Procrastination

Excerpts from the Productivity Project – Chris Bailey

“Everyone Procrastinates”

4 mins read

P rocrastination is simply human nature. Piers Steel, the author of The Procrastination Equation, backs that up, explaining that “across scores of surveys, about 95 per cent of people admit to procrastinating.” (The other 5 per cent are lying.)

Naturally, different people procrastinate in different ways and amounts every day. Research shows that about 20 per cent of people procrastinate chronically. But whether or not you’re a chronic procrastinator, you probably put things off more than you realize.

THE SIX TRIGGERS OF PROCRASTINATION

 The science behind why we procrastinate is simple. One of my favourite pieces of research on the topic, which Tim Pychyl also participated in, found that there are a handful of attributes a task can have that make you more likely to procrastinate on it. (There are also personality traits that make you more likely to procrastinate, but I’ll get to those in a bit. I personally prefer to focus on the tasks themselves, since a task is way easier to change than your personality. Plus, you’re great. Don’t ever change.)

It’s actually relatively straightforward: personality aside, the more aversive (unattractive) a task or project is to you, the more likely you are to put it off. And there are six main task attributes that make procrastination more likely. Those are whether a task is one or more of the following:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Unstructured or ambiguous
  • Lacking in personal meaning
  • Lacking in intrinsic rewards (i.e., it’s not fun or engaging).

The more of these attributes a task has, and the more intense these attributes are, the less attractive a task will be to you, and the more likely you’ll procrastinate on it. This is why you put off some tasks to the very last moment, like doing your taxes, in favour of doing other tasks, like watching Netflix, which don’t set off nearly as many triggers.

It’s important to think about why you’re procrastinating. As Tim put it, “sometimes procrastination is just a symptom that your life just doesn’t match what you’re interested in and…maybe you should do something else.”

The biggest reason your highest-impact tasks are so valuable is that they too are aversive; they almost always require more time, attention, and energy than your lower-impact tasks, and they’re usually more boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured, and lacking in intrinsic rewards. 

They’re valuable and meaningful because they’re hard, and that’s why you get paid more than minimum wage to do them. This is a simple reality of not working in a factory: the more valuable your work, the more aversive it will be. 

This is also why becoming more productive can be so challenging; although every single person on Earth wants to get more done, accomplishing more involves taking on tasks that are more aversive. 

Procrastination gets in the way of accomplishing more since it is, in its simplest form, a gap between your intention and action.

By the way, are you interested in gaining back 13.6 years of your life in an instant? Quit watching TV. According to Nielsen, the average American adult watches 5 hours and 4 minutes of television every single day. Assuming you live until eighty and start watching TV at ten, that adds up to 13.6 years of your life.

 THREE MORE WAYS TO REGAIN CONTROL OVER YOUR BRAIN

Flipping a task’s triggers tackles two birds with one stone: it simultaneously makes a task less aversive by disabling its procrastination triggers.

 Here are three more ways to regain control and work on your most aversive tasks.

1. Create a procrastination list

 It’s actually possible to procrastinate productively. When you make a list of meaningful and high-impact tasks to do the next time you procrastinate, you can remain productive During my project, I often found myself putting off reading long, tedious research papers. 

So I made a procrastination list that included items like writing and sending important emails, organizing folders on my computer, and tracking expenses related to my project. I think it’s also helpful to give yourself a choice between working on only two tasks: the task that you’re tempted to procrastinate on, and another task that’s high return.

2. List the costs 

Listing every single cost of putting something off is one of my favourite ways to get my prefrontal cortex fired up. It’s a simple tactic, but it gives you a much better shot at winning out.

3. Just get started

Note that I didn’t write “just do it.” If you have a big, aversive task like cleaning your basement, simply get started on it. Try setting a timer for just fifteen minutes, after which you will stop cleaning and begin to work on something else. If you feel like going on after you get started, by all means, do, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it. Every single time I have simply got started on something, even if just for a few minutes, tasks have rarely been as aversive as I had imagined. Rita Emmett, the author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook, summed this up well in what she labelled Emmett’s law: “The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.”