• Frank

to be or to procrastinate?

This time Frank and Joe joined together to answer a question that was asked by one of our readers. This friend wanted to know more about how to fight procrastination.

(F) Firstly, thanks a lot for that input, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that a scientific method to solve this issue doesn’t exactly exist. Like many other topics, it’s a matter of trial and error as well as being very honest with yourself. This said, there are some notions that may help you understand better how to tackle your greed for abuse of social media, videogames, or whichever other trick you use to escape from working on what really matters.


Symptoms:

(J) You scroll your instagram feed over and over until you get to the bottom. You just spent 30 minutes checking someone else’s pics while the most important thing you had to do today is sitting on the table

(J) You get lost for 45 minutes in Youtube rabbit-hole watching videos you would never even care about on a tropical Malaysian cat rubbing his neck against a banana tree, while that business proposal is still in the draft folder

(J) You make a tea, which you were craving so much, and you end up not even drinking it (I call it procrasti-tea)

(J) You call your parents and get into a long conversation about a family friend you normally don’t give a s**t about, instead of taking pen an paper and start writing for your blog

(F) You go to the kitchen and make a sandwich you don’t even want (I call it procrastin-eating)


Common causes of procrastination:

(F) Humans have a tendency to discount rewards that are going to happen in the future. The further in the future the rewards are, the less likely you will be to pursue them. Quick example: If I offered you 200 euros today or 220 in a year time, you are more likely to go for the 200 now. (J ) (for a moment, forget about the rational concept of ‘opportunity cost and time value of money’ for which this thing could make sense - if you know about finance). Or think about stop smoking. It’s very hard to do also because we can’t imagine much about our future selves and prefer the pleasure of a cigarette now to the pleasure of living few years more without needing to breathe through a machine. So, our motivation is heavily influenced by the perception and proximity of the reward.


(F+J) Another thing to consider is the pleasure your brain feels in distractions. There are so many activities that require very low effort but provide boosts of dopamine or oxytocin. Social media, sending emails (oxytocin) or games and tickmarking things on your to do (dopamine), provide our brains with quick fixes of this ‘feel good’ chemicals. The more you get quick boosts, the more addicted you are to these activities, the harder it gets to get into activities that require more effort and thinking.


(J) Fears. This is can be harder to spot, but it’s there and likely the root cause of most of your procrastination. Let’s assume you really set for yourself that you will send that very important proposal on Monday morning. You get to Monday morning and you start doing a million of other less important things, until … you ran out of time! At this point you postpone to Tuesday. And here you are on Tuesday morning, halfway into writing the email when… your friend from Mexico sends you a message on Facebook and you end up talking about burritos and cervezas for 2 hours until you run out of time. Easy, you still have another 5 days in the week to send no? So now it’s Wednesday when you finish the email, and feel so happy that you are about to hit send! You want a (procrasti)tea to warm yourself up while you prepare for the great moment. You start sweating as it’s the moment of truth… and you think that fuck it’s Wednesday and maybe it would be better to send that email on a Monday to maximise chances it will be open. And the thing is, it all seems pretty logical, as your brain fabricates a very valid reason for not taking action. Why? You may be scared you will get rejected. Or that you will get no reaction. And that you won’t get validated, but laughed at just because you even tried. All this possible pain is what your brain wants to avoid.


(J) Unclear priorities and choosing to let others force their agenda on you. For example having a day that ends up organised on emails you receive and things others ask you to do. This is common practice in many modern companies, small or large (I experienced the same in both environments), where there are no clear policies that protect individuals’ priorities. Somebody has sent you an email asking something and you read it in the morning. Because of dopamine mainly, and since the task is small, you decide to take it and invest the next 10 minutes doing that. At least you make the other person happy, no? This is social validation too (oxytocin). That person may not even expect a quick answer, but they get it and they start thinking that’s exactly how they should behave too. Before you know, everyone in the company is sending emails and expecting fast response. Essentially everyone becomes a mini-slave of the next person asking for something. Real priorities are naturally diluted or pushed to the end of the day or the day after.


Possible approaches:

(F) So, how to go about this? Well, you could just force yourself to avoid the internet, or whichever your distraction is with very drastic methods, but this may not work so well. Personally, I use a lot of lists and todos, they help me keep my otherwise not-so-well organised mental activity [If you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen I suggest you install momentum chrome extension, here you will be able to add your to-dos, which will appear every time you open a new tab on your browser, plus great daily quotes and pictures].


(F) Every time I want to achieve something I try to break down the tasks into small ones and prepare a plan for the amount of time that I need to achieve a specific goal. Recently, for example, I got into Product Design. As I work in a tech-startup, it’s something that has started to raise interest in me. I signed up to an online course and every day, after work, I dedicate from 30 minutes to a full hour to it. It’s crazy but after only a month, I am already making great progress.


(F) Another method you could use is the Pomodoro technique - Work for 25 minutes on a task and take a 5 minutes break after that. When you have repeated the cycle 4 times, take a longer break. Once you have built good confidence and flow, start increasing the amount of time of work, while keeping the same time for the break.


(J) Kill distractions when you want to work. Be radical and impose no social media outside of your chosen times (not even during toilet breaks - I know you do!). No notifications on your phone. No reading emails in the morning until you have done the most important thing you have to do.


(J) Ask someone to hold you accountable, for instance telling them in advance that you will do X, Y and Z this week and ask them to check with you have done it. For some people it works even better if you put prizes and penalties. You can decide to celebrate the wins with a meal out or a gift to yourself, or to agree to pay an uncomfortable amount of money, when you don’t act. Both incentives work in my experience. A more simple version is to promise you will do it to a person you care about. I did this with my coach two weeks ago. I agreed I would have taken two big, scary actions I was procrastinating on, the following Monday and Wednesday respectively. I could not miss on the promise and despite my fear, I was done with both the things at 9.45am on Monday.


(J) [Long term] Be aware of when you procrastinate for fears. Figure out what you are scared about, feel the emotion, accept it. And focus on taking action to overcome this fear.


(J) [PRO-TIP] Look at the big picture priorities and move away from the to-do list. This is an advanced method, which I am experimenting as of March 2019. I was very much to-do list oriented and used to note down every single detail and task. What was happening with me is that sometimes I would feel so much pleasure (dopamine) in tick marking the items on the list, that I would procrastinate on the big thing, by doing all the other smaller tasks on the list. On paper I was doing alright as I was completing a lot of things every day. However, I realise that I was often bullshitting myself on the biggest, more valuable things. I am now testing no to-do list and think about: what is the most important thing for me to double up my growth today? That puts most of my attention on the real important things I need to tackle first and foremost. All the rest is nuances. And that takes sometimes to say f**k you to a lot of smaller things (emails and requests included).

(J) Train the procrastination killer muscle and be patient with results, it will take time. It works indeed like any muscle and takes repeated work to grow, and it will also untrain very quickly if you stop.


And you, where do you procrastinate the most?

What ways do you kill procrastination?



Resources:

Tim Urban, author of wait but why on procrastination https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator?language=en

Pomodoro technique https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*kEwlYMyiFobrgWH7BvdSSA.png

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