Keep your Focus – Part 1 : Avoid Procrastination
The irony isn’t lost on me. This is the longest unintended gap in the sequence since I began this podcast at the very start of the pandemic. And this episode is about Procrastination. I know, I know. I could make the excuse about family holidays, and workload, and client travel – all of which are true by the way – but it only thinly camouflages the essence of my experience of what this episode is about – that we procrastinate; why we procrastinate; and what we can do about it.
Procrastination isn’t a new thing. It’s a universally human thing that appears already in the writings of the ancient Greeks. Plato, Aristotle and their peers even had a word for it – “Akrasia” – which roughly translates as lack of self-control or procrastination.
Whilst procrastination has always been part of the human experience it appears, I have been struck in more recent times by how even some of the most dynamic people I know struggle nowadays to maintain focus and are suctioned into distraction. It’s become a topic in my conversations with leaders, and is the subject of increasing media and publishing attention. And it’s no way random that it coincides with the rise of internet technology which is having an ever increasing (silent) imprint on our habits and behaviours. More of which later….
But first, what is at the heart of why we procrastinate? One of the unique qualities of humanity is the ability to imagine future (no other mammal does this!) and as part of that we hold the idea of a Future Self. This is separate from our Present Self. Trying to reconcile the two selves can often lead to discord. When you set goals you are setting them for the Future Self (usually an idealised, better version of yourself). This Future Self values long-term rewards. But the Present Self wants immediate gratification. This is where inner conflict arises. The Future Self wants to be slim and trim, but the Present Self just wants the ice-cream. The Future Self may set the goal, but only the Present Self can take the Action. And so here’s the kicker – there is no immediate consequence today to choosing the ice-cream. It all smacks of St Augustine’s line from his Confessions “Lord make me chaste, but not yet!”
Furthermore, our ability to rationalise ensures we find many ways to make good prioritising the Present Self over the Future Self. Thereby procrastinating. In my case, in relation to the sloping off on this podcast episode, it sounds something like “I don’t have all the information so I’ll need to research and I don’t like research”; “the weather’s too fine for this”; “the kids are off school and deserve my attention”; “the return of work travel has upset my routine”. None of this is untrue of course : it’s just that I’m using it as my defence lawyer to get myself acquitted from the accusation of procrastination!
This brings me to the core insight – and it’s this – there is pain either way: whether you procrastinate or whether you act. Most of us procrastinate because of the anticipated pain of the action – writing the report, doing my admin, having that conversation, clearing out the garage, creating the podcast episode (!). But what we miss is that there is equal pain and anxiety sown into the very act and fact of avoiding the thing. The reason we choose to procrastinate is because there is no immediate consequence (today) to not acting. Imagine you procrastinate over writing a report. Manana. You keep putting it off. Day after day. The avoidance induces in you an anxiety, but not sufficient for you to act. Like the persistent low hum of the fridge. Until… it’s suddenly the day before the deadline. Now there’s a consequence to not acting, so you tackle the report. You complete the report just before it’s due and the pain subsides. In fact the shame, guilt, worry of the procrastination is more painful than the pain of doing the work itself. The issue is not doing the work, it’s starting the work.
For salespeople with call reluctance, the hardest door to go through is their own front door. For those intent on getting fitter, the hardest part of “Couch to 5K” is getting off the couch. If you want to combat procrastination you need to make it easy for the Present Self to get started. Once started, and you’ve taken that first step, observe how motivation and momentum naturally follows. As Emerson wrote “The law of nature is : Do the thing, and you shall have the power”. This is where true motivation lies. “Waiting for the muse to strike” is simply a procrastinator’s refrain.
Of the many hacks for conquering procrastinator’s inertia the three I most favour (in addition to Scheduling which I’ll explore in the next episode) are Chunking Down; Short Deadlines and Rewards.
Chunking Down fits into the category of “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” so you focus on the step. You don’t eat the whole elephant – just focus on the first bite. I wrote a weekly column for a national newspaper for 20 years. I frequently encountered writer’s block. The most important question I asked myself to combat the stasis was always “What’s my introduction?” Just write that.
Then I’d set a short deadline to accomplish it. Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique suggests 25 minutes as the optimum time for concentration (other research ranges from 25-45mins). At the end of 25mins take a short break. Do three or four of these short sprints and then take a longer break – and with the longer break add a reward. Make a coffee, read the paper, walk outside.
Chunk it Down, create a short deadline, and add a reward : not only will the combination dissolve procrastination (by satisfying the Present Self), it will inevitably at some stage thrust you into a state of Flow and peak productivity which will move you in the direction of rewarding the Future Self.