Procrastinators: How to Fight Your Genes and Get Stuff Done Now
"Never leave that til tomorrow which you can do today," said Benjamin Franklin.
Pretty good advice, especially considering it comes from a guy who was an absolute whiz at productivity (Franklin was somehow an author, printer, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat).
Recognizing the wisdom in the aphorism, however, won't stop most of us from putting off the "no-more-delaying-ever" regiment until tomorrow. (Which isn't always so terrible: We're not robots, after all, and leaving a project unfinished so we can hit the beach every once and awhile keeps us human.)
But for some of us, procrastination isn't an occasional kind of thing. Instead, it locks us in a vise grip and comes to define the way we approach everything. If you're like me, you know the exhausting ritual well: voluntarily delay a necessary task until the panic about meeting a deadline finally outweighs inaction. Not only can it send you into an unhealthy and crippling shame-spiral, it's also one giant productivity killer.
Why are some of us more susceptible than others? Like most personality traits, a recent study published in Psychological Science finds, it has a lot to do with our genes.
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder surveyed 181 pairs of identical twins and 166 pairs of fraternal twins about their work habits. Compared to fraternal twin pairs, identical twins reported stronger behavioral similarities regarding their ability to set and meet goals as well as their tendency to act impulsively. Based on this, the researchers concluded that procrastination is, at least in part, heritable and has a strong genetic overlap with impulsivity.
Impulsivity probably had an evolutionary advantage, Daniel Gustavson, the study's lead author, says. For our ancestors – struggling to survive in a dangerous world, fast and decisive decision making was more important than long-term planning. Procrastination either evolved at the same time as impulsivity, or "evolved as a byproduct of it," he says (when we're impulsive, we become distracted from -- and thereby put off -- long-term goals). Unfortunately, circa now, where both goal management and the ability to delay gratification is rewarded, these two intertwined genetic traits hurt rather than harm.
But before you start blaming your penchant for leaving everything to the last minute on mom and dad, remember: most of our personality traits are, at least in part, heritable. The last thing the Gustavson wants is for people to read about his study and conclude: Welp, guess that means I'll never change. "When people see big genetic influences on a trait, they often think they can't do anything about it," he says. "And that's not true. Just because something is heritable doesn't mean it can't be changed."
Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, and the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, agrees.
The way he sees it, our limbic system (the ancient, reptilian part of our brain which just wants to feel good now) is in constant battle with the prefrontal cortex (a section that developed later in our evolution, responsible for executive functions and impulse control). Inevitably, the limbic system sometimes wins out. "It's human nature to procrastinate," he says. "You have to realize that you'll screw up sometimes but you can change if you really want to."
For all of us wrestling with genes that scream, "delay, delay, delay," Pychyl shares a few strategies to help the prefrontal cortex emerge victorious.
Understand the true definition of procrastination.
This is super important. There are many forms of delay that are beneficial – life, of course, is a constant succession of tradeoffs. Often, you need to hold off on a project because something more pressing has come up. That's not called procrastination, though. That’s called making an informed decision.
Procrastination on the other hand, says Pychyl, is never positive. "Anyone who thinks it has an upside is messing with the definition."
Some of us may develop a warped, protective relationship with our tendency to procrastinate (see tip No. 2), but while there are many reasons why we do it, "none of them are healthy," Pychyl says. "There's no virtue in it."
Stop making excuses.
This is closely related to Pychyl's previous point. Procrastination is a voluntary delay of a beneficial intended act, and therefore causes uncomfortable dissonance, which we attempt to ease with a string of excuses.
The most common? I work better under pressure. "That's nonsense!" Pychyl says. "Everyone makes more mistakes under pressure – that’s been shown again and again. What you're really saying is 'the only thing that can motivate me to work is a huge amount of time pressure'…and there's certain pathos in that."
While procrastination can cause individuals to hyper focus, it's simply because their backs are against the wall. The same amount of attention to detail – flow, as Pychyl calls it – is possible even when you aren't under a time crunch. Learning how to voluntarily achieve a flow state requires time and effort but it's the secret to productivity. Procrastinators, he says, need to realize that it is possible to concentrate without the motivation of deadline-induced panic. It just takes practice.
Minimize distractions and set strict deadlines.
If you have every distraction available at the push of a button, you're more likely to check Facebook, check your emails, and suddenly three hours have gone by. Distractions, of course, decrease productivity for everyone, but for the chronic procrastinator, they're real time-suckers. It's better to eliminate as many of them as possible (be that blocking Facebook, deleting Solitaire off your desktop, whatever you have to do).
In addition, set a strict schedule for yourself. "Autonomy is good for non-procrastinators, put procrastinators need short, concrete deadlines," Pychyl says. For managers dealing with procrastinating employees, Pychyl recommends having them articulate their goals in concrete terms. Specific details -- rather than a vague "I'm working on X project – helps hold procrastinators accountable. "Have them make implementation intentions rather than goal intentions," he recommends.
Don't let your inner 6-year-old dictate your actions.
"I don't know where we learn this, but somehow we internalize the notion that our motivational state has to match the task at hand," says Pychyl. "We don't feel like doing something, and we think that's a reason!"
He calls this logic 6-year-old thinking. In reality, "For many of important tasks, if not most of them, getting started has nothing to do with how we feel."
Still, we often dismiss the notion of getting started today with the perpetually hopeful "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." We almost never do, though, and so the task gets pushed off again. Why, then, do we persist in maintaining the delusion that a repellent task will be magically rendered less aversive in a mere 24 hours?
We tend to predict our future feelings based on present feelings, Pychyl explains. (Think about shopping for groceries on an empty stomach versus after you've just eaten a huge meal – most likely, your cart will be more crowded, even though rationally you know the week ahead requires the same amount of food). "When you decide to procrastinate, you relieve some stress which makes you feel good. So when you predict how you're going to feel tomorrow, you base your prediction on your current mood."
In addition, brain scans have shown that we tend to think about our future self as we would think about a stranger (known as temporal discounting), which explains why we often overestimate our ability/desire to accomplish an unappealing but necessary task three weeks from now.
The biggest myth that procrastinators need to dissolve if they want to break the delay cycle? "I'll do it tomorrow," says Pychyl. "Once you realize that this is an avoidant coping strategy, you're on your way."