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Procrastination expert and professor of psychology Tim Pychyl walks through the reality of procrastination, its definition, and how people can learn to manage it. Covering the role emotion plays in procrastination, Pychyl also addresses mental strategies, those for productivity, and handling his own procrastination challenges while writing a chapter for a book.
About Tim Pychyl:
Director of the Center for Initiatives in Education and an associate professor of psychology at Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada, Tim Pychyl operates the Procrastination Research Group.
Internationally known for his research on procrastination, Tim has authored a book on the subject, entitled Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.
Procrastination is a voluntary delay of an intended act.
With procrastination, no one other than oneself is causing the delay.
A procrastinator also realizes that their delay in action may cost them.
There’s no particular upside to procrastination; sometimes people will luck out and avoid problems.
Tim and other researchers have found procrastination to essentially be “an emotion regulation strategy” – emotion-focused coping, or self-regulation failure.
“We give in to feel good.” – Tim references a paper written by Dianne Tice and Ellen Bratslavsky of a similar name.
Usually what happens when someone procrastinates is they notice a task that they don’t feel like acting on. Non- or sub-consciously, they react with a feeling of not wanting to act.
People don’t procrastinate because they’re inattentive or impulsive – it’s because they want to feel good now. “We avoid the thing that makes us feel bad and we do something that makes us feel better.
Procrastination vs. ADHD:
Eric points out how, for those with ADHD, procrastination can seem involuntary – he posits the label “executive dysfunction”.
In a relatively recent study, Tim remembers reading how the single correlated factor between ADHD and procrastination is inattention.
People who are more inattentive or impulsive might be at a greater risk for staying in situations resulting from procrastination for longer periods of time.
If someone is impulsive, they may jump to a diversionary activity more quickly. If someone is inattentive, they may not be able to recover from that activity.
Still, inattention and impulsivity are not the causes of procrastination.
Eric: Those with ADHD may not know where to start a particular task, which may then make it easier to delay that task.
Many will be confused as to where to start. It’s okay to start anywhere – in the middle is fine.
A student of Tim’s wrote to him recently to mention how one of the yoga sutras, “when the time is on, start and the pressure will be off”, reminded her of the concept of starting tasks.
A story Tim keeps in mind always: A novice asks a monk what he must do to achieve enlightenment. The monk inquires if the novice has finished his rice. He has. The monk then tells the novice to wash his bowl.
Reading Brené Brown’s books helped Tim reassess his own work. He saw how she wrote about wholehearted living but also researched shame to be knowledgeable about “what gets in the way”. Similarly, Tim is known as a productivity expert but mainly researches procrastination and emotions – what “gets in the way”.
On the other hand, many have trouble taking action because they are either overwhelmed or underwhelmed with emotion – any strong emotion can make it challenging to process information.
Eric references Steven Covey and his concept of “begin with the end of mind” and wonders how one actually does that. Tim suggests how saying to oneself “I want to feel more rested in the morning” can be an end one keeps in mind before then figuring out what they need to do.
The Role of Emotion:
The emotional part of the brain processes information very quickly, so it usually out-paces the executive functioning part of the brain; we’ll begin feeling bored so quickly that the executive functions don’t have a chance to kick in.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to slow down or downsize the emotional part of the brain, which may make it easier to activate the executive functions.
Eric references Smart but Stuck as a good book about the role of emotions in ADHD.
“I may have fear. I need not be my fear.” — Parker K. Palmer
If one is able to bring their attention over to their positive emotions – like curiosity, desire to succeed, interest – they can then use them to fuel their motivation as opposed to diminish it.
“Courage is having fear and moving forward exactly at the same time.” — Brené Brown
Usually “I’ll feel like it more tomorrow” is a task avoidance strategy that only serves as an excuse to procrastinate.
Eric mentions the book Procrastinate on Purpose. Tim hates the title, calling it an oxymoron, though understands the spirit of the title – that some kinds of intentional delay are fine as long as they’re understood. Procrastination cannot be intentional, though, or it’s not really procrastination.
Sleep Procrastination and Rational Thinking:
Procrastination isn’t about time management – it’s about emotional management and, through that, health management.
What Eric labels “one-more-thing-itus”, Tim calls sleep procrastination.
