September 5th, 2001


How do you combat procrastination?

The tendency to put off what I know needs to be done has long been one of my biggest failings. In college, I sometimes procrastinated by reading books on "How to Stop Procrastinating"....

So far, I've found that the best strategy is the salami technique. I think to myself: what would I need to do in the next 5 minutes to feel that I had used those minutes successfully? Almost any amount of anxiety or boredom can be tolerated for 5 minutes.

Another strategy is redefine what I consider "success." Whan I was in college, I was quite shy. Although I had a number of friends who were female, I can only remember asking one girl out on a date.

She turned me down.

Every time I thought about asking someone out, I would become anxious, and my heart would race. What if she sneered at me? What if she said no? In my head, these seemed like terrible outcomes, and so rather than face the horror, I simply didn't ask anyone out.

Finally, I got tired of being lonely. I also read about how Albert Ellis, the founder of the rational emotive behavior therapy school of psychiatry, overcame his own shyness. Ellis made himself go the Bronx Botanical Garden every day, and strike up a conversation with any woman he saw sitting by herself. If she didn't immediately get up and walk away (as many did), he forced himself to talk with her for at least one minute.

Over a month, he spoke to 130 different women. Roughly 30 got up and walked away. With the remaining 100, he had conversations ranging in length from less than a minute to several hours. Unfortunately, only one agreed to go on a date with him, and she didn't even show up. But he lost his social anxiety.

For me, much of my procrastination arises from a fear of negative evaluation. If I don't procrastinate, and put everything into it, and fail miserably--there's no place to hide. If I procrastinate, and fail miserably, then I can always say, "Well, my performance doesn't reflect my real abilities, because I procrastinated."

The key to getting around this for me is to recognize that all that I can control is whether I make the attempt, and how much effort I put into it. How others react to the result is beyond my control.

Some psychological research suggests this is a healthy attitude to take. Psychologist Carol Dweck has found that students generally perform better when they focus on developing competence or on the process of learning (mastery goals) than when they focus on winning, or earning a high grade (performance goals).

I sometimes wonder though, if frequent procrastination is a sign that you may be in the wrong field. Those who become masters at their profession often say that they love what they do, and would do it even if they weren't paid. Warren Buffett, for example, says that he "dances into work". K.Anders Ericsson's work on expertise suggests that it takes roughly 10 years of disciplined effort (several hours per day) before one achieves world class expertise in most fields (chess, musical composition, neurosurgery). It seems unlikely that someone would devote such a large amount of time unless they really loved the work itself. Yet all fields have their downsides -- "If it were easy, everyone would do it." How do you know when you're just "paying your dues", and when you should give up and move on to a different field?

Some useful links:

Halting Time Pressure by David S. Sobel, M.D., MPH and Robert Ornstein, Ph.D.

The best popular book I've found for dealing with procrastination is Neil Fiore's The Now Habit.

Wayne Huitt's Conation As An Important Factor of Mind. is an interesting paper about a forgotten word.

The Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University.
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