The vicious cycle of procrastination and work debt
It’s 4am, the year’s 2014. I’ve written 7 of the 12 pages due at 10am. This humanities essay has been assigned for three weeks, yet here I am strung out on Red Bull and beef jerky putting the ‘finishing touches’ on the paper. This isn’t the first time I find myself in this position, nor will it be the last. Every time I say to myself, “I’m never doing this again.” Then the next assignment comes along and I convince myself that Grand Theft Auto 4 is way more important than getting ahead on the work.
Why does procrastination keep kicking my ass?
It seems there are three primary drivers of procrastination:
- Poorly aligned Challenge/Skill (CS) Balance
- The activity is deprioritized.
- The person lacks self-discipline.
In this essay, I’m going to unpack each of the three causes of procrastination and offer some guidance as to how you can avoid the stress it creates.
Poorly aligned Challenge/Skill (CS) Balance
Flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “challenge/skill balance” in his 1990 book, Flow. The CS balance is the ratio of the difficulty of a task in relation to a person’s skill-level relative to that task.
CS Balance = Difficulty of the task / Skills to accomplish the task
Understanding the CS balance is critical to achieving high-performance. There are five ranges where you can land on the scale. I’m going to pen another essay all about the CS balance. For now the focus will be on the poles of the CS balance where procrastination occurs.
- The “Oh Shit” range: the challenge is much greater than your skills…
The first time my butt touched a dirtbike was to cross the Mexican border. I was about to embark on a 4-day enduro ride with a group of 8 men. I had no idea how bad it was going to be until we were 45 minutes into the ride. I flew off my bike, hit a rock and twisted my ankle. That was my “Oh shit” moment, when I knew my riding skills were nowhere near what was required for the challenge of this trip. I was in over my head but I had no choice except to keep going.
Most people recognize they’re in the “Oh Shit” range far earlier than I did. They still have the option to complete the task or bail on it. This isn’t a fun place to be, with a massive project looming ahead that feels impossible to tackle. Procrastination makes an appearance in this stage as a result of the overwhelm one feels due to the immense amount of work to be done.
This form of procrastination can be diminished by breaking the project down into small, bite-sized goals that better suit the current skill-set. As progress is made, the project’s scope will shrink and the person’s adeptness at the project will improve.
2. The “Automation” range: the challenge is much less than our skills…
Procrastination creeps in when a task to be completed is far too simple for a person’s skills. It’s easy to say, “I’ll just finish this up later,” then ignore the work. Ideally, the task can be automated altogether, either by hiring someone to do it or by using software.
When automation isn’t possible, this brand of procrastination can be eliminated by scheduling dedicated time to the task on the calendar. The act of scheduling time to do something increases its priority in a person’s mind. By dedicating 15 minutes to the requirement, there’s a soft commitment that it will get done during that period. Stick to the allocated time and the procrastination will melt away.
The activity is deprioritized
Life is busy. There’s so much to juggle everyday that it’s hard to consistently accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself. What actually gets done in a 24-hour period is based on what you decide to prioritize. Some people are more intentional than others about what gets their attention, but consciously or otherwise, everyone is deciding what earns their focus.
Procrastination through deprioritization occurs when you filter a project out of your daily to-do’s in replacement of something you deem more important. For example, say you’ve dedicated a 2-hour block to finish writing your college humanities essay from 1-3pm. At 11am that same morning, your roommate asks you to play disk golf during the time you planned to write.
At this point, your brain begins running a cost/benefit analysis to decide which activity is the optimal way to spend the afternoon:
- Complete the assignment ahead of schedule, likely leading to an A and avoiding a stressful night of manic catch-up.
- Play disk golf, which will be fun and re-energizing now but will lead to a long night in the near future.
Let’s say you choose option b, and opt to play disk golf for the afternoon. You’ve decided to procrastinate writing your humanities essay. It’s critical to make these decisions consciously in order to stave off unwanted procrastination.
“What gets your attention controls your life.”
When you make note of what gets prioritized and outline all of your activities in a daily calendar, it’s much easier to see where you tend to delay important work in lieu of more fun activities. This awareness helps you avoid succumbing to your procrastination habit.
The person lacks self-discipline
In today’s distraction-driven world, the ability to focus is a rarified gift. The fragmented attention people give their environment saps their ability to meaningfully produce in a single area for an extended period of time. Focus is stretched between work, social media, email, text messages, and their own distracting thoughts. Allowing or preventing distractions is a matter of self-discipline. The ability a person has to practice this skill determines how frequently they procrastinate as a result of distraction.
A few examples of self-discipline in the face of distraction:
- Putting your phone on ‘do not disturb’ while working.
- Turning off notifications for email and text.
- Closing the door to your workspace.
- Wearing headphones to prevent unwanted conversation.
Self-discipline is the act of practicing mental fortitude in the face of adversity or friction toward one’s goals. More simply, it’s how well you can resist distraction and challenges on the path toward your goals.
A person with poor self-discipline doesn’t set strong goals, nor do they practice appropriate boundary-setting to refrain from distraction in pursuit of those goals. A very self-disciplined individual, however, is able to focus on the project at hand until it’s completed in a quality manner.
Self-discipline is a critical component of procrastination avoidance. Without it, a person will succumb to the many, many temptations specifically engineered to steal our attention.
There aren’t many feelings worse than the anxiety that manifests in the hours ahead of a deadline, with a project still grossly incomplete. Tim Ferriss wrote about Parkinson’s Law in his book, 4 Hour Work Week.
Parkinson’s Law says, “work expands to fill the time allotted.”
Put simply, this means that the time it takes to complete work expands and shrinks to reflect the deadline placed on it. Elon Musk is a master of managing teams against Parkinson’s Law. He puts ridiculous time constraints on massive projects and drives people to complete more than they thought was possible in the amount of time granted for the project.
Regardless of your feelings about Musk, the adage rings true for you as well. Managing yourself to deadlines, and sticking to them, is the most important thing you can do to avoid procrastinating. Use your calendar effectively, avoid distractions, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. In combination, these steps will melt away the anxiety that creeps in as you bump into deadlines set by other people who expect great work from you.
Imagine the feeling of having your priorities so dialed in that you grant yourself back time and energy to do the things you love without the looming stress of a big deliverable. It allows you to be present in the things you’re doing with the people you love. It improves your sleep and recovery. It allows you to push yourself into bigger and more aggressive pursuits.
Do yourself a favor and begin placing parameters around your work to avoid procrastination. You’ll consistently feel much happier as you see improvement in this arena.
What is Beanie & Blazer?
Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.
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