What Drives Procrastination?

by Mark on October 4, 2014

Procrastination sucks. It is frustrating, and everyone does it. Procrastination has nothing to do with laziness. Some of the hardest working people I know are also terrible procrastinators. How can this be?

First, let’s get clear about what procrastination actually is. Procrastination is just avoiding actions that we think would make us better off. That’s what makes it so frustrating. We think we would be better off if we took action, and we still can’t get ourselves to do it.

This is why hard working people can also be procrastinators. They may be productive, but they are still avoiding things that would make them better off. The truth is that you can work very hard but not be working on the most important things.

Why is procrastination such a persistent problem?

The answer is simple. Any time we are faced by persistent problems, the reason is because we are using the same ineffective strategies over and over again. That is all there is too it. We are like flies bashing into a window pane again and again.

If our strategy was effective, then the problem would not persist.

Sometimes we think that we just need stronger determination, but the truth is that you could be the most determined person in the world and fail if your strategies are ineffective. If you are looking for a sunset in the east, you will fail regardless of your level of determination. And unfortunately for the fly, he will never be able to get through that glass.

The solution is to be flexible and find more effective strategies.

Okay, great. So how do we figure out what strategies will be more effective? We first must determine the root of the problem.

What drives procrastination?

What does all procrastination have in common? What makes it different from areas of our life where we just take action?

Whenever we are procrastinating, we are engaging in internal debate. We haven’t made a true decision. If we had made a true decision, we wouldn’t be procrastinating. We would just do it. Think about the things that you do consistently without procrastinating. For example, I take a shower every morning, and coincidentally, I don’t debate with myself about doing it.

Occasionally, when I don’t have to work and I’m very tired or not feeling well, I do debate with myself about taking a shower. The result is that I tend to procrastinate on taking a shower and maybe even wait until the next day (luckily this doesn’t happen too often!).

This seems to be the common denominator. Whenever we do something without procrastinating, we do it without much thought. The decision has already been made, so there is nothing to debate. When we procrastinate, on the other hand, we haven’t made a real decision, so we engage in mental debate rather than take action.

Making a true decision, unlike saying, “I’d like to quit smoking,” is cutting off any other possibility. In fact, the word “decision” comes from the Latin roots de, which means “from,” and caedare, which means “to cut.” Making a true decision means committing to achieving a result, and then cutting yourself off from any other possibility.

– Anthony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within)

The solution to eliminating procrastination is simple. We need to eliminate the internal debate, and we can do this by making a true, committed decision. We need to define what we are going to do in greater detail.

Decide on exactly when you are going to take action.

This is the most critical decision of all. WHEN are you going to perform the desired behavior? There are two basic ways of defining when:

  • either you can perform the behavior at a set time, or
  • you can perform the behavior right after a certain trigger event (such as waking up, getting home from work, or eating dinner).

You should define an absolutely clear rule so that your brain knows precisely when to perform the behavior without having to debate with yourself each and every time that you want to do it.

A great example is exercise. Example rules defining when you will exercise could be:

  • Exercise from 7 – 7:30 PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or
  • Exercise for 30 minutes as soon as I get home from work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

The important thing is that the rule must be specific. Your brain needs clarity. If your brain isn’t clear about the details of the behavior, then you will engage in internal debate. Internal debate is a death knell for taking action. The reason that being specific is so important is that it eliminates internal debate. The decision has already been made. End of discussion!

Use routines and rituals.

For many years, I didn’t floss my teeth. Then I began to go to a dentist who would ask me at every check-up, “Are you flossing every day?” I’m pretty sure he already knew the answer. Eventually I was able to insert flossing into my morning ritual right after shaving and before  brushing my teeth. When you practice a consistent ritual, each behavior is a trigger for the one after it. Pretty soon it becomes so deeply programmed that you don’t even think about it. That’s the key.

Why do To Do lists fail?

Have you ever used a To Do list? How did that work out for you? If you are like most people, your To Do list just accumulates a number of actions that you never take. It should be called a Procrastination list. Honestly, how old are the items on your To Do list?

Eventually we sit down and make a new To Do list with renewed determination only to face the same result. We are the flies that smack right back into that window pane.

The concept of a To Do list is great. It’s like a plan of what you are going to do. Or at least that is what you tell yourself. The problem is that it is really just a list of things that you haven’t truly committed to doing.

A To Do list is a list of decisions waiting to be made.

The way to make a To Do list work is by deciding specifically WHEN you are going to take action. Take one or a few items from your To Do list, and schedule appointments with yourself to do it. Commit yourself to keeping the appointment.

Make your decision even more specific.

Add as much detail to your decision as necessary to eliminate internal debate. What kind of exercise are you going to do? Where are you going to do it? With whom? Be specific enough that you can just do it without thinking about it.

I think that one of the reasons that diets fail so often is because there is too much ambiguity. We want to eat healthy, but when it comes time to eat, we have too many decisions to make. When we are constantly debating what to eat, it’s easy to weaken and reach for the junk food.

This is probably why so many people have had success with Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet. It has very simple and specific rules to follow. One of his rules is to eat the same few meals over and over again. It eliminates much of the internal debate that we all engage in. It might sound boring, but you probably eat mostly the same foods over and over again anyway. So choose a few healthy meals, and eat them often.

An Example from My Own Life

I’ve always been somewhat ADHD, but because of the Internet, it has gotten progressively worse. A few months ago I decided that I would work in “focus blocks” of 90, 60, or 30 minutes (preferably 90 minutes whenever possible). During these focus blocks, I would eliminate all distractions, put my cell phone in “airplane mode,” and would avoid the Internet unless it was necessary for the specific goal that I was working on. I recorded the number of these focus blocks each day in a little notebook, and I challenged myself to increase the number of focused hours I would do each day.

This worked for a while, but then I progressively began to procrastinate more and more on starting a focus block. The result was that the number of focused hours continued to decrease. I kept telling myself that I would do more focused hours tomorrow, but then I wouldn’t follow through. It was frustrating.

A little over a week ago, I made a new committed decision about precisely when I would do these focus blocks, and I set up recurring appointments with myself in Google Calendar:

  • 8:30 AM – 10:00 AM – Every single day.
  • 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM – Every single day.
  • 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM – Monday through Friday.
  • 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM – Monday through Friday.

The result of making a schedule is that I haven’t had any problem at all doing my focus blocks. There is no internal debate. I just do it at the precise times that I have defined. I also think that it helps that I don’t demand that I be productive outside of these set times. I can goof off except for during my focus blocks.

This is 6 focused hours per day on weekdays, and 3 focused hours per day on weekends, for a total of 36 focused hours per week. Also, before I start my day, I make sure that I have a clear picture about what exactly I am going to focus on for that day. I have already noticed a huge boost to my productivity. Unfocused work just doesn’t compare to focused work.

One other change that I made was that I decided to devote my weekend focused hours to writing and blogging. For years, I have been saying to myself that I really should write more and should write consistently, but I never stuck with it. Now I have commited to a precise time for writing, so I just do it.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Start by picking one area that you have been procrastinating on for a long time and that requires a recurring action of some kind. Make a specific, committed decision about what you are going to do and WHEN you are going to do it. Pick either a specific, recurring time or a specific, recurring trigger event. Commit to it, and do it over and over again without all the internal debate.

Are you willing to accept the challenge?

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