When we approach something unpleasant to do, the negative feelings make our brain activate areas associated with pain. Our mind, almost unconsciously, start wandering and looking for some less unpleasant alternative thoughts and activities. (Boyce, 1996) (Oakley, 2014)
Procrastination may seem a minor quibble, but over time may amount to a lot of lost productivity and a much harder, unpleasant and less effective learning experience. In fact we’ve already seen the importance of spacing our learning over time, and procrastination instead tends to make us postpone the learning effort as much as possible.
A naive approach in fighting procrastination may lead to poor results unfortunately. A frontal assault to the procrastination urge to do something more pleasant requires a lot of willpower, and willpower is a scarce resource…
But if we consider how the procrastination mechanisms work, we may discover a better option. In fact, procrastination tends to generate avoidance habits which share a common pattern, and we can exploit these patterns to our own advantage.
The structure of a Habit and how to subvert them
Habits can be decomposed in four parts:
- the cue – a sort of trigger for our “zombie” response
- the routine – the effective actions triggered by the cue
- the reward – the pleasant outcome of the routine that makes this habit stick
- the belief – our set of beliefs regarding the context in which the cue takes place, and the consequent habit, that empowers further the habit itself
The trick to stop procrastination, subverting the related habits, is to recognize the cue and intervent just before the usual routine response takes place. This way we’re able to apply willpower in just a specific limited moment, and in limited amount. It’s also important to intervene on the last two parts: reward the completion of our alternative routine and supplant the original negative belief with the positive conviction that it’s possible to change the outcomes.
At first it may require more attention, but here as usual, practice makes perfect.
Process vs Product and the Pomodoro technique
Research has shown that non-procrastinators often approach tasks with a different approach than procrastinators. While the latter often focus on the outcome of the task, the former usually avoid giving too much thought to that, focusing on the actual doing of the task instead. This makes a difference because focusing on the outcome can easily generate negative feelings and emotions due to a form of anticipatory anxiety, fearing a possible failure or less-than-satisfactory results.
It’s then important to learn to give our attention to the process. A powerful and simple tool to help us do so is the so-called “Pomodoro” technique. Invented by Francesco Cirillo, it’s a variant of the “time-boxing” time management technique. It consists in breaking down an activity into intervals, usually 25 minutes long, without distractions, separated by short breaks (of about 3-5 minutes). The name Pomodoro, Italian for tomato, comes from the use of a kitchen timer that often looks like a tomato. It’s power comes from the fact that this shifts the attention from the product to the process, that becomes central, and it’s easy to do 25 minutes of focused work. The short break provides the reward that helps the new work habit to ingrain.
Keeping a task list
Another potent tool against procrastination, and a wonderful companion for the Pomodoro technique, is a task list. Keeping a written task list helps us off-load this information from our minds.
An effective task list has some distinctive characteristics:
- it is short - having a handful of entries
- its tasks are process-oriented, expect for those limited in scope1
- may has side notes and reminders of what works and what doesn’t
- explicitly plans a finish time goal2
- is geared towards the usage of the Pomodoro technique
- lists the “frogs to eat” as the first steps – hard tasks are better approached with a fresh mind
We’ve almost finished our short journey through our minds, it’s time to summarize our new knowledge in a set of practical, every day rules.
- Boyce, R. (1996). Procrastination and Blocking: A Novel, Practical Approach. Praeger.
- Oakley, B. (2014). A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). Penguin Publishing Group.