Rachel came to see me with a problem which was both specific and general.
‘I’ve never really been that organized’ she said. ‘I consider myself a creative person. I’m a writer but I’m not doing enough writing to earn a living. I just can’t seem to achieve goals.’
‘What gets in the way of your writing’ I asked
‘Everything.’ Rachel said with a wry smile.
‘Actually, it’s really serious. I’ve been working on this book for two years now and can’t seem to get past the research stage.’
Rachel’s interest in travel writing began when she left college with a degree in journalism. She had travelled for several years, enjoying blogging and writing articles about her many experiences before finally resettling in the UK.
Now, however, she seemed unable to set and achieve goals. All her attempts to earn serious money was being thwarted by an inability to focus on the book she hoped would take her writing career to the next level
Everything was a distraction, from researching the subject on the Internet to making cups of coffee or watching daytime TV.
Another problem for Rachel was that she was always going on a diet. Trouble was the diet always started ‘tomorrow.’
Faced with a chicken dinner and a sherry trifle, it was much easier to say I’ll start another day. But the other day never actually arrived. Rachel had to admit she was a chronic procrastinator.
The subtle art of procrastination
Procrastination is the subtle art of putting off the things you should be doing now; those actions, large and small, which will take you towards achievement of your goal.
Procrastination is a real problem. It will prevent you beginning that exercise routine, filling in that important form or getting up to date with your e-mails. So why do we do it?
A major issue is ‘time’. What we sow today, we do not necessarily reap tomorrow. We may have to wait weeks, months or years for our reward. To overcome the sow-reap gap requires energy, focus and an understanding of the principle of ‘delayed gratification.’
An interesting experiment was conducted by Walter Mischel during the 1960s and 70s.
In the ‘Stanford marshmallow experiment,‘ researchers gave children the choice of having one treat immediately or having two later on.
The children who were able to resist immediate temptation and wait for a bigger reward later, were subsequently found to have better life outcomes and achievements.
Interestingly, a follow-up study using brain imaging in 2011 took some of the original participants, now in mid life, and showed real differences in development in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, that linked with executive function and control.
How to put off procrastination
Don’t fall prey to ‘ego depletion’. Another experiment by psychologist Roy Baumeister (1) placed two groups of students near an oven in which some chocolate biscuits were cooking. Student group A were told they were to only snack on a bowl of radishes provided but student group B were allowed to eat as many chocolate biscuits as they wishe, whenever they wished.
Later, both groups were invited to solve a difficult maths problem. Those who had been allowed to eat the biscuits stayed working on the task far longer than group B.
It seems willpower is like a battery and works best when the battery is fully charged. Having to use willpower to resist temptation for any length of time seems to ‘drain the energy down’.
Fortunately eating and resting seem to resolve the problem.
Follow these tips to help you put off procrastination
1. Get rid of distractions.
When I began to write my book I stayed alone in a house in France for several weeks. I stayed away from distractions and didn’t make it easy to avoid the task which needed my focused attention. I turned off the TV, turned off the radio and turned off the phones.
2. Create deadlines.
As the saying goes, ‘A dream is just a dream. A dream with a deadline is a goal.’
3. If possible, tell others about your goals and deadline.
Psychologist Dan Hurley (2) found that deadlines set by external authorities like teachers or bosses worked the best. But, as long as you tell someone else about your intentions, you will feel answerable and this is likely to move you forward as you will not want to lose face.
4. Top up your internal battery.
Tap into natural circadian and ultradian rhythms by regularly taking pit stops when you can eat and rest. This will help you stay on track as you will have both energy and willpower to keep you going.
5. Finally, make sure your goals are SMART.
They need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. Understand exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve. Ensure you will be able to tell when you have reached your target by scaling.
If 10 is where I want to be, where am I now on the ladder and what will it take to get me up one more step. Make sure you are not setting the bar too high. If your goal is unachievable or unrealistic, you are merely setting yourself up for failure. Set the deadline and keep measuring your position against it. Is the action you are about to take, moving you towards or away from the goal.
1. Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego depletion and self-control failure: an energy model of the self’s executive function. Psychology Press.
2. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Second edition in 2012., HarperCollins, 2008, p. 304, ISBN 978-0-06-135323-9, OCLC 182521026