Solving procrastination: I read this book so that you don’t have to

Just finished Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change, by Timothy A. Pychyl. Dr Pychyl leads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) so you can call him an expert. The book’s blurb goes like this:

Why do we sabotage our own best intentions? How can we eliminate procrastination from our lives for good? Based on current psychological research and supplemented with clear strategies for change, this concise guide will help readers finally break free from self-destructive ideas and habits, and move into freedom and accomplishment. With numerous practical tips for change, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle brings clarity and scientific studies—and a touch of humor!—to the quest for successfully achieving goals. This accessible guide is perfect for entrepreneurs, parents, students, and anyone who wants to get unstuck, stop delaying, and start living their most inspired life.

By design, the book is short and concise, with minimal fluff. I would highly recommend you to read it, but below are my highlights from the book in case you’re among the special few that are not suffering from procrastination.

“If you want it to.” This idea is very important to understand. No technique on its own will ever work without a firm commitment to a goal. If you are committed to change, I know that what you will learn here will make a difference.

All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him- or herself. Procrastination is a needless voluntary delay.

Procrastination, in contrast to other forms of delay, is that voluntary and quite deliberate turning away from an intended action even when we know we could act on our intention right now. There is nothing preventing us from acting in a timely manner except our own reluctance to act.

procrastination for many people is a habit. That is, procrastination is a habitual response to tasks or situations, and like all habits it is an internalized, nonconscious process.

My initial strategy for change is for you to begin to categorize in your own mind which delays in your life are procrastination.

Procrastination is failing to get on with life itself.

Procrastination is a problem with not getting on with life itself. When we procrastinate on our goals, we are our own worst enemy. These are our goals, our tasks, and we are needlessly putting them off.

When we procrastinate on our goals, we are basically putting off our lives.

It is one thing to know the cost of not acting; it is quite another to have a strong commitment to the goal itself. A strong goal intention, an intention for which you have a very strong commitment, is absolutely essential. As is commonly said, where there’s a will, there’s a way. To strengthen a goal intention, it is important to recognize the benefits of acting now, not just the costs of needless delay. Taking time to think about how your goals align with your values and larger, longer-term life goals, or simply the short-term benefit of getting a necessary task done, can be an important step in strengthening goal intentions.

I won’t give in to feel good. Feeling good now comes at a cost.

for chronic procrastinators, short-term mood repair takes precedence. Chronic procrastinators want to eliminate the negative mood or emotions now, so they give in to feel good. They give in to the impulse to put off the task until another time. Now, not faced with the task, they feel better.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to effectively identify and utilize emotions to guide behavior. Recent research has shown that lower emotional intelligence is related to more procrastination, but the good news is that we can increase our emotional intelligence. We can learn to more effectively perceive, understand, and regulate our emotions. This is very important in terms of more effective self-control.

What we really need to do is to come to terms with our negative feelings about a task. We need to find a way to cope with these negative feelings so that we can continue to pursue our intended goal.

the first step at the moment of procrastination is to stay put. If you turn away in an effort to make yourself feel better, it’s over.

THINK: IF I feel negative emotions when I face the task at hand, THEN I will stay put and not stop, put off a task, or run away.

Essentially, it comes down to choosing the emotions on which we will focus. For example, although the dominant emotion at the moment may be fear—we may have fear—the key thing is that we do not have to be our fear. We can acknowledge this fear but choose to continue to pursue our goals working from some other part of our self.

If we choose to acknowledge our fear but find “the courage to be” in spite of this fear, to work from another part of our inner landscape, we may more successfully stay put and stay on task. We will not give in to feel good. We will have made the first step toward beating procrastination.

Of course, we are quite expert at finding reasons not to persist like this. In the face of negative emotions, we might even try to justify why we want to run away. We will not acknowledge our fear or frustration. We might simply think, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow.” We probably won’t. I think we all know this deep down. This is part of the strangely puzzling nature of procrastination. We have become our own worst enemy, and we even know how to lie to ourselves.

Focalism is the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings in the future. Presentism, as you might guess, addresses the fact that we put too much emphasis on the present in our prediction of the future.

This is a common misconception about goal pursuit: We believe that we have to actually feel like it. We don’t. And, with many of the tasks in our lives, we won’t feel like it . . . ever! The thing is, our motivational state does not need to match the intention. We can do something even if we do not feel like it.

successful athletes do this every day. They are not “fair-weather trainers.” The weather does not have to match the activity. We can cope with what we get and still act as intended.

