Do any of the following words sound familiar to you?
- Me every time: “Should I spend ten minutes completing this task now or stress about it for four days first? The latter seems good.” — Kelly Ellis
- My most reliable hobby is spending an hour putting off a task that will take two minutes to complete. — Josh Gondelman
- An hour is amateur. I’ve gone months. Years. — Helen Rosner, replying to Gondelman
I just cleaned my cat fountain, a task that just takes a few minutes but which I’ve been putting off for weeks. I finally did it because I knew I was writing this blog post.
For me, the most useful way to avoid procrastination on tasks of all sizes is to have a deadline or make a public declaration of intent. Last week I wrote about figuring out which of my keys are the ones I need, so this week I finally went to The UPS Store and determined which one opened the store’s front door. I’m in a book club, which gives me a deadline for reading at least 12 books per year. I just volunteered to host the next book club meeting, so I will definitely give the house a good cleaning before then.
Tim Urban did a TED talk on procrastination where he says that even though he’s a master procrastinator, things work out for him. As deadlines approach, his “panic monster” shows up, frightens off the “instant gratification monkey” in his brain, and he meets those deadlines. It’s not a pretty system, but it works. The problem comes with things that don’t have deadlines, so the panic monster never appears.
I wondered if maybe that panic monster can be activated for good even when there’s not a deadline. Those of us in earthquake territory, watching the news about the horrible hurricanes lately, might get inspired to begin creating or updating our stash of emergency supplies since we have no idea when the next major quake will strike.
Eric Jaffe, writing for Co.Design, says that some studies indicate that self-imposed deadlines don’t work to overcome procrastination, and this matches the thinking of scholars in the subject.
Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, one of the leading scholars of procrastination, isn’t surprised that self-imposed deadlines don’t resolve undesirable delays. Procrastinators may need the tension of a looming deadline to get motivated, but when that deadline is self-imposed its authority is corrupted and the motivation never materializes. “The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination,” he tells Co.Design.
Jaffe goes on to say that Pyschyl and other researchers think procrastination isn’t actually a time management issue. Rather, the problem is the following: “Procrastinators delay a task because they’re not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking they will be later on.”
I’m not sure that’s why I procrastinate, but I do know that private self-imposed deadlines frequently don’t work for me. If I find I’m procrastinating on something important that has no hard deadline, I might need to create one by making that commitment known to someone else.