20081023

Procrastination: Causes and cures

For about a year I've been procrastinating a lot, and lately I decided it was time to end. To do so, I kept on procrastinating (avoiding my work) to research the web for causes, cures and pitfalls in this "disease". In the following entry I'll tell you everything I've learned (slightly condensed), hope it serves you too. Keep in mind it is a long post, bookmark it now if you can't keep reading for this long (or use it to avoid working for about half an hour :) I will only cover the aspects of causes (and related cures) and related time management systems, but for now I will skip motivation, leaving it for another post, as I'm still thinking about it.

1. Causes and Cures
--1.1 Satisfaction vs distance
--1.2 Fear of success & fear of change
--1.3 Fear of failure
--1.4 Wasting time and the procrastination cycle
--1.5 Self-discipline and attention problems
----1.5.1 How to train your attention/concentration
--1.6 Perfectionism
--1.7 Lack of motivation
--1.8 Negative thoughts
--1.9 E-mail/browsing addiction
2. Time management
--2.1 Start strong
--2.2 Set mail time, browsing time
--2.3 (10+2)*5
--2.4 Periodic alarms
--2.5 Can't avoid enjoyment?
--2.6 Don't stop me now

3. What has worked best (for me) so far
4. Software

Causes and cures

Satisfaction vs distance

For what I've seen, and felt, the first and foremost cause for procrastination is a search for immediate satisfaction. Our sense of satisfaction is more or less like our vision... The Empire State Building from 1 kilometer looks as big as a mobile phone from 1 meter, but obviously the former is a lot bigger than the latter. Surfing the web is a little satisfying, but can be done NOW, but finishing your work (thesis, in my case) is a lot of satisfaction in a few years.

Dealing with this is maybe the hardest, that's why I start with it. Even after I think I've stopped avoiding work (still not cured yet) this is what keeps me surfing, and not proving theorems. This is a self-feeding behavior, I mean, the more you do the things that keep you happy now, the more you will keep doing it, and avoiding your real, big and important goals.

A reasonable way to give this up is to consider what you are avoiding (a really big project, a job move... whatever) and think about what the worst outcome could be. Visualize it in your mind, even write on a paper about it. Take your time. And now do the same thing, but with the best possible outcome. Be as thorough as possible, you need to feel as if you are already done.

You have to feel as if you are about to have this done, and plan how to do it. Later I'll talk about planning big projects. Now, this image of our success brings another interesting and related subject.

Fear of success & fear of change

I think I hear you muttering "Don't you mean fear of failure?". No, I don't mean fear of failure, but later I will have something to say about it. Fear of success happens, and is usually what hides is being afraid of change. Success brings change: more responsibility, a new job, a different job, a new place, new colleagues.

Fear of change is difficult to deal with, and in my experience, visualization and trying to do what you are afraid of as often as you can help with it. Visualize what you are afraid of, the new situation that puts you down until it is no more new, no more a change. And every time you can do something new, do it, keep training for changes.

Fear of failure

The causes for fear of failure are diverse, and depend mostly on the situation. You may be afraid of looking like an ignorant, or not keeping up to the expectations you gave. These are really heavy burdens to carry, and keep us from doing the really big projects we have.

A possible solution is... well, failing. Do some things in your life expecting to fail, and keep doing it until you don't feel like you are being judged but what you are not able to do. Or try something new, something you know you can't do. It may be hard to do so, but hard problems have no easy solutions.

Always remember that everybody fails sometimes, and by learning from your failures is how you will get better.

Wasting time and the procrastination cycle

Wake up, shower, turn on computer, take some coffee, read your mail, your news feed... you start to feel dizzy, with a fog-like feeling in your brain...start browsing... Damn, dinner time? Where has my morning gone? Have you ever felt like this? This keeps happening day after day, getting you in a downward spiral where you procrastinate, realize you haven't done anything useful, get depressed, and procrastinate again.

To get out of this cycle, you have to rebuild your self-confidence. To do so, pick a small project and finish it. Then repeat this a few times. No matter how small it is (it has to be a project and not just a task). This way we get confident of getting something done and also build up our self-discipline.

Self-discipline and attention problems

I feel these two abilities are closely related. They are like a muscle, without proper training they fade, until you can't hold anything. Training your self-discipline, needs a little discipline and commitment.

To get the most of your starting self-discipline, try to attain new habits. Different studies have suggested that a new habit is picked up after repeating a patter for 21 to 30 days. Pick your time, I use 21 days whereas Steve Pavlina suggests 30 days. Do as you feel. As you try to adopt this new habit you can also feel its benefits or drawbacks, this way you can stop if you don't want to keep with it. Like a 21 days free-to-try. Our first habit to attain could be (to kill two birds with one stone) training our attention daily.

How to train your attention/concentration?

