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.”

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