Managing Procrastination

Lazy people want much but get little, but those who work hard will prosper.   Proverbs 13:4

According to Joseph Ferrari, “20 percent of all U.S. men and women are chronic procrastinators.”  The DePaul University Professor of Psychology tells us that this is a very high number, surpassing those diagnosed with either clinical depression or phobias.  But cheer up: “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.”

I always thought that procrastination is just a result of poor time management, lack of focus, bad habits or wimping out.  The popularity of the following books tells me that a lot of people must be thinking the same thing:

The One Thing,by Gary Keller

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Grit, by Angela Duckworth

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

I enjoy listening to podcasts from Dan Sullivan, a leading coach for entrepreneurs. He believes that truly successful people organize their personal and business life around a single focus and activity. WATCH

I guess I’m not in that place in my life where I can just focus on one thing. I know my wife, three kids and dog Max would let me know that they see things a bit differently.

Florida State University Professors Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister explain that procrastination can come from either a positive or negative state of being.  A negative based procrastinator might put things off because he fears failure or is a perfectionist. A positive state procrastinator is simply enjoying and acting upon current temptations, such as searching the refrigerator for food or taking the dog for a walk.   The gap between intentions and actions is either the inability to manage one’s time or the inability to regulate one’s moods and emotions.

I highly recommend  Tim Urban’s Ted Talk: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, which has been watched over 10 million times. In the talk, and also on his website (waitbutwhy.com) we learn –in a very humorous way – of two forces that are constantly working against each other:

  • You, also called the Rational Decision-Maker, and
  • The Instant Gratification Monkey, sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear.

The little monkey looks very cute but is only interested in the here-and-now fun stuff..  He is on a mission to distract you away from reaching your big goals because these are hard to do and take discipline.  Here are two drawings from Urban’s website that tell us what’s going on:

Non Procrastinator brain
Procrastinator brain

The Procrastinator allows the little monkey to take over the wheel and determine where the journey is going.  The only way for the procrastinator to grab back the wheel is to set the course (plan) into small, one-day trips (bricks).

Let’s say you are standing in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The groundbreaking was in 1163 and it was finally completed in 1345.  The person who commissioned the building, Bishop Maurice de Sully, never saw the end product but he commissioned the construction and had the plans drawn up.  The walls were erected brick by brick. Over the years many different architects got involved and their visions were created, one brick at a time.

I remember one of my own big, hairy, awesome goals some thirty-five years ago: my PhD thesis.  I had just completed my master’s degree in political science at the University of Munich in Germany and realized that it would take a lot of effort to find a job, so I procrastinated and decided to study some more! Besides, I really liked the professor who agreed to take me on; in German you call them your “Dr. Vater”, or Dr. Dad. And Wilhelm was a really caring Dad.

I now stood in front of a huge mountain, one that would take 3-4 years to climb. I had no idea what I signed up for.  To make things even more difficult, I had to leave Munich and move some 500 miles to the North because my Dr. Vater had recently transferred to a different University.  I settled on Bonn, at that time the capital city of West Germany; my Dr. Vater was at the University of Bochum, about a 90 minute train ride to the north.

In retrospect, the move to Bonn was the best thing that could happen to me. Bonn was a new place for me so there weren’t a lot friends who could distract me from the work I had to do. My plan was the outline of my thesis. Basically, I knew the chapters that I had to write and the 4-year clock was running.  The chapters were the bricks and I figured that I would spend 3-6 months researching and writing each chapter.

My accountability partner was my Dr. Vater who wanted to get updates from me every few months.  He’d ask me to send him rough drafts of my chapters and come to visit him at his university at least every 6 months.

My apartment was small and comfortable and I thought it would be the ideal place to crank out the chapters for my thesis.  The main University library was an easy bicycle ride and I checked out all the books, journals and newspapers I needed to get started.

Weeks went by and I wasn’t making much progress.  I was good about getting up and not sleeping in, but I was letting myself get distracted and wasn’t focused the way I should be.  Luckily, this was before the advent of cell phones and internet, but I had to clean my apartment, go for my daily run, head over to the student cafeteria for lunch, read the morning newspaper, and on and on.   I quickly realized my apartment was not the best, most creative environment to work in.

So I changed my routine.  I moved my office to the university’s library. Every morning I would ride my bike to the library and be one of the first students to enter. After four hours I’d reward myself and head to the student cafeteria for lunch.  Within a few weeks I had met some students at the library who seemed to be regulars and also took their studies seriously.  This turned out to be a very important support structure for me.

I can’t remember if the years passed by quickly but I did finish my thesis in 3.5 years.  What kept me going was the fear of letting my Dr. Vater and my parents (who were funding me) down.  I also knew that it would be a personal failure if I had invested so much time and effort into a project, which I didn’t complete.

In Psalm 90:12 we read: “Teach us to make the most of our time, so that we may grow in wisdom.”

Even if you are not part of the 20% of Americans who are chronic procrastinators, we all have a little bit of procrastination in us.  I’d like to continue writing but Max is scratching at my leg and wants to go out for his afternoon walk.

Sources:

Timothy Pychyl: Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University

Joseph Ferrari: Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute

See reference to Tice and Baumeister in: Eric Jaffe: Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination”

Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, Ted Talk

Tim Urban: Why Procrastinators Procrastinate 

Len Fisher: The Power of Procrastination, Psychology Today, Nov. 26, 2011

See also newer post:

Jack Milgram: 10 Mind-Blowing Tips on How to Stop Procrastinating, July 31, 2017