Dealing with Procrastination

Steve Olson has a great collection of resources for beating procrastination on his site.  (Bookmark it, and then write it lower down on your to-do list. You’ll see why in a moment!)

He mentions one of my favourite procrastination articles, Structured Procrastination, where John Perry outlines his methods for making procrastination work for, rather than against, you.

Perry attempts to structure his to-do lists in such a way that procrastinating when it comes to the items at the top of the list (which, he argues, he would do anyway since he is a procrastinator by nature) means that he “tricks himself” into completing items lower down the list.

Of course, not every action he takes while evading responsibility is another item on his to-do list. Sometimes in an attempt to avoid his list entirely, he will engage in social activities. But even these activities (things not on one’s to-do list) can be rich self-development opportunities: making life-long friends, learning a skill, helping others and so on.

One resource not mentioned on Steve’s list is a book I read several years ago: It’s About Time! The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them by Linda Sapadin. What I liked about this book was that it let students identify with a variety of procrastination types and similarly dismiss other types.

Just like models of learning styles or personality types, no one model is the definitive model for categorizing people.  But, when you are presented with clearly distinct types of procrastinators, it becomes a little easier to figure out which behaviours and motivations you do or don’t identify with.  Sometimes when advice is given as a universal truth, it can be difficult to accept its relevance: we all want to think I’m different. Looking at procrastination types gets you thinking more specifically about your procrastination behaviours and might feel a little more relevant and a little less like, “Duh, everyone should <insert generic advice here>.”

Similarly, Paul Graham’s article Good and Bad Procrastination (also from Olson’s collection of resources) attempts to categorize procrastinators.  But, instead of classifying them based on their reasons for procrastinating (fear of failure, need to please, rebellion, revenge, perfectionism), Graham distinguishes different procrastinators by what they choose to do instead of the thing they should be doing: something more important than the original task, something less important than the original task or nothing at all. Reminiscent of Structured Procrastination, this article claims that there are good forms of procrastination. Whether or not your procrastination is actually helping you (even if you didn’t know it), it’s probably a good idea to take a look at what you do while you’re procrastinating.  If you can’t bring yourself to actually work on the task at hand, maybe you can improve your overall situation simply by choosing better distractions.

One of the linked articles suggests that a strict or authoritarian upbringing can rob us of the opportunity to learn to plan effectively for ourselves.  If your daily schedule was decided for and imposed upon you, what happens when you suddenly find yourself as a young adult with complete freedom?  Some will stick with the strict routine they know, and some will consciously choose to rebel. But many students will sincerely try to manage their time and commitments.  Very few students entering university actually intend to be a slacker. But they can stumble if they’re not used to making these tough choices (like when to work vs. when to play) themselves.

Another must-read article on Steve’s list explains how our own brain works against us and why meta-cognition, thinking about thinking, is the best defence against our own mind. Our reasoning is often irrational and biased towards survival strategies from earlier days when life was riskier and we couldn’t always afford to wait for future rewards.  Hyperbolic discounting is our tendency to choose a smaller payoff now rather than wait for a larger payoff later.  In doing so, not only can we end up making decisions of short-term gain that work against ourselves in the long run (like procrastinating) but we underestimate future consequences, tending to focus instead on present consequences.

As a result, we often make commitments to future deadlines that we would never agree to under present conditions.  For example, you can’t write that article for the campus newspaper this week because something came up. But you’ll gladly sign up for six weeks from now because you’re sure that month will be just a normal month. Our idealized picture of the future never seems to include helping a friend move, a Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon, a breast cancer run nor a public transportation strike. (Or as could be the case in Canada, a federal election!)

This potential for being over-committed is a key factor in having an unmanageable to-do list . . . or as described in the article, an impossibly long Netflix queue of high brow films you’ll probably never get around to watching because in the present moment, you always choose Family Guy.  And unmanageable to-do lists can make you appear like a procrastinator (missing deadlines, feeling overwhelmed etc.) even if you’re not normally one.

And finally, for those of you just wanting lists of tricks for beating procrastination or getting motivated, Olson’s article has that too.  There should be more than enough for those looking for actions they can try out right away.

So visit The Smart Guide to Beating Procrastination and give yourself something productive to do while you’re procrastinating!

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