From Chronic Procrastination to Dynamic Action
… getting started is everything!
I have been a classic procrastinator for most of my life. In school (including BE, MBA, etc), I was the guy who never did his assignments or studied. I would scramble on the last day and get in their somehow but still manage a good grade and think I was a smart alec. It generated awe and respect with my peers and I thrived on it.
Interestingly, my closest friends in school were the opposite — they stuck with assignments stayed on the top of the class but with a five to ten percent difference in marks at the end of the year. I thought this was OK. Something changed as I entered professional life; I got on to a task and finished it and got onto the next one.
Over the last five years that cycle kind of broke. Initially, the odds against me were so great that I was just paralysed. Then I finally started seeing how to break the problem into smaller parts and attack the ones I could with my very limited means and motivation — though I was still not doing much.
Mostly it was because I was not even starting — to a degree that I was desperate for money. I had a purchase order for Rs. 40 lakh for an assignment; I could individually turn it around but I never billed it because I could not even start! Who does that?
Traditional thinking is that procrastinators have a time management problem — they can’t estimate time, they don’t track it well and/or have misplaced priorities about what allocation they make. But I know I am not lazy — I have the capacity to stay and work on a problem for months.
I am capable of explosive action — when I am required to have bursts of energy to get things done, I get it done. Most of my professional reputation was built on getting assignments or roles that others did not want. But now I was not just slow, I was not even starting off. I knew it was an emotional problem, not a time management one.
I read a paper from Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada, which said that procrastination is indeed an issue with managing our emotions, not our time. It woke me up. I was in a procrastination cycle (this is as I describe it, not steps from the quoted research) — a cycle because if you do not take the exit, you stay in it.
The Procrastination Cycle
- The task creates a low mood: When I got a task I needed to get on with, I found every reason not to start — and for which I created other tasks and priorities. This defence mechanism allowed me to say to myself, ‘I could have finished this if I were not doing that other thing!’ Essentially the task was an onset of ‘low mood’ because:
(a) It was boring or repetitive — updating a PPT or a customer pitch for the 100th time
(b) It is unpleasant or intimidating — creating a narrative or preparing papers for the police and court appearances or tax offices was squarely in this category
(c) I was worried about failing — working on direct customer assignments or starting exercise was in this category. I did not want to accept it but deep down I feared I would fail if started. So I was creating failure without starting. I was saving face.
- We identify a mood lifter: I needed a distraction that made me feel better when I felt low. I reckon that 90% of Facebook, Netflix or Youtube’s screen time is so — people are not watching something they want to watch, they are trying to avoid something else. Research published by Jessica Myrick at the Media School at Indiana University shows that procrastination is the common motive for viewing ‘cat videos’ and watching them leads to the highest mood shift. Researchers call this as short-term positive ‘hedonic shift’, and it comes at the cost of long-term goals.
- Stress increases: While distractions are effective in the short-term, it leads to guilt, which ultimately compounds the initial stress. Essentially this brought my mood even lower. By delaying my work I just ended up feeling more stress, guilt and frustration. Clearly, procrastination is a misguided emotional regulation strategy.
- Stress causes health and performance to slide even more: Procrastination has two consequences:
(a) It is stressful to keep putting off important tasks and failing to fulfil your goals so stress causes health complications
(b) Procrastination often involves delaying important behaviours, such as exercising or visiting the doctor. I was doing both — I was increasingly unhealthy and unwilling to see doctors.
- Repeat: As my performance and health slid I felt even more stress, focused on the task even lesser and focused on the distraction to lift my mood even more. It was a vicious cycle.
Breaking the Procrastination Cycle
My procrastination was chronic and I needed to get out of it. Chronic procrastination affects mental and physical health — from depression and anxiety to cardiovascular disease, all of which I have experienced.
Knowing that my chronic procrastination came from avoidance, I had to learn to be able to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. I had to prioritise choices and actions that helped me get closer to what I most value in life. I did not realize it then but counsellors call this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’.
Chronic procrastinators are dominated by their psychological responses like frustration and worry, at the expense of their life values. Low procrastinators have more ‘action orientation’ — the process or action takes precedence over outcomes.
Shifting my Orientation
When I recognised that procrastination isn’t a time management problem but is instead an emotion regulation problem, my focus shifted from, “How to a finish the task,” which led to the low mood, to, “What is the next step I would take on this task if I were to get started now?” What I am saying is that there is no failure attached to writing just one page or doing only 10 pushups.
This, in turn, took my mind off the overwhelming feelings and avoidance of failure. I started focusing on achievable action. As the small actions got completed, it lifted my mood. As my mood lifted, I felt motivated about taking the next step. I started with just wanting to write one page, address one customer, doing just 10 reps of an exercise. It took me a few months but slowly the pendulum swung back.
At 48, and starting from a sinkhole just a few years ago, I have more strength, more energy, more resolve and more drive than I have had my entire life. My experience has shown me once you get started, you’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.
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