Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Long and the Short of It

If Dr. Piers Steel is to be believed, we procrastinators may be about to run out of excuses.  (And God knows, we love our excuses!)  It's his persuasive argument, and his damned (good) practical advice that may prove their undoing.

Procrastinating 101 has been focusing these last nine weeks on Dr. Steel's book, The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.  If you have been following its exposition, you may remember Dr. Steel's assertion that poor impulse control is at the heart of most procrastination.  In Chapter Nine, "In Good Time:  Managing Short-term Impulses and Long-term Goals," he lays out the problem more fully, details some creative solutions, and throws in a little ancient Greek literature.  As we have come to expect, Dr. Steel is once again an eminently companionable and unassailably (I looked it up--it's really a word.) knowledgeable tour guide through these regions of Planet Procrastination.

"Impulsiveness," says Steel, "multiplies the effect of delay, making it a major determinant of the Procrastination Equation's outcome."  For those who have not yet seen Steel's formulation, and those who have but have not committed it to memory, the mathematical expression he has devised to represent his theory of procrastination looks like this:

Here low Motivation predicts the big P, Procrastination.  The other elements have been teased out in previous posts (see, particularly, Procrastinating 101: 12-year-olds Get It, So Can We ).

Impulsiveness contributes to the divisor in the equation, so that the more impulsive among us will experience lower motivation, and thus be more inclined to procrastinate.  And, as Dr. Steel warns, "you can't escape your fate.  Impulsiveness is not something you have, but something you are."  Yikes!

But there is hope, and it begins with Odysseus.  Dr. Steel recounts the preparations urged upon Odysseus by the goddess Circe, who knew that he would face, on his return trip from Troy, the temptress Sirens.  Circe advised him to plug his men's ears with wax, and to lash himself to the mast of his ship, so that he would be able to pass through the district of these irresistible creatures and continue his journey.  Thus, Odysseus employed the technique of precommitment.

Dr. Steel recommends we face the fact that temptations too often get the better of us, leading us off task and into putting off what we need to get done.  We would do well to identify our Sirens, and to invest in precommitment.

He offers three contemporary strategies (no ear wax or ship masts required) for precommitting, intriguingly categorized under the heading "Bonding, Satiation and Poison."  For the sake of brevity, and my sanity (it has been a looonnnnnngggggggg week!), I will just hit the highlights here:  

  • Throw Away the Key--The idea here is to devise a way, technological or analog, to block off the exits while focusing on work.  Steel mentions, e.g., a program for Apple users called Freedom, which blocks internet access; Clocky, an alarm clock on wheels that goes berserk when you hit Snooze; and Google's "Take a break" button, which gives the user fifteen minutes of email-free work time.
  • Satiation--This approach addresses our urges and impulses by having us "tank up," scheduling in a modicum of pleasure and relaxation, and then slotting in work around these "appointments."  Dr. Neil Fiore popularized this Unschedule in his book The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.
  • Try Poison--This strategy features penalties & scare tactics.  One example was employed by my ex-husband in his dissertation research on behavior change.  Participants put up $100, which was forfeited to their least favorite cause or charity if they resumed smoking during the study period.  Alternatively, Dr. Steel recommends visualizing in horrifying detail the dire consequences that could result from putting off a dreaded task.

Then there's "Making Attention Pay," Steel's two-pronged advice for diminishing the pull of distractions/temptations.

  • Inside Out:  Pay Attention Please!--We can minimize the appeal of those objects and activities that would keep us from work by altering our perceptions, and thus the level of attention these things command.  Using abstraction and symbolic representation--e.g., focusing on attributes of a desired food, and thus recruiting the prefrontal cortex to compete with the limbic system response of "yum," "gimme"--is one way of doing this.  Another is to run a "smear campaign" on the desired object, attending to its negative qualities and consequences--e.g., weight gain and high cholesterol from junk food; STDs, unwanted pregnancy and a ruined marriage from infidelity; or public disgrace and firing from failure to complete work.
  • Outside In:  Now You See It, Now You Don't (stimulus control)--This approach attempts to limit the environmental cues which distract us.  For example, a dieter might stock the fridge with only healthy food choices.  Those of us who struggle to stay on task might limit the number of windows open on our computer desktops; remove troublesome bookmarks; arrange our work spaces to cue work and not entertainment; incorporate work triggers; and--addressing two of my personal pet peeves--declutter our work space, and maintain "pristine" boundaries between "clashing life domains, typically family and work."  Hard to do for the increasing number of us who work from home, and whose laptops accompany us from one messy and distracting space and location to another.

And finally, Scoring Goals.

Dr. Steel has this to say about goals:
We have already touched on some of what makes a goal good.  In chapter 7, we mentioned that making goals challenging is more inspiring than making them attainable.  Easy goals are attainable. . . .In chapter 8, we focused on making goals meaningful by linking them to personally relevant aspirations.  If you see how present tasks lead to future rewards, you will value them more highly.  In this chapter, we will put the finishing touches on goal setting by putting time back on your side.

  • The Finish Line is Just Ahead--Dr. Steel's suggestion in this section is to proceed toward "concrete, exact" goals by stages, using subgoals.  In this way, we can take advantage of our tendency to work more intensely closer to deadline; a series of intermediate "deadlines" will result in spreading out effort, and a better quality product.  He discusses the issue of "motivational surface tension," and using a technique I first learned from Alan Lakein (in How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life)--setting a mini-goal that gets us started, and more often than not, ultimately engaged in the work we're avoiding.
  • Full Auto--This advice builds on the predictability that flows from build routines and habits of work.  He also urges us to plan for distraction, as in "'If I lose focus, then I will move my attention back to the task.'"

But again, Dr. Steel says all this better than I.  You might want to just read the book yourself.

Next Week:  Chapter Ten--Making it Work.  We're in the home stretch now!

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