Do you have something you know you need to do – and you know how to do it – but you just can’t bring yourself to do it? Procrastination, dawdling, postponement, Akrasia – they’re all synonyms for the same ailment: not doing today what needs to be done today. And we all have these moments at some point in our lives.
"If you put off everything 'till you're sure of it, you'll never get anything done."Norman Vincent Peale, U.S. author
So, why do these moments happen? For example, I knew I wanted to write this blog post, and I knew I had a deadline to meet. But I just couldn’t bring myself to write it any sooner than the last minute. Why the delay? What causes us to feel so challenged about doing something we know how to do?
I had a conversation with my 15-year-old son, who is struggling with his English Language school work. He could not, in any way, motivate himself to write his assignments.
I asked him what he felt were the challenges of getting his work done. He responded that some of the essays were just too long, and it intimidated him to think about how much time and effort it would take to complete them.
I asked him if he could write one paragraph on the topic. He said he could. Then I asked if he could write two paragraphs. Again, he said he could. I carried on asking the same question, and he kept saying he could.
Eventually, we got to the full length of the document (four pages), and he realized that he could do the whole essay. It wasn’t the size of the document that troubled him, it was the thought of the size of the document.
Delaying doing something is often referred to as "procrastination." This is defined as the force that prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.
Procrastination is a human flaw that has been around forever. So it’s been discussed many times and many people have suggested solutions.
Not delaying on things you know how to do can provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. On the other hand, delaying these issues can often generate poor mental health and a sense of dissatisfaction.
So, what does it take to stop delaying those things you know you need to do?
Our value system, as humans, has a lot to do with why we delay doing things. If given a choice between enjoying something small now or something larger, later, we tend to choose the smaller, immediate reward.
An example is goal setting. Now goal setting is a positive activity, if you do it properly. But think of your New Year’s Resolution as an example of goal setting that can go wrong.
You experience the rewards for your New Year’s Resolution in the future, over time. Let’s say you promise to stop eating chocolate. At first, you succeed, and experience an immediate reward thanks to the satisfaction you experience from sticking to your goal.
However, slowly you start to question the benefit of not eating chocolate. You start eating just a little at first, in order to feed your need for immediate satisfaction.
Soon, one chocolate becomes many, because you’re more satisfied by the short-term reward of eating chocolate, than by the long-term and invisible benefits of not eating chocolate.
At some point, we feel enough pressure, guilt, motivation, or whatever you choose to name it, and we move the future into the present. For example, my delaying writing this blog was fine when the deadline was far into the future. Now, though, the deadline is looming rapidly.
This means that the future consequences are now present consequences. If I don’t get moving on writing the blog, I’ll miss the deadline and experience all there is that goes along with that outcome.
I have to understand this in the present, because the deadline is upon me. There is a choice to be made – do I ignore the deadline or do I do everything I can to meet it? The decision I make depends on how I feel about the outcome.
Will I still have the opportunity to write a blog in the future? How much do I enjoy writing a blog? Will I feel more satisfied once I’ve written the post than I would if I didn’t? All of these considerations will affect the decision.
As well as outcomes that you may not enjoy, delaying the things you should be doing can also become harmful to your physical and mental well-being.
For example, if you go to the gym by yourself and decide one morning that you’re not in the mood, that won’t impact your physical health too badly. However, if it becomes a habit, not going to the gym could impact your physical health significantly in the long run.
How do we, then, overcome this delaying process? There are several strategies that have come from a variety of research. One such approach is called Temptation Bundling, developed by Professor Katy Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania. Milkman suggests doing the thing you’re delaying with another thing that you enjoy.
In our gym example, make an arrangement to meet your best friend at the gym every morning. You can then exercise and socialize together, making the experience much more pleasant and easier to commit to.
Another method of heading off procrastination is to reduce the size of the task, by breaking it into smaller pieces. As with my son's procrastination episode and his reluctance to write a four-page essay. Breaking that task down into paragraphs made it seem more “doable.”
