Procrastination: Causes and cures

From flickr

A year and a half ago, I read a lot of information about self-improvement related to procrastination. How to avoid it, how to feint it when it comes at odd moments every day. Here are a few of the most important things I read, rewritten and condensed for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy it, if you do please Stumble, Digg or Retweet. Thanks!

Procrastination: Causes and cures

Satisfaction vs distance

Enjoyment now vs great success someday?
From flickr

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 part, that's why I start with it. Even after I think I've stopped avoiding work (maybe you can't get over it, ever) this is what keeps me surfing, or idling 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, grasping it with your hands. You need to feel the loss after getting back to reality, and find the steps to get there.

Later I'll talk about ways to plan big projects. Now, this image of our success brings another interesting and related subject.

Fear of success & fear of change

The only thing you have to fear, is fear itself
From flickr

I think I hear you muttering "Don't you mean fear of failure?". No, I don't mean fear of failure, but later we will have something to ponder on it. Fear of success happens, and 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 a new one, no more a change. And every time you can do something new, do it, keep training for changes.

Fear of failure

Winners never quit and quitters never win
Vince Lombardi (Image from Flickr)

The causes for fear of failure are diverse, and depend mostly on the situation. You may be afraid of looking like an idiot, 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

Time, it needs time... Scorpions 'Still loving you'
From flickr

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, lunch time? Where is 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

Pay attention!
From flickr

I feel these two abilities are closely related. They are like a muscle, without proper training they fade, until you can't get hold of 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 pattern 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.


It's not whether you get knocked down,
it's whether you get up
Vince Lombardi (Image from Flickr)

Willpower, what keeps you up when everything tells you should be down. Willpower should be used sparingly... If you are dieting, avoiding cakes is easier than having a cake in front of you and saying "No! No!". For work purposes, try to use it just when needed. If you are faced to tasks A and B, and both require some kind of impulse to get rolling, try to just apply it to the most important. As it is suggested in this Times article (free register required), if you are preparing for an exam and should clean up the house, better let go the cleaning and keep your willpower focused on studying.

This same article points out that some psychological studies suggest that willpower can be trained, just by keeping on doing something. An example given is brushing your teeth with your left hand for two weeks. Bizarre, but I have tried to teach my left hand and it really needs a lot of power to be put on. Use your willpower wisely, and if possible use it to train for concentration and attention!


Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase
perfection we can catch excellence.

Vince Lombardi (Image from Flickr)

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 already found a way to 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? Just try not to come to a halt and do nothing.

Of course, the best answer to this dilemma is to try to work in that perfect solution and get as far as it gets. Rewards come then.

Lack of motivation

From flickr

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 thought train

Overcoming negative attitudes will help with our overall habits and new habit forming. 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 to a not-so-bright outcome.
  • 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. Once you are in this road, as long as you don't deviate your projects will find an end.

E-mail/browsing addiction

From flickr

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 at the same time, although it may sound silly at first.

In a forthcoming post I'll talk about several keys of time management to keep you out of procrastinating, and mostly, out of StumbleUpon, your mail application or your browser. Stay tuned!

If you liked this post, feel free to stumble it, digg it, leave me a comment or visit some other post you may find interesting. Thanks!

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Written by Ruben Berenguel