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Procrastination – NOT a Problem!

Procrastination – NOT a Problem!

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    “I’m feeling guilty because I procrastinate too much”

    A quick search on Twitter confirmed my hunch.  There are a lot of  people talking about procrastination, and the tweets I surveyed  are filled with feelings of guilt, regret and remorse.

    The word “procrastinate” is a heavy one, and I believe that people are  trying to solve the problem the wrong way, leaving them with baggage that just won’t seem to go away no matter what they do.

    Procrastination: Not a Problem!

    Perhaps procrastination simply isn’t the problem we think it is.

    Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as follows:

    procrastinate: To put off from day to day; to delay; to defer to a future time

    Anyone who is skillful at managing their time will tell you that the  act of “putting off from day to day,” “delaying” and “deferring to  a future time” are required skills in today’s information age.

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    With technology has come an increased number of demands on our time,  and a variety of ways in which we allow ourselves to be  interrupted, reminded or prompted to make new commitments.  The only smart tactic to take is to put things off until later.

    Take the simple example of checking your email Inbox.

    In fifteen minutes it’s possible to scan 100 new items, while making  30 instant decisions to take further action.  It’s impossible to act on  all 30 items immediately.  Instead, it’s a much better idea to focus on a  single item at a time, rather than trying to split one’s attention between multiple tasks.

    In other words, it’s better to “put it off from today,” “delay”  or “defer to a future time” than to try to do multiple actions  at the same time, in the very next moment.

    Why is procrastination deemed to be such a problem if, by its definition, the action is such a benign and even useful one?  I suspect that  when we call a problem by its incorrect name, we prevent ourselves from seeing clear, common-sense solutions.  The word “procrastination” is being used to label the wrong problem.

    The Real Problem

    To understand the real problem, let’s look at some cases in which  actual failures occurred, and why they had nothing to do with  procrastination.

    Failure #1 – A Missed Due Date: Sam’s homework was due on Monday morning, and she waited until  late on Sunday evening to get started.  After she started she found  out that the assignment required  at least 20 hours of work, which she could not complete in time.   The assignment was handed in late, and her tardiness cost her a  full letter grade according to the rules stated in the syllabus.

    Analysis: Most might call Sam a procrastinator, but I only see that she has a weakness in scheduling her time.  The failure started by  not properly estimating the size of the task, and continued when  she didn’t use her calendar to determine the best time to start the assignment.

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    In this case what we call procrastination is actually a problem  with the discipline that time management experts would call “personal scheduling.”

    Failure #2 – Several Delays: Mike has made an internal decision to cut the lawn on Saturday,  an activity that he despises.  On the appointed day, other events intervene, and he decides to cut the lawn on Sunday instead.

    Sunday rolls around and once again he decides to postpone his date  with the lawnmower until Wednesday.

    On Wednesday he decides that next Friday would be better, and  he once again foregoes the much needed chore.

    On Friday he finally cuts the entire lawn in one effort.

    Analysis: Was Mike procrastinating?  Many would say yes, and  they might strongly imply that he was just being lazy.

    If I add in the fact that it rained on Friday, Monday and Tuesday  nights rendering the ground soft and unsafe for a cut, would it be  said that he was still being lazy, and procrastinating?

    If I add in the fact that his neighbour cut his lawn under similar  conditions would you change your mind?  And if I add in the fact  that the neighbour is known to be a drunkard who sometimes does  crazy things help you to change your  mind again?

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    The problem with the way we use procrastination is that it has come to mean much more than the dictionary definition, and now brings with it  an accusing tone filled with blame.

    If we were to use the dictionary definition of the word we’d conclude that he was simply re-scheduling.  The fact is that he deferred  the activity, and according to the dictionary, he was procrastinating.  According to our common-day usage of the word, it all depends on  whether or not he was to blame for the delay.

    The charge of being a “procrastinator” that we lay against  ourselves and others has a become a way to cast blame.

    Solutions

    The negative judgements and feelings related to procrastinating  don’t come from the delays, the  putting off or the postponements.  Instead they come from our  judgemental minds which  have decided that something or someone is to blame.  A close look at the examples above reveal that  it’s actually the negative thoughts that are producing the guilty  feelings and the blame, and NOT the actual rescheduling.

    What can we do about these negative thoughts?  What can we do if we  continue to blame ourselves and others for procrastinating?

    There are a variety of approaches that we can use, but  this is  my personal favorite.  Byron Katie’s methods of dealing with  stressful thoughts is the method that I have used for the past 4 years. (Her entire approach can be found at her website.)

    Her thesis is simple, and is a good match for the problem of blame.

    Stress is never caused by life circumstances, but instead it  originates in the thoughts that we have, and whether or not we  believe them.

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    In the example above, Sam’s assignment was late (a fact,) but her thought that “I’m a procrastinator” would only cause stress if she believed it.

    On Katie’s site, there is a powerful and simple process. It involves dealing with stressful thoughts by  first writing them down and then  applying 4 questions and what  she calls a turnaround statement (an opposing thought.)

    The result of using her process on stressful, judgmental thoughts about procrastination is a sense of relief in which statements  like “I should stop procrastinating” might still recur, but  without the stress that usually comes.

    While this kind of habit might not seem to be related to time  management, there are so many who struggle with thoughts of  procrastination that if they could get past their own thinking, it  would help bring peace of mind — which is the goal of every time management system.

    So, if you think you have an issue with procrastination, start by  separating your actions from your thoughts. Deal with your skill at scheduling if you need to. According to the dictionary, you are  probably doing the right thing by procrastinating.

    If you find that you have blaming thoughts that keep returning, and that  they are causing stress, use Katie’s method to free yourself to be as productive as you can be without this  harmful habit.

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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

    How To Manage A Post-College Productivity Dip Why You Need to Understand and Accept Your Productive Type A Tendencies The New Lifehacking #7 – Why You Should Be Open to New Stuff, But Wary About Using It The New LifeHacking #6 – Staying Away from Harmful Gadgets The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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