Demystifying procrastination

Posted on: Dec 20, 2021 Written by DKP

The biggest threat to productivity is procrastination - the wilful(?) destruction of a more structured life by giving in to short term pleasures over long term contentment. Notice the '?' after 'wilful'.

Is procrastinating wilful? Do we, who have big aims and aspirations of a better life, CHOOSE to derail our progress on those goals, WHILST being aware that it could potentially be the death knell for the consistency we'd maintained so far? I mean, no sane person would kill one's own desires so willingly, right?

The subject of procrastination has been under medical research for years, and while it's unnecessary for us to deep dive into the intricacies of the flashing neurons, it helps to know a few superficial facts (I am no more a medical guy than Jackie Chan is a ballerina, so do not kill me over the medical accuracy of what I write - it's been vastly simplified for ease of understanding) - a section of our brain, called the prefrontal cortex, can be thought of as the logical part - which makes you do stuff that make 'logical sense', making goals like exercising, personal projects, reading and so on.

And there's this other dude called the limbic system, which has more to do with the emotional and instinctive stuff. And no surprises, it's this little son of a jumbled mass of neurons that makes you procrastinate - it's responsible for short term pleasures that your brain seeks, and fights with the prefrontal cortex for dominance over your body. Whenever the PC wins, you're productive. When it's the limbic system who comes out on top, #NetflixBinge

And thus, our quest to cutting at our procrastination would be to ensure that our prefrontal cortex wins more often.

Superb. How do we make that happen?

The Productivity Project author Chris Bailey calls out six traits that usually occur in various quantities in almost all tasks we procrastinate. The intensity and quantity of each of these traits in a task determines how likely we are to procrastinate it.

These are :

Let's take an activity that's pretty common a procrastinated one for many of us - tidying our rooms, and rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 in all 6 of these.

Boring - yeah, a bit. 6/10.

Frustrating? Often - you know it's gonna be the same old mess within a week at most, and thus makes you wonder why do it at all. 9/10.

Difficult? Umm, not so much, unless your room is a palace. 2/10.

Unstructured or ambiguous? Yes, absolutely. When do you decide if it's 'clean enough'? Where do you start cleaning? Do you clean the insides of the cupboards too? 10/10

Lacking in personal meaning? Unless you're a Monica from Friends, definitely yes. It doesn't give the kicks, and contributes little to personal goals. 9/10

Lacking in intrinsic rewards? Again, yes. No direct benefit to me that I can see. 9/10

And there, we have it. While thinking of rating the intensity of each of these traits on the task of cleaning the room, we thought about the negative aspects of the task that made us procrastinate it. And once you know where you're going wrong with a problem, the problem's half solved.

Boring? -> Play your fav music as you clean.

Unstructured? -> Create a weekwise plan beforehand as to what part of the room you'll clean the coming day/week, and then, tackle only that, not worrying about the others.

Lacking in intrinsic rewards? -> If the 'feeling of accomplishment' isn't a good enough reward, you may create a reward for yourself - 10 minutes of binging on something you like if you clean the room.

And thus, by quantifying and categorizing some of the 'procrastin-able' aspects of a task, you make plans to systematically limit/eliminate those, and make it harder for the limbic system dude to come out on top.

It may seem like a pain, definitely, to think and plan so much before all your procrastinable tasks, and might make you wonder - should I just have gritted myself and got done with the task in the time, rather than planning like a military general for it? Well, the very reason you're planning on the task is BECAUSE you could not grit yourself and get done with it. The planning will get it done. And once you've gotten a hang of it, the eliminations will come instinctively and faster