It’s helpful to know why I’m procrastinating. Sometimes the reason for procrastinating can be easily corrected. Probably the most well known version of this is not knowing what the next action is.
Here are some other things that I’ve noticed cause me to put off tasks I intended to do.
1) An inessential aspect of the task is aversive.
The Tale of the Egg Sandwich
One morning at work I had a craving for an egg sandwich from the fast food restaurant around the corner. I didn’t want to go get the sandwich because it would predictably cost me half an hour - maybe a lot more more if I started reading something there and didn’t feel like going back into the office which seemed likely based on the outside view. So I tried to diagnose what was wrong by dialoguing with the part of myself that wanted the sandwich.
Am I hungry? If I ate some peanuts, would it feel good to go back to work?
No, I still want to go get the egg sandwich.
Imagine that I snap my fingers, and magically, the egg sandwich appears in my hands. Would it feel good to go back to work after I ate it?
No, I want to GO GET the egg sandwich.
Huh, is that because it feels bad to stay here and work?
Would it feel good to do something else in the office, like look at Facebook, or write a blog post?
Would it feel good to read a book?
Huh, that’s surprising. I usually want to read a book. Would it feel good to go elsewhere and read a book?
Oh… So it feels bad to be in the office?
Because there are people around who might interrupt me and distract me.
Huh. Maybe getting out of the office is sufficient. If I walked over to the Ferry Building, bought a coffee, and sat at the table near Peet’s, would it feel good to work there?
OK, let’s go.
And I did, and got a three-hour work block done.
The Tale of the Shoes and the Headband
I used to procrastinate a lot in the mornings, before getting out of my apartment. I did a few mindful walkthrough of my morning routine, paying attention to the urge to do something other than get ready, and being curious about why. I realized that there were some concrete and avoidable things that I was flinching from. First, I didn’t want to shower. Part of that is unavoidable - I have to take off my glasses and hearing aids. But another thing I dislike is that after the shower, I get the floor wet, and water’s dripping down my face from my hair, which is a sensation I hate. So I resolved to towel myself off before walking onto the tile floor, and to get an athletic headband to catch water before it reached my face.
The other thing I hated was putting on my shoes, because it would remind me that a bunch of my shoes needed to be properly put away, and maybe even needed polishing. I organized the floor of my closet, and then it wasn’t painful to go get my shoes anymore.
2) My reward gradient is wrong
Even after I’d taken the little problems out of my morning, I found that it was sometimes unmotivating to get out of the apartment, just to get into the office and start doing some solitary work - or join a meeting that wasn’t going to be very fun. But what did sound like it might be good was meeting a friend for breakfast. So I asked a few friends whether they’d like to meet for breakfast before work. Some said yes, and I found that on the mornings when I had a breakfast scheduled, I’d not only be faster in getting out of the apartment, but go to sleep faster the night before so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss the appointment.
3) I do not know exactly what I am trying to do
Sometimes, when procrastinating on a writing task, I ask myself, “What does this have to communicate?”, and list out the things I need to say. Then once I have that list, I can just write sentences that do the bare minimum of saying what I want to say. Then it’s mostly written.
4) I am applying an inappropriate standard
I was procrastinating on writing an important email. I looked at the flinch and noticed that I was flinching from the possibility of sending an email that said the wrong thing, and damaging my relationship with the recipient in some way. So I decided that the task was not to write and send an email, but just to write it. I’d worry about whether it was OK to send after I’d written something. Framed this way, the action of writing the email no longer seemed likely to cause damage if I made a mistake, since I could just not sent it.
Then I wrote the email.
Then I looked at it.
It looked pretty good.
So I sent it.
I’ve also noticed myself reluctant to start writing fiction.
“Why don’t I want to write this?”
“Because it won’t be good.”
“I’m not asking you to write a good short story. I’m just asking you to write a short story at all.”
“Oh, I can do that!”
Then I put together the bare minimum that tells the story I want to tell, not worrying about how good it is - and get practice, and become better.
5) I am trying to do too many mutually exclusive things
When I was in DC trying to build up the Effective Altruism meetup group there, I had a bunch of plans for things to try - and noticed my motivation flagging after an initial burst of enthusiasm. When I turned my focus inwards and asked why, I got a clear unambiguous answer, straight from the gut:
“Because I can’t actually do all this.”
“How will these plans fail?"
“There’s not enough room in the day.”
So I prioritized, and instead of doing three projects with the DC EA group, I decided to prioritize one project and meetups - and actually executed my plans.
6) I believe that my plan will fail
I noticed that I was putting off completing this section because it overlapped strongly with another thing I'm writing, so I decided to publish this post without it.
Good post! I've found that breaking writing difficult emails into into "write a general template for these types of emails" and "create an email specifically for this situation" tends to be very effective for me, probably for the same reason.
What's the trigger on these? Do they all have the same feeling of "mental flinch", or do the different strategies correspond to different initial feelings?
Can you describe in more detail what the flinch(es) feel like?
This list is more like a list of questions the doctor should ask you, than a list of reasons you should go to the doctor. Generally, when I notice myself procrastinating I'm not noticing the experience of flinching so much as a revealed preference for not doing the work - whether it feels like work is bad, or something irrelevant and low-value feels very appealing, or I just get distractible or stuck, I measure the aversion by its strength, not its salience. Then I try to keep an open mind about the true reason I don't want to do it. Sometimes something that feels really terrible to do is actually aversive because I don't expect it to work. Sometimes something that feels OK to do when I think about it but I keep getting distracted from, turns out to have some component that actively feels bad and I'm trying to avoid.
I hypothesized recently, that if I'm failing to get into a work-related task (e.g. tabbing over to unrelated things repeatedly and having to drag myself back), I'm probably lacking some resource. Framing it is a resource isn't necessary, but helped me generate a list of what might be wrong, in terms of what might be missing:
- Food, sleep, other body needs
- Tools to solve the problem
- Knowledge of how to solve the problem
- Social (i.e. loneliness)
- Anticipation of reward
- Belief that the task is goal-relevant
- Attention/focus (as a miscellanous grab bag in case none of the other ones fit, but I seldom make it down the list without identifying something more specific above that's wrong)
Relatedly, if anyone reading this has ideas for how to best to practically deal with a lack of "belief that this task is goal-relevant" on an immediate timescale, that'd be great. I often end up identifying "I don't believe this project is going anywhere" as a reason why I won't write a data entry script, but that probably doesn't mean that every time I'm struggling to write a boring script, I should actually totally pivot what I'm planning to spend that hour on, and instead work on high-level strategy for where my project is going. At some point I really just ought to write the script even though I haven't "finished" making sure the whole endeavor is sound. (Why? For one, because I'm not perfect at foolproofing my endeavors, and I'm aware of that, so it could take infinite time to convince myself satisfyingly that I've done my due diligence to check that *any* project is even a good idea at all; for another, because sometimes an advisor might want to know what you've done all week, and "think about high-level strategy, and nothing else" is only a valid answer occasionally)
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