Training your attention is easy, but requires quite a lot of work. Here are some of the most standard exercises:
  • Mentally count words in a book. Start with something easy like a paragraph and check, then make it harder counting a whole page, chapter...
  • Count backwards in your head (if you find it too easy, count backwards in 3's or 4's, or whatever).
  • Practice some form of meditation.
  • Pick something you do quite often (maybe writing by hand, or with a computer) and try to be as attentive as possible of what you are doing. Try to make your writing clearer and cleaner, or type as swiftly and consciously as you can.

Perfectionism

Being a perfectionist may be a good thing... but can lead to elaborate and perfect solutions which never get done. "Too difficult. Why bother? I have found a solution". And then the deadline arrives and you carry just a small part of your perfect plan. Acknowledging this problem is the first step... the next is choosing which way to take. A perfect and beautiful solution, or looking for a not so perfect but also not so difficult solution? My best bet would be to just take the hard but good solution and stick with it. The results will then come.

Lack of motivation

A great deal has been written about motivation (external, internal, boosting... what not!) and how to motivate yourself. Switching your job for one you like more, fighting your task as if it was your worst enemy and should be defeated, overcoming our limitations, looking at the task from the best and worst outcomes, etc. In short, you should seek your own motivation, or what motivates you. And when you find it, stick with it. More about this in a post to come.

Negative thoughts

Overcoming negative attitudes will help with our overall habits. It is essential to break the cycle procrastination-depression. And to break it, you should start doing some work. We may also change our thoughts, and words which link us
  • Change "I have to" with "I would like to".
  • Change "Finish something" with "Start something".
This changes have to be as sudden as possible, its nonsensical to try to do it step by step. It will get us nowhere.

E-mail/browsing addiction

These are usually the results of procrastinating, not the causes. By avoiding them you will be almost forced to do some work. The easiest way to avoid them is just being completely centered in your objectives, but at first this isn't enough. You need some kind of time management that allows you to do work and avoid work, although it may sound silly.

Time management

Start strong

Start your day (either at home or at the office) doing some work for at least half an hour straight. This is by far what has helped me the most. Don't read your mail, or idle browse the net until at least one hour of work. I will talk more about this later, as it has been the best for me.

Set mail time, browsing time

Set a minimum work time before checking e-mail. I work for an hour before opening my mail account (unless I am waiting for some urgent thing, I just open, look for answer and read NO mail unrelated to it) in the morning and in the afternoon. Also try to avoid idle-browsing but you can set some week time for it. I use to do it at night before going to sleep.

(10+2)·5

Our goal is to work exclusively and with our full attention on one of the items of our today list, for 10 minutes, and then do whatever you want for 2 minutes. Now repeat, taking the next item in your list. When we are starting it is better not to skip breaks, but soon you will be so immersed in your work that you won't be able to stop.

Found in 43Folders.

Periodic alarms

Set a periodic alarm (a bell, or something not really disturbing) to start after 15 or 20 minutes. Each time it sounds we must consider what we are doing (is it work? is it wasting time?) and then center ourselves in work. I don't really recommend this, as can be disturbing when you are "flowing" with what you are doing.

Can't avoid enjoyment?

If we need so much enjoyment and playing, one solution may be to make a weekly schedule (Sunday afternoon is a good moment) and set time for every pleasing, playful and enjoyable thing you can do. Set also time for doing "nothing". After one day, or maybe less we will feel like we don't have time to work, and strangely enough, we will be craving for work.

Don't stop me now

The best, but hardest way to be the most productive, without paying attention to what you want to do is "never stop". Be prepared with a heavy to-do list, with a lot of things to be done. To get this list, break big projects into small projects, and small into tiny. And at the start of what you consider your work day, just keep doing things in that list (lunch time is not considered work time). At the end of the day you will feel exhausted, but also will have the feeling of a really successful day.

This solution, as good as it is has some drawbacks. Doing this is very tiresome, and getting a really big to-do list is hard. One way to solve this is keep always a notebook (small one) with you, with different pages, corresponding to different times. As an example, the 10 minute page,
the 30 minute page. In each one you write down the tasks you seriously think you can accomplish in this amount of time. Now, every time you run out of work, consider what amount of time do you have, take the corresponding (or closest) page and do one thing from the list. Just
never, ever stop. Clean the room, organize your mail, do phone calls. Anything.

What has worked best (for me) so far

To start strong in the morning at home, plan what you will be doing today. Take a piece of paper, your agenda, your PDA and write everything work-related and leisure related. You may write "Correct pages 1 and 2 of X" and "Play one game of Y". It is better to write clearly what you will do, do not write "Correct some pages of X", be precise of what your aim is. Do not under or over estimate what you can do in a day. Also, keep time for mail and browsing, but keep them from eating your day.

Also, setting one don't stop me day, helps when you seem to be unable to start. Make a huge list and the next available day crush it.

Meditating is a great help... athough it doesn't seem so while you are doing it. Meditating every day helps to be focused all day long, keeping your mind centered in what you want to do.

Software

A few programs have helped me (at least a little) to just work. I list the two I use most, but will add more later.

Feel free to comment, and I'll try to add any feedback to the corresponding sections. If you have read this far, thank you.
Written by Ruben Berenguel