Tim interviewed Dr. Joel Anderson, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, for his podcast. Dr. Anderson conducted a study that concluded with finding that sleep procrastination existed.
When someone plans to go to bed at an earlier time due to concerns over their sleep, but then proceed to stay up later with a desire to continue to do more.
“If you make a rational decision over an irrationally short period of time, you can run into this problem.”
It may only take a minute to accomplish a simple task, but upon completion of that task a minute later, if you then make the same decision to accomplish another simple task, you end up progressing down a slippery slope.
Some tasks that only take a minute also can lead to the creation of new tasks, like reading an email or clicking on a link.
Psychologically, some people resist the finality of ending their day. Others are, as Julius Kuhl writes, “state-oriented” people who have trouble with transitions.
Eric mentions that he recently planned to go to sleep early, but ended up sat in bed for nearly four hours on his iPad.
Placing devices like an iPad on the other side of the room could help.
Dr. Joel Anderson discusses preferred tasks in terms of chutes and ladders: create chutes to the actions you want to take and ladders to those you want to avoid.
Perfectionism can sometimes drive people toward procrastination.
Tim: “We don’t procrastinate because we’re perfectionists. It’s that we’re internalizing the unrealistic expectations of others and that fuels negative emotions. And what is procrastination? It’s an avoidance strategy to avoid those negative emotions.”
“Just” and Shame:
When people use the word “just” to describe what they should be doing, it’s turned into a word of shame.
Eric suggests changing Nike’s slogan in people’s minds from “Just Do It” to “Do it, anyways”.
Tim: We all have tasks in our lives we wish we could attend to. Who doesn’t have a basement that could use a clean, or a garage? If we let that fill up our heads, we really diminish our sense of worth.
Writing a Chapter:
Tim recently had to use his strategies to combat his procrastination over a chapter he had to write for a book.
To help him begin, he broke down the task into extremely baseline steps, such as opening his laptop, launching its writing application, and writing down the title of the chapter.
He asked himself what he would do next if he were writing the paper and decided to write down the basic ideas he wanted to communicate.
Also needing certain reference papers to write the chapter, Tim brought those out and began to read the paper he planned to start referencing.
In addition to writing this chapter, Tim admits he needs to update his website, cut down a particular tree on his property, cleaning his tractor shed, and occasionally procrastinates on exercise. Still, most of those tasks, he reasons, have been delayed due to being low in priority.
One can have a goal or mission statement in mind, such as “I teach to change the world,” and use it to direct their actions and orient their planning. Eric calls it our “why”.
It’s always a balance between the “how” and the “why”, meaning and manageability; excessive focus on meaning can be too far away from action to accomplish goals, while excessive focus on the details can result in losing the reasoning behind them.
Tim: “That dance between meaning and manageability is an art form of living well.”
Eric mentions the conceptualization of ADHD: “We know what to do, but we don’t always do what we know.”
Tim is a fan of David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” methods.
He uses the iOS and OS X application Things in conjunction with reminders to manage tasks and goals.
In the Calendar application and Week Calendar on iOS, Tim color codes different genres of task in his life: teaching (green), researching (purple), administration (black), children (red), personal/household (blue), recreation, etc. With this system, Tim can quickly assess whether he has enough balance between the different categories in his life.
Eric uses Calendars 5 and iCal; he recently discovered that pinching to zoom in and out can change the scale of time visible.
Tim warns that while the ease of use of technology can help handle productivity and procrastination, it can also make it easier to change our schedules around on a whim.
Random Question Round:
Provide the title and synopsis for a children’s book on the topic of procrastination.
Products, Services, and Other Links:
“Giving in to Feel Good: The Place of Emotion Regulation in the Context of General Self-Control”, Dianne M. Tice and Ellen Bratslavsky; Psychological Inquiry.
“Giving in to Feel Good: Why Self-regulation Fails“, by Tim Pychyl
ADHD reWired Episode 89: Exercise the Attention Muscle w/ Mindfulness
Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD by Thomas E. Brown
The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker K. Palmer
Volition and Personality: Action Versus State Orientation by Julius Kuhl
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
Getting Things Done website
Things, an iOS and OS X application
Week Calendar application for iOS
Find and Contact Tim Pychyl:
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