want to be bored. Let’s watch TV instead.
- Even a big load of laundry only actually takes 15 minutes to put away.
- Leaving it in the bag makes it increasingly creased, making you look like a slob. Plus, you spend 5-10 minutes every morning hunting through a pile of clothes instead of finding them in a drawer.
- Okay, it’s not the most interesting task in the world. But it leaves you free to think about some other stuff for a minute. And, brain, TV rots you.
Advantages to completion
- Saving those 5-10 minutes a day hunting for clothes when I should be on the way to work.
- Comfort – not having a bedroom floor strewn with piles of clothes.
- Looking less like I just crawled out of a bush.
Job done – folding laundry isn’t the most amazing way of spending time, but it’s worth it in the long-run. It would be silly to not just get it done.
Getting the car serviced
Bad, bad, bad. I’ve missed a minor and a major service since I moved to San Francisco – I’ve literally been procrastinating this one for a year and a half! The fears driving the procrastination have shifted and multiplied, but the end result is the same… no service.
Grabbing the fear
Whenever I think about actually booking a service and taking the car down there, I think
- I’m 40 miles from the garage who used to do it; how will I find a reliable place to do it now?
- It’ll be inconvenient – I have to get from the garage after dropping the car off, and go back to pick it up.
- I’m embarrassed – it’s so long since I got a service that I’m going to look like a right plum when I take the car in now.
- There’s an official dealer in town; you should at least try them – if they’re bad, you’ll know to go somewhere else. And a bad service (unless they disconnect the brakes or something) is preferable to letting the car deteriorate forever.
- Take a day when you can work from home; take the car in early and use taxis to get to and from there. Yeah, it’s inconvenient, but it’s less inconvenient than breaking down halfway to Tahoe in mid-January.
- The damage is done. If you look like a plum, you look like a plum. Better to be “the plum who didn’t get a service for a year and a half” than “the plum who didn’t get a service for 3 years”
Advantages to completion
- Peace of mind – the car’s less likely to fail
- Value – a car which has been serviced at least semi-regularly will trade-in for more than one which hasn’t seen a mechanic in years
- Fuel efficiency, easier driving – tightening things up, changing the oil, rotating the tires… all make for a smoother-running vehicle
- Getting back “on the horse” – next time the car’s due for a service, you’ll know where to take it, and you won’t be embarrassed at having missed the last n services.
In short, I’d be a total idiot not to book a service right this second.
Have a think about it next time you get “the itch” – what are you putting off and, when you analyse it, why?
The wonderfully illustrative picture on this piece comes from FredArmitage on Flickr.