The problem is pretty obvious, as is the solution: Let go of the misconception that our motivational state must match the task at hand. In fact, social psychologists have demonstrated that attitudes follow behaviors more than (or at least as much as) behaviors follow attitudes. When you start to act on your intention as intended, you will see your attitude and motivation change.

The problem is that future rewards seem less attractive to us than immediately available ones. I guess this should not surprise us too much. From an evolutionary perspective, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Our brains seem programmed to prefer immediate rewards. This stone-age brain is not so adaptive in our modern world, where we need to meet distant deadlines by doing things today.

a task done at the last minute can be excused if not done well because it was done in such a short amount of time. And, of course, if the task is done very well, it looks exceptionally good for the individual. This implies that the needless delay of a task that we defined as procrastination may in fact fill a need.

irrational thoughts, and they are common and problematic. They can lead us to experience very negative emotions, and they provide an excuse for not trying. For example, if we are fearful that we cannot do a task perfectly and that our self-worth depends on this perfect performance, then we may avoid the task to protect our self-esteem. We procrastinate.

Here are a few typical reactions that researchers have catalogued as responses to dissonance (and ways that we reduce this dissonance): Distraction—we divert our attention away from dissonant cognitions and avoid the negative affective state caused by dissonance. Forgetting—can be in two forms, passive and active. Passive is often the case with unimportant thoughts, while we may have to actively suppress important cognitions that are causing dissonance. Trivialization—involves changing beliefs to reduce the importance of the dissonance- creating thoughts or beliefs. Self-affirmation—creates a focus on our core values and other qualities that reasserts our sense of self and integrity despite the dissonance. Denial of responsibility—allows us to distance ourselves as a causal agent in the dissonance. Adding consonant cognitions—often by seeking out new information that supports our position (e.g., “this isn’t procrastination”; “I need more information before I can do anything on this project”). Making downward counterfactuals—“it could have been worse”—so we don’t learn anything, we just feel better in the short term. Changing behavior—to better align with our beliefs and values. This means that we would act instead of procrastinating, although changing one’s behavior requires effort and is often not the most convenient way to reduce dissonance.

Once we start a task, it is rarely as bad as we think. Our research shows us that getting started changes our perceptions of a task. It can also change our perception of ourselves in important ways.

STRATEGY FOR CHANGE When you find yourself thinking things like: “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow,” “I work better under pressure,” “There’s lots of time left,” “I can do this in a few hours tonight” . . . let that be a flag or signal or stimulus to indicate that you are about to needlessly delay the task, and let it also be the stimulus to just get started. This is another instance of that “if . . . then” type of implementation intention.

As I have outlined in earlier chapters, these implementation intentions take the form of “if . . . then” statements. The “if” part of the statement sets out some stimulus for action. The “then” portion describes the action itself. The issue here really is one of a predecision. We are trying to delegate the control over the initiation of our behavior to a specified situation without requiring conscious decision.

Procrastination draws on our ability to deceive ourselves. We find excuses for just about any unnecessary delay.

personality should not be an excuse. In fact, acknowledging and addressing our limitations can develop some of our greatest strengths.

techniques and technologies can never be a substitute for a commitment to change.

Giving in to feel good is a big piece of the procrastination puzzle, and the Internet provides lots and lots of short-term, but specious, rewards to which we can give in to feel good. With a click or two we can leave the task that we feel bad about and seek immediate mood repair. If you understand that this is what you are doing, you are truly on the road to change.

this self-change process is uneven. We truly do feel like one day we leap ahead and the next day we fall back. Although we have to be committed to change and firm in our efforts to be strategic, we also have to be kind to ourselves during this challenging process. We all face setbacks, disappointing moments, and frustrations with our apparent lack of progress. Your attitude toward these setbacks and yourself will be extremely important to your continued progress. Be kind but firm with yourself, and be willing to forgive yourself when you do not live up to your own expectations.

This finding reflects the power of forgiveness to move us from an avoidance motivation to an approach motivation. If, for example, you had a transgression (e.g., fight or broken promise) with a friend, and you or your friend had not offered forgiveness, you would likely avoid that friend. In the case of procrastination, the transgression is against the self, and we end up avoiding the task associated with that transgression. What forgiveness does in both cases is to remove the avoidance motivation so that friendship can be reestablished or engagement with the task can happen again, respectively

On our self-change journey, we have to be prepared to forgive ourselves for our transgressions so that we are willing to try again. We will certainly have to try again many times. As I said before, even my simple strategy of just get started may have to be invoked many times throughout the day. Start and restart.

Also published on Medium.

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