Changing your mindset, from procrastinating to doing what you know you need to do, will produce better outcomes in your life, and make you feel better about yourself. And moving rewards in your value system, and how you think about them, can help in breaking that "delaying" cycle.
Having an external influence to help remind you of the things that need to be done, and even to offer help, can make you feel better about completing tasks today. Instead of in a future that isn't real.
During the #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about how to do the things you know you need to do. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:
Q1. What do you need to do – and how do you feel about that?
@emapirciu I have a long to-do list every day. Sometimes I feel motivated, but there are days in which I feel like burning that list and watching TikTok all day.
@PdJen I need to make more time for training and professional development. I also need to learn how to be more patient! I’m trying on both fronts!
Q2. Why might a hard-working, self-disciplined person fail to do what they need to do?
@Yolande_MT Emotional distress of any kind might cause someone not to be their usual diligent self.
@PG_pmp Maybe they have not realized their strength and are unable to channel their energy in the right direction.
Q3. Is it just about procrastination, or is there more to not doing what you know you need to do?
@SizweMoyo Procrastination might be the easiest conclusion to reach but there are more reasons why reality may have unfolded different from your visualisation meditation.
@llake Trauma/unanticipated disruption can make us hesitate or completely stop. It isn't about procrastination. It's more about being in tune to what is needed at the moment. A transformation of energy.
Q4. What and who prevent us from doing what we know we need to do?
@JKatzaman We are usually the deciders of what, when and why we do things. Waiting for motivation to be delivered might not be a positive experience.
@NeViNShCe1 Laziness, other more fun tasks, social media... but most of all for me it's when I don't know WHY I need to do something. That kills me on my best days.
Q5. What is the first step you take to get started?
@MicheleDD_MT I create my goal. I need the end point to help me see the path forward. I make the goal as vivid as possible to motivate me.
@TwinkleEduCons Make a plan and start with something small - maybe even something you are already doing/have already done. Break it down into manageable, less daunting parts. Visualizing the end result can help to motivate us to start!
Q6. What can you do to break the pattern of unproductive/unhelpful behavior?
@ColfaxInsurance Focus on what you can accomplish now, no matter how small. As an example - have to start getting out of bed at 6am, but keep hitting snooze? Move the alarm so you physically have to get out of bed to shut it off.
@TheToniaKallon Shifting productivity mindset:
1) Identify what's holding you back (i.e. lack of info, low motivation, fear of failure)
2) Take small steps toward change (i.e. breaking projects into smaller tasks)
3) Recognize change takes time & unproductive patterns can be hard to break
Q7. What is the most useful tip you've been told about getting things done – and who told you?
@carriemaslen Don't over-think is great advice. Requires us letting go of perfection and accepting/seeking Good Enough.
@LernChance Do a time and task plan. Prioritize, prepare, execute. Actually, I don’t remember who told me. I guess it's a mix of what I read and my experience.
Q8. Which technology is helpful/unhelpful for getting important stuff done?
@Yolande_MT Your phone, tablet, television can be unhelpful, but so can a book. In the end it's not about what we use, but how and when we choose to engage with it.
@NeViNShCe1 I find it helpful to work in a Team. Technology is great when I can automate a task. Reminders are great. Anything that writes the words for me. But most of the time pen and paper will do the hard work at the beginning
Q9. How can our peers help or hinder us to keep on track?
@Midgie_MT Peers can help us by reminding us of what we said we would do. If and when we stray off track, they could provide gentle reminders!
@llake Well-meaning advice can sound like gospel. We're trained to hear outside voices when the voice that matters is the one when our soul speaks. I find the best help is when someone repeats back to me what I said or what they thought I said so I can hear it more clearly.
Q10. When someone hasn't done the thing they need to – how can you best help them?
@emapirciu Make sure people want help before deciding you want to be a hero. Unsolicited assistance is not cool.
@SizweMoyo Try cheering them on or working on the task with them. My friends usually respond to these two gestures.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.
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"It's learning to balance push and pull, holding on and letting go, being there without smothering."