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Chronic procrastinators are riddled with internal conflict. We may talk to ourselves or others about what we are not doing, like “I didn’t get anything done today.” “I can’t focus.” “I need to get this project done already.” We feel as if we are a slave to their brains, not in control of our behaviors and even our minds.
Yes, I’m saying “we” because I’m admitting that I have a problem. But I think I may also have recently stumbled upon an important part of the solution.
Two things that maintain chronicity in psychological or behavioral problems are a) lack of specificity and b) lack of taking responsibility or seeing what’s in your control. Self-deception has been found to require vague language, while an “external locus of control” frames the situation as something we can’t do anything about, therefore it’s not our fault and not our responsibility.
To begin to regain control, one can see past actions clearly using specific language, and then label them as choices. For instance a person could say to themselves, “I chose to browse Facebook for 3 hours this morning.” Simply by labeling an action as a choice to yourself, you can immediately regain an “internal locus of control.” (Note that this might not be a good idea to go around telling others about your choices, especially if they determine your employment status, but being honest with yourself is an important step in changing your behavior in a way they would approve of as well.)
Every moment of every day you are being productive, even if you take 20 minutes to just sit on the couch and do “nothing,” that is a something perhaps called “sitting on the couch letting my mind wander.” You are always producing some result. The question isn’t whether you are doing something or not doing something, but whether you are doing what you want that is serving your needs and moving you closer to your outcomes.
The thing is, we all have multiple wants and needs. Nobody only wants to work or to play, to focus or to wander. At some times we have lots of energy and at other times we are tired. This is normal.
We can imagine these conflicting wants and needs as a board room with multiple people around a big conference table, all trying to make a decision together. How is this group going to make decisions? One way is by consensus, where everybody goes around and says what they want and what they think is best to do, and all parties keep hashing it out until they can all agree on a single course of action. This kind of negotiation leads to group cohesion but can take a long time in some groups, especially if each member is worried that their department’s needs won’t be met. Other groups bring it to a vote. And still other groups make decisions by having a single appointed party be the decision maker who gets all the information they think they need from the various members and then makes the decision. Any of these decision making styles can work well depending on the group and the context.
What chronic procrastinators do though is more like a boss who fails to call the meeting, and therefore doesn’t even make clear decisions, thus dodging responsibility for making any bad decisions and blaming it on others lower down. “Hey, I’m not in control here–those guys screwed it all up. It’s not my fault!” The chronic procrastinator similarly blames lower drives, or even his or her brain for being the one in charge, thus framing the situation as being a victim to forces outside of my control. Even by saying “I procrastinated” instead of “I watched YouTube videos featuring incredibly cute puppies for 90 minutes” is a way of being vague to avoid accepting the consequences of one’s actions.
The first step therefore is to get sufficient available information and take responsibility for decisions, even the decision to allow something or someone else to make the decisions.
You don’t have to be 100% in control of everything to do this (you won’t ever be anyway), you don’t have to have 100% of the information, and you don’t have to only make decisions that all parts of you like in the moment. You just recognize what information and control you actually do have, acknowledge it, and recognize that “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”
A chronic procrastinator can begin to transform into a decision-maker who is in control of their life by keeping an inventory of his or her time, saying, “I decided to do that. I fully accept the consequences of my decision.” Instead of saying, “I did nothing all day,” you might say, “I played video games for two and a half hours, then checked Facebook and Twitter for about 40 minutes, then read several blogs for 90 minutes. Then I did about 10 minutes of work on my report.”
Note this language is non-judgmental. Most procrastinators when they are specific about what they actually did are highly judgmental, saying things like “I wasted away 3 hours on Reddit like a freaking idiot. God, what’s wrong with me?!?” Keep your language objective and neutral, purely descriptive. You can also describe how you feel about your decisions. Again, keep it descriptive. For instance, “I decided to play Skyrim for 12 hours today. I feel physically exhausted, my eyes hurt, my body is stiff. I feel worried about my project that is due Monday, and notice that when I think about that, my heart rate becomes elevated.” This clear, specific, objective language provides you with the information to make more intelligent decisions. Thus talking to yourself in this way makes you smarter than someone who talks to themselves in vague language.
Other popular methods for tracking what you actually physically do are to keep a time log (write down what you did during each 15, 30, or 60 minute interval) or to use the Pomodoro Technique or other “time boxing” methods.
So once you get clear about what you actually are doing with your time and see your actions as decisions, what then? Most people when they consider doing something that bring short term gain for long term pain only think about the initial good feelings. They might say to themselves, “Man, I’d so much rather be checking Facebook right now,” or just make a mental picture (often so fast they don’t even notice) of how good it would feel to do so.
What they almost never do is make a mental movie that starts with doing the thing that creates the good feelings and plays out all the way to the unpleasant consequences before deciding. Instead they just play a captivating movie inside that motivates them to do the thing that feels good in the moment. Then they might compare that movie to what they are doing right now and choose the action that feels better. That’s what we call a poor decision-making strategy!
Later they look back with feelings of guilt and regret. But then since the action happened in the past, there’s nothing they can do about it now, yet they feel terrible and want to feel better or avoid feeling bad, so they may indulge again in the thing that feels good now. This is what we call a feedback loop, or a downward spiral.
Hey, could you use this information to motivate yourself differently and make better decisions? You betcha. It could even reverse the loop, creating an upward spiral. While you can’t do anything about the past, you can learn to make better decisions by making mental movies that play out until the logical consequences, thus getting a more accurate feeling about how you’ll feel in the future. This solves the whole problem about hyperbolic discounting and present bias by making the future real now. It’s also what people who don’t procrastinate do automatically.
Here’s how you do it:
Think about a behavior that feels good in the moment but has long-term consequences that you don’t want. Close your eyes and make a mental movie starting with the choice to do the short-term behavior and play a movie that goes out long enough to link that choice up with the natural consequence—that is, until you feel the pain now of what would happen if you made that decision (instead of feeling pain in the form of guilt and regret later when it’s too late to do anything about it). Then think about an alternative behavior that has more desired long-term consequences and make a second mental movie. Again play the movie out all the way until the natural consequences so you can feel what that would feel like if you made that decision. Compare the movies side by side and choose which one you want. You can make as many such movies as you want given however many decisions you want to consider.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you think you’re terrible at visualizing, you’re probably not (everyone dreams vividly every night whether they remember it consciously or not), and in any case it doesn’t really matter because just pretending to visualize usually works just as effectively. So just try “acting as if” you can see it, or even write out the consequences in sensory specific detail as if writing a novel, then read over the stories and decide which one you want.
For best results, practice in advance, when it’s easy. Don’t wait for the moment of temptation when it’s hard. Practice again and again and again until you realize this new decision making strategy is better and you choose it every time.
This is but one strategy that is useful for overcoming chronic procrastination. Although can’t say I’m totally reformed yet, I’ve made huge strides myself in making better decisions (and I was the WORST!), so I believe that you can do it too. I also provide personal change consulting for those who want professional support in making such changes, so feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested.
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