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How to quit putting things off

The first thing you need is a new ‘spiral of success,’ explains this Calgary expert


 
How to quit putting things off

Getty images; iStock; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

People confess to procrastination and then laugh it off, like the 900,000 members of the Facebook group, “I was doing homework then I ended up on Facebook.” For many, though, procrastination isn’t funny. Look at the poet Samuel Coleridge, writes Piers Steel, the Calgary professor who’s becoming known internationally for his insights on procrastination, in his new book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things off and Start Getting Stuff Done. The poet spent 25 years writing the poem Kubla Khan. His excuses were legendary. For other people, Steel writes, the pain of procrastination “is about diets postponed, late-night scrambles to finish projects and disappointed looks from the people who depend on you.”

The good news is that techniques for treating procrastination exist. “They are scientifically proven. It’s not a question of will they work. They’re vetted,” Steel tells Maclean’s. “I was one of the first guinea pigs for this.”

Steel knows that procrastination is not the by-product of perfectionism, as it was once believed. The theory that “we delay because we are perfectionists anxious about living up to sky-high standards” feels good, he writes, but doesn’t pan out. “Neat, orderly and efficient perfectionists don’t tend to dilly-dally.” Laziness isn’t the problem either, he says. The truly lazy person thinks, “I don’t want to do this. You can force me to do it but I have no desire to do it.” The procrastinator, on the other hand, wants to do the work, “yet finds when the moment of action comes, they keep putting it off.”

To treat procrastination, it helps to know that impulsiveness or “wanting it all now” is the main source of it, he writes: “Showing self-control or delaying gratification is difficult for those of us who are impulsive. We just don’t have much ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Past failures and “learned helplessness” also lead to procrastination. Steel gives the example in the book of Eddie, an underperforming salesman. “After a series of attempts that all resulted in failure, Eddie began to expect failure even before he started.” The problem is, “if you start believing your goals aren’t achievable, you stop effectively pursing them.”

To combat the problem, create a new “spiral of success,” he suggests. “If you can’t run a mile, then run a block. Stop when you’ve done that and the next time try two blocks. Nobody has to know about your small successes; keep them as your own happy little secret.” Steel writes that “personal stories of triumph can bolster people’s spirits for years. ‘I did it!’ translates into ‘I can do it.’ ”

Still, don’t be overly confident, he warns. The overconfident “tend to discount problems,” often underestimating how long a task will take. “As Freud puts it, we need to activate the reality principle. This entails imagining what could go wrong and how you would prevent or mitigate potential pitfalls.”

It’s wise to anticipate temptation. “If you can anticipate powerful temptations, you can act in advance to ward them off.” Steel gives the example of Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey. The goddess Circe warns Ulysses to guard against the lure of the Sirens. If his men hear the singing of the Sirens, these beautiful naked women will distract them and the men will become enthralled, and blissfully starve to death. Circe tells Ulysses to fill his men’s ears with wax to make them deaf. It works and he sails safely past temptation.

For solutions to modern temptations such as sleeping in, Steel cites such gizmos as an alarm clock called SnuzNLuz. “Every time you press the snooze button, it donates 10 or more dollars to your most detested charity; a little extra sleep comes at the cost of you assisting groups that represent the antithesis of your political position, sexual orientation or environmental stance.”

“Quick tip,” he tells Maclean’s. “If you want to address procrastination, find out when your power hours are, when your circadian rhythm pops, and try to reserve your hardest work for then. For most people that’s 10 to 2. A lot of people use that time for meetings and emails, and that’s sad, really. That’s when you could’ve got most of your entire day done.”


 

How to quit putting things off

  1. "The problem is, 'if you start believing your goals aren't achievable, you stop effectively pursing them.'"

    Is that not the perfectionism problem, in a nutshell?

  2. "Hard sometimes pays off in the future, but procrastination always pays off now."

  3. "Hard sometimes pays off in the future, but procrastination always pays off now."

    • So close… "Hard Work Pays Off Later- Procrastination Pays Off Now." But very true. This is the core reason we procrastinate. We sacrifice larger but later rewards for smaller but immediate ones.

  4. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Jared the nutcase in Arizona, etc etc had procrastinated the world would be a much better place. Long live the proscranators for they do no evil.

  5. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Jared the nutcase in Arizona, etc etc had procrastinated the world would be a much better place. Long live the proscranators for they do no evil.

    • "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

  6. Catchy headline. I must learn how to stop putting things off. I'll read all about it later. No, really, I will, I promise…

  7. Catchy headline. I must learn how to stop putting things off. I'll read all about it later. No, really, I will, I promise…

    • Hey, I just got 'round to posting my comment…;-)

  8. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

  9. So close… "Hard Work Pays Off Later- Procrastination Pays Off Now." But very true. This is the core reason we procrastinate. We sacrifice larger but later rewards for smaller but immediate ones.

  10. Procrastination is efficient – if you wait until the last minute to do something, you get it all done in one minute! That's efficiency.

  11. Procrastination is efficient – if you wait until the last minute to do something, you get it all done in one minute! That's efficiency.

  12. He's right. I'm currently trying to dig my way out of a morass of procrastination that hit me after losing my spouse; and I find getting something done – making sure that every day sees a move forward; is the best way to handle it. I've had to learn to cut myself off from people who see me as someone who doesn't mind sitting and having her ear bent for hours at a time – and the more I do that, the better things get. In fact, the more I tell people to get lost, or just refuse to engage, the better things get.

    I would add then – remove from your life material possessions, give to the thrift stores, recycle, throw it out – sell it, whatever is fastest; and also get rid of people who don't truly support you or understand you — and who have an agenda for you to follow — and actually getting things done becomes a whole lot easier.

  13. He's right. I'm currently trying to dig my way out of a morass of procrastination that hit me after losing my spouse; and I find getting something done – making sure that every day sees a move forward; is the best way to handle it. I've had to learn to cut myself off from people who see me as someone who doesn't mind sitting and having her ear bent for hours at a time – and the more I do that, the better things get. In fact, the more I tell people to get lost, or just refuse to engage, the better things get.

    I would add then – remove from your life material possessions, give to the thrift stores, recycle, throw it out – sell it, whatever is fastest; and also get rid of people who don't truly support you or understand you — and who have an agenda for you to follow — and actually getting things done becomes a whole lot easier.

  14. Caution though – if you're bereaved, do not try to get rid of stuff for at least a year. Even if you put it in storage for a year, to look at it later (took me 3.5 years); don't rush into getting rid of those things.

  15. Caution though – if you're bereaved, do not try to get rid of stuff for at least a year. Even if you put it in storage for a year, to look at it later (took me 3.5 years); don't rush into getting rid of those things.

  16. Odysseus in Home's Odyssey…

  17. Odysseus in Home's Odyssey…

  18. Hey, I just got 'round to posting my comment…;-)

  19. How long have you been meaning to write this article, Julia?

  20. How long have you been meaning to write this article, Julia?

  21. the problem with procrastination? so much to do and so much time to do it in!

  22. the problem with procrastination? so much to do and so much time to do it in!

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