Friday, February 4, 2011

Three Often-Helpful Procrastination Cures

I've written a lot on overcoming procrastination. Tonight, I feel like writing a short update: what I currently believe to be the most-often-helpful strategies:
  • Make it fun. Most procrastinators don't value productivity enough to make them tackle unpleasant tasks. So ask yourself, "What's the fun way to do this?" Ask yourself that when planning how you'll do a task and when you reach a stumbling block,
  • Make it simple. This is a variant of "make it fun." How could you do the task more easily and still do it well? Perhaps it's deciding you'll do it less perfectly. Perhaps it's restructuring the task to emphasize your strengths. Or asking someone to help you with the tough part. Or the tried-and-true technique of breaking the task down into baby steps.
  • Become beholden to someone. More even than most people, procrastinators hate to be embarrassed. So if you take on a partner for the project or tell people you're committed to completing task X by date Y, your fear of having to tell them you didn't do it may motivate you to get it done. A variant on that: Do the task for your child or spouse. You don't want them to see you as a loser or bad role model.
Your thoughts?


Annie said...

Marty, I suffer from terrible procrastination, mainly in my career. I've identified the causes, which for me, align with each tool you list.

Mostly, my procrastination in work is caused simply by not liking the work. It's never going to be "fun." But, I have found that I am procrastinating less and less as I get better and better at my job (investment analyst). In other words, my work doesn't seem unbearably complex (and therefore something to avoid) because I'm getting better at it. This flies in the face of the "do what you love" theory on finding work. Often times, liking a career comes from feeling that you're very good at it, and improving.

I also procrastinate because I don't want to start until I'm assured that the end result will turn out perfectly. Short of that = why bother? So in this case, I have found that accountability works. Your peers don't care about 'perfect.' It's largely a fictional concept in the head of the procrastinator.

When I think about the things I love to do (ie. cooking), I procrastinate rarely, because it's fun for me.

Identifying the underlying cause(s) (I think it's usually fear) has been more than half the battle in lessening my procrastination.

Justin Wehr said...

Very good.

Three additional thoughts:

(1) I heard the founder of gmail say the other day that the key to success is (a) find a way to make it fun, and (b) if that fails, find a way to do something else.

(2) The most important thing I heard about procrastination (and it's obvious when you hear it) is that it is a conflict between first-order and second-order drives -- in other words, a conflict between wanting-to-want something and actually wanting something. Thinking of it this way, procrastination is a lack of first order drive, and addiction is just the opposite. And this also implies that there are only two ways to reliably overcome procrastination: (1) sheer act of will, or (2) align your desires.

(3) The much more unsettling question underlying procrastination is whether anything at all is worth doing.

Marty Nemko said...

Excellent third question, Justin. I do believe being productive is overwhelmingly worth it, especially for a bright guy like you, but even if you were a ditch digger.

The value of the productive versus nonproductive life is clearest when presented in the extreme. So let's say we cloned you. Clone A spends as much time as possible having fun: watching comedies, eating, having sex, etc. Clone B spends every waking moment being productive in trying to make the world better: from being helpful to a person on a supermarket line to writing a brilliant blog post about overcoming procrastination. ;-)

Clone A has been a parasite on the world--taking from others so he can eat, get health care etc. Sooner or later, he'll likely start to feel bad about being a parasite on others but having done so for a long time, will have a hard time finding people willing to pay him a living wage. Clone B will much more likely earn a sustainable living, and importantly will have made a positive difference on the world. Clone B will probably, day-in- and day-out feel happier: being productive--he'll put his head on his pillow each night feeling good about himself.

Whether or not Clone B is happier, much more important in my view is that Clone B will have made the world better. Whether it's Mother Teresa or a ditch digger, the value of one's life can only have meaning to the extent to which you've produced positive change in the world. Yes, this is not provable, it's a foundational postulate. But for me at least, it's absolutely clear.

K-Man said...

I'll read this and get back to you later, Marty.


Seraphim said...

Mark Forster has developed several innovative and creative time-management tools that systematically help a person overcome procrastination.

See his Autofocus system, for example.

I'm posting this because Mark's ideas have been a great help to me and have had a real impact in helping overcome the tendency to procrastinate and to get results that matter.

Dan said...


So you reach the end of your life, having done your best to make the world a better place. If Heaven/afterlife doesn't exist, you die and the lights go out. That's it. No pay off.

If an all-loving God exists, you die in serene repose, knowing that you did your best to be productive and ethical in your life. You go to Heaven where you find Hitler eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream. After all, God is all-loving; He loves Hitler as much as he loves you. No pay off for the life well led.

Justin has a point.

Marty Nemko said...

Dan, the main reward for being productive does not accrue to you. It accrues to the world. (Not all benefits of one's actions need to accrue to the actor.)

Secondarily, however, the actor DOES reap a benefit--in the moment. As s/he does good works, s/he is aware that s/he is a good person, indeed superior to the many parasites on this earth. That is ample reward even if the productive work doesn't result in earning him or her more money. And- the more productive person usually does earn more money.

Anonymous said...

This has little to do with procrastination (or maybe it does?) but I would like to comment on the topic: Is anything at all worth doing?

A simple illustration:

A train operator loses the automatic brakes on his train and has to manually pull a lever in order to stop a speeding train heading for a mountainside, the consequences of him remaining at his post will end in his death but the train will have stopped with little damage to the rear cars because of his actions. The passengers who were on board were all saved and the man remains a hero to this day.

Now the question again...was it worth it? Was it worth doing? What is the value of his actions? What is the value of all of those lives saved? Was he shortchanged?

No pay off for the life well led?

The "pay off" isn't for YOU, its for the people who knew you, the people who cared about you, and that "pay off" can either be an everlasting negative ripple or a positive foundation for the future. If you're expecting to receive yourself, a "pay off" for all of this effort you accrue in your lifetime you are going to be greatly disappointed. Its not the pay you get that makes it worthwhile its the pay you GIVE that makes life worth living!

Pay it forward and you'll never owe anyone a dime.

Marty Nemko said...

Fine comment, Anonymous. (Perhaps I think it's so fine because in a previous comment I made the exact point: payoff is not necessarily to your selfish benefit but to the world.) Alas, it's difficult to be so self-sacrificing. I guess that's why they'll be making Mother Teresa a saint.

Marty Nemko said...

Fine comment, Anonymous. (Perhaps I think it's so fine because in a previous comment I made the exact point: payoff is not necessarily to your selfish benefit but to the world.) Alas, it's difficult to be so self-sacrificing. I guess that's why they'll be making Mother Teresa a saint.