If he who hesitates is lost, what about he who procrastinates?
As long as people have been reflecting they have been reflecting on procrastination. It is puzzling that people can delay doing what they know they should be doing and want to be doing. And that they will keep delaying even when delay is unpleasant, even painful.
University of Calgary professor Piers Steel has studied the phenomenon. He has observed that people who procrastinate lack self-discipline. They are bad self-regulators. He also learned that procrastination is the “flip side” of poor impulse control.
Maria Konnikova explains the link:
Just as impulsivity is a failure of our self-control mechanisms—we should wait, but instead we act now—so, too, is procrastination: we should act now, but instead we wait.
We are indebted to Steel and the other neuroscientists for this observation. And yet, how do you know the difference between delaying a task because you are waiting for the right time or delaying it because you are afraid to do it. And what about people who seem to use their delaying tactics to provoke drama?
And the lack of impulse control is not always a bad thing. True enough, people who lack impulse control might very well do the wrong thing at the wrong time. But, it is possible to do the right thing at just the right time, spontaneously.
Neuroscience tells us that procrastination and impulse control are two sides of the same coin. It does not, however, tell us how to distinguish between the right and the wrong of any specific action.
Sometimes people delay a task because they are not ready to do it. Sometimes delay helps them to compose their thoughts and to do a better job.
If you have been hard at work on task 1, it is often not possible to flick a switch and to move on to task 2.
Sometimes, preparation is needed. At other times, people wait for the right moment because they want to do their best. Others procrastinate because they want to irritate the person who is waiting to see the report.
To know whether or not you are procrastinating you have to know how well you accomplish the task once you set about to complete it.
Of course, if you never complete the task you are not just procrastinating, you are failing to fulfill a responsibility.
If someone is constantly getting into fights in bars we believe that he has poor impulse control. And yet, if he is a tennis player and has developed his skill to the point where he does not think before responding to a shot on the court, we would not say that he lacks impulse control. We would say that he has attuned his impulses to the point where they serve his competitive purpose.
Again, neuroscience does not tell us the difference between right and wrong.
Be that as it may, today’s cognitive therapists have developed constructive ways to combat the negative effects of some forms of procrastination. They do not do it by exploring the depths of your mind, but they seek out new ways to motivate people.
When it comes to self-control, one trick that tends to work well is to reframe broad, ambitious goals in concrete, manageable, immediate chunks, and the same goes for procrastination. “We know there is a lot of naturally occurring motivation as deadlines approach,” Steel pointed out. “Can you create artificial deadlines to mimic the same thing?”
Next, be more specific in defining the task. If you tell yourself that you must write you will be less motivated and less productive than if you tell yourself that you need to write a certain number of words or pages within a specific time frame:
For instance, Steel uses timed ten-minute sessions to get started on tasks that he doesn’t quite want to do. “The problem with a goal we’re avoiding is that we’ve already built into our minds how awful it’s going to be,” he said. “So it’s like diving into a cold pool: the first few seconds are terrible, but soon it feels great.” So, set the goal of working on a task for a short time, and then reassess. Often, you’ll be able to stay on task once you’ve overcome that initial jump. “You don’t say, ‘I am going to write.’ You say, ‘I will complete four hundred words by two o’clock,’ ” Steel says. “The more specific, the more powerful. That’s what gets us going.”
And then, eliminate distractions, preferably before they begin to tempt you:
Identify the “hot” conditions for impulse control—those moments when you’re most prone to give in to distraction—and find ways to deal with them directly. “One of the easiest things to do is to realize that maybe it’s your distractions, not your goals, that are the problem,” said Steel. “So you make the distractions harder to get to. Make them less obvious.”