Wellness

Can't stop procrastinating? We asked an organizational behaviour expert for help

Tips you'll want to read sooner rather than later.

Tips you'll want to read sooner rather than later

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There are hundreds of good reasons to put off to tomorrow what you could do today. Piers Steel defines procrastination as "putting something off despite expecting to be worse off", meaning that, by definition, it involves going against your better judgement. Steel is a professor at the University of Calgary and the author of the 2011 book The Procrastination Equation. He argues that procrastination is making us less wealthy, healthy, and happy and that our modern environments have made us even more vulnerable to procrastination than ever. We talked to him about what we can do to help stay on track.

The natural division in human motivation

Consider the squirrel. "There is no squirrel out there complaining 'Oh god! I have to go bury nuts'," says Steel. "The squirrel who hates burying nuts was weeded out a long time ago. The ones who are left are like 'Great! Nut day!'" For most animals, what they want to do aligns with what they should do.

Human motivation is more complex. Our immediate impulses and desires often pull against what we, all-things-considered, think we ought to do. This tension, says Steel, is a perennial theme in human thought. In ancient Athens, Plato wrote of a chariot rider pulled by two horses representing passion and reason. Buddhists imagine a rider atop a powerful elephant who the rider cannot fully control. While the details of these metaphors may change, Steel says that they're "not a bad summary of what we found when we popped people into fMRIs and we saw a battle between the limbic system, where all the passion is, and the prefrontal cortex where all the reason is."

Rational decision-making, associated with the prefrontal cortex, serves our long-term interests rather than our immediate impulses. Saving for the future, seeking timely medical care, and not leaving work projects to the last minute are all common examples of rational behaviour. Our limbic system, on the other hand, is interested in what's immediate and nearby. As Steel writes in The Procrastination Equation, the limbic system takes "its lead from environmental cues — that is, from the stimuli of sight, smell, sound or touch." It activates our emotions, and exercises immediate and sometimes unconscious influence over our decisions. That's not always a bad thing. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be well worth taking a break from wall-sketching wheel prototypes in order to flee an approaching predator. The problem is that, as Steel also writes, our limbic system "is not the brightest part of our minds."

Procrastination happens when the impulsive limbic system opposes and defeats the rational prefrontal cortex. And this is very common. When you look at brains under fMRI machines, Steel told us, "what you see is the passions of the limbic system trumping the prefrontal cortex." When it comes to deciding what to do, humans naturally favour the immediate and concrete over the long-term and abstract. We are naturally impulsive, though our impulsiveness varies in degree.

A world that won't let us focus

Procrastination is as old as the prefrontal cortex, but Steel believes that our tendency to procrastinate has accelerated along with the rise of civilization because of the kinds of environments we've decided to build for ourselves. "Imagine you're in a monastery and there are no temptations or you are under house arrest and they've taken away your wi-fi and tv." This is a situation in which you can get things done. Steel points to novelists who wrote entire books under house arrest, explaining their productivity by saying "What else was I going to do?"

"Now," says Steel, "we live in an environment that has basically hacked our operating system, because that's what free-market capitalism does […] makes things shiny and instantly consumable and really available and that makes us consume a truckload of whatever it is, and that's profitable." Consumer products are designed to appeal directly to our limbic system, which is how "a tiny app on your phone can steal your attention from a big project that could be truly life-changing. It offers teeny little rewards, but wins because it's so nearby and accessible and because it's so concrete."

Steel is especially worried about the digital technologies that have wormed their way into our workspaces, homes, and pockets. "Facebook and Google algorithms try to define what we want and give us more," he says. "Out of the hundred million videos, this is the one you want the most." Once, our instincts were connected to our survival; now, they're exploited for profit.

Tips for controlling your attention

Set good goals: Just setting an intention has been scientifically proven to double your chances of actually following through. But there's a big difference between good goal-setting and bad goal-setting. Good goals should be: specific; concrete; doable; and meaningful. Instead of "hang out with mom this month", say "propose two restaurants and two dates to mom by tomorrow evening."

Break down big projects into small tasks: Goals that are big or challenging or unpleasant are often difficult to start. Steel says that you should begin with a very limited and doable goal to get the ball rolling because, often, things aren't so bad once you get started. Therefore, instead of "do 2-hour workout routine", start with "park your car in gym parking lot." Once you go that far, says Steel, you're likely to follow through with the rest.

Create routines: Routines are a tremendously powerful tool for accomplishing long term goals. Steel writes, "By intentionally adopting a routine, we can pursue long-term goals even when our wills are weary and temptations abound." Routines should occur in the same time and place, and then those times and places will act as cues to prime you for the activity you plan on doing.

Routines take about two months to set. In his book, Steel writes: "Be warned that when trying to start your routine, you will invent a ceaseless onslaught of excuses not to follow through. You will get sick, go on vacation, have extra work, fall behind elsewhere, and find it ever so convenient to let your schedule slip. Defend fiercely against these slippages!"

Create deadlines by scheduling downtime: "Do you ever notice how much you can get done right before you have to leave for a restaurant or other engagement?" asked Steel. "Why not do that all the time." Steel recommends scheduling your downtime and the things you want to do first and schedule your work after. Knowing you have to finish by a certain time can give you a pre-deadline boost.

Sleep/eat/exercise: One of the best ways of preventing procrastination is to simply develop good general health habits. Steel believes that just getting a good night's sleep would significantly reduce our vulnerability to procrastination. Similarly, proper diet and exercise can keep our energy levels where they need to be to stay focussed.

Tips for controlling your environment

Purge bad cues: In his book, Steel writes that "our workplaces and schools are motivationally toxic, polluted with distractions. We need to make them sanctuaries of performance." To do so, we must banish distractions from the spaces we control.

Turn off your notifications for e-mail, messages, and other applications that give other people control over your attention. Each ping can disrupt a flow state and send you down a  rabbit hole of distraction. Just turning off e-mail notifications alone, says Steel, can result in a 10% bump in productivity. That's an extra month of work done every year.

Steel's book also recommends tidying your workspace, since "a messy workspace, cluttered and disorganized, is a minefield of distractions." He says your workspace should contain nothing that could direct your attention away from the task at hand.

Add good cues: Once the distractions are gone, surround yourself with cues that point your attention in the right direction.

Steel recommends assigning different activities to different spaces. If you always work in the same place, just being in that spot will prime you to get to work, whereas if you try to work in bed, you'll wind up being worse at both working and sleeping.

It would help to go so far as to have distinct devices for different activities: separate phones and computers for work and play. But if you can't afford or don't want two computers, Steel suggests creating two login profiles with different themes. Then the background and sound schema will all remind you of whether you're in work or play mode.

Make "good" tasks frictionless: The task that's closest at hand has an advantage, even if it isn't the most important one. Therefore, you should smooth the path to your goals: pick a gym close to you, make sure your gym kit is already in the car. If you have to stop at home to pick it up, you're exposing yourself to a thousand tempting distractions.  

"It's you against the world," says Steel. "It's you against a multi-billion dollar campaign. It's you against algorithms." But he does believe that changing our own behaviour and our immediate environment is possible and suggests that teaching these techniques to people when they're young could have a positive impact on our broader environment.

If you have something to share about your own struggles with procrastination or tips for fighting, comment now, don't wait.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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