The Launch Pad #3 – Getting Round To Procrastination

About two years ago, I looked at my bookshelves.

Something had to give.

In particular, something had to give in the self-help area. Self-development had turned into shelf development and there were far too many spines glaring back at me, unread.

More books would be on their way and there was only a limited amount of space.

Something had to give.

One book in particular glowered at me and I remembered the moment that I’d bought it, maybe 30 years ago.

In my late 20s, I had taken advantage of a Musicians’ Union scheme to help plan your career. Towards the end of the session, I mentioned to the mentor that I felt that I had a significant problem with procrastination.

The advisor got very excited and recommended a book that her friend had just published, on how to tackle procrastination. I was convinced, so I duly went out and bought the book.

Guess what? I never got round to reading it. 30 years later, that was the book that was sneering at me from the shelf.

I threw it out. Unread.

Procrastination – the thief of time? Or the cradle of creativity?

At Launch Pad#3, Guildhall Innovation had finally got round to procrastination.

The Launch Pad – built on the framework of the Lockdown Lounge, created in May 2020 – had thrived as a way for creative individuals to share the experiences of the challenges and highlights of lockdown.

In every session of the Launch Pad and Lockdown Lounge, the team of Guildhall Associate coaches had offered a different coaching model or lens through which to reflect on the issues we were all experiencing. Models drawn from psychological theory, models that were practical, effective and tested, models that if applied could help to shine a light on behaviours and habits that would benefit from being explored.

And now, on October 7th, it was time to tackle procrastination. From the Coaching Associate pool, JaneJoPatCarlosTrevor and I welcomed visitors as they entered.

Polls vary, but it seems that just over 50% of the population think that procrastination is a problem for them. Like perfectionism, which Jo talked about in Lockdown Lounge #7, it becomes a problem if people see it as an unalterable personality trait, or if they wear it as a self-denigrating badge of honour.

Most people who worry about procrastination are hard on themselves but soft on the problem.

So what’s going on? Our internal Parent tells us that working hard is good for us, while the Child in us wants to have fun and avoid responsibility. We have to manage these two conflicting pulls, and it’s hard. More often than not it gives in to the child, the instant gratification monkey, as a result of which we procrastinate.

And here’s the important takeaway from this – who really wants to get rid of this child within us, the one who wants to play, the one who begs us to procrastinate? Very few of us. That sense of irresponsibility is life-affirming and joyous.

Procrastination is not something that can be defeated.

But it can be tamed.

What is procrastination?

Let’s state the obvious here – one coaching blog is not going to solve the problem of procrastination once and for all. But it can start a process, and isn’t that at the heart of taming procrastination?

The first step is often the highest hurdle.

So what is procrastination? Let’s get a hold of that first.

Generally now, we think of procrastination as the avoidance of a task that needs to be accomplished by a certain deadline.

Our first reaction to any event – say, finding ourselves on Facebook when we know we have a deadline to meet – is an emotion. We’re cross with ourselves, or disappointed, or whatever, and that emotion is based on our drivers and our values.

A picture containing graphical user interface

Description automatically generated

That emotion triggers a cognition – a thinking reaction – that is based on our experiences and lived reality. In a challenging situation, that thinking reaction generally falls into one of five responses. We delude, deny, delay, distort or distract. We delude ourselves that what we’re seeing isn’t real, we deny that it’s happening, we try to delay thinking about it, we distort reality to make it fit our preferred state or we distract our mind with some other cognition.

Timeline

Description automatically generated

Eventually the whole charged, emotional, crazy whirlwind of brain activity gets presented to the frontal cortex, the rational, logical part of the brain to make meaning of it, but by then it’s generally too late.

We end up telling ourselves that we’re bad.

That’s rarely a helpful cognition. But humans are psychological, not logical.

Pro, pre, post…

Before moving on, let’s bring into the light procrastination’s other potentially dangerous siblings, pre-crastination and post-crastination.

Pre-crastination…

… is doing a job sooner than it needs to be done – again, not of itself bad, but it can lead to shoddy work, or work without sufficient preparation or knowledge. It’s triggered by the panic monster.

Post-crastination…

… is over-relaxing when a job has been done. We sabotage ourselves in celebrating that success by taking excess time off.

Procrastination – the back story

Over the last 150 years, the way that psychology has interpreted procrastination has developed and deepend.

Freud, fragility and failure

Freud’s take on procrastination was that it’s self-defence. If you don’t take on the task, you can’t fail, thereby protecting your fragile self-esteem. There was something else in his explanation about toilet-training, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite get that bit.

Fundamental flaws and behavioural benefits

Psychodynamic theorists felt that procrastination supported the self-limiting belief that you are fundamentally flawed, while Behaviourists focussed on the short term benefits that turn task avoidance into a habit.

Beliefs, self-esteem and coping

Later the Cognitive approach focussed on three aspects:

  • Irrational beliefs – that cause us to delay starting the job for fear of doing something wrong.
  • Vulnerable self-esteem – inaction is a buffer against assessment and rejection.
  • Inability to take decisions – an effective coping mechanism, especially if you don’t have much confidence in the possible outcomes

There’s a formula for that…

Finally, Temporal Motivation Theory tried to combine the most useful aspects of the above approaches. We prioritise activities that promise the highest reward according at our perspective at that time, an idea supported by neuro-linguistic programming.

Here’s the formula they came out with:

If the motivation outweighs the negative consequences, then the individual will undertake the task.

So what?

So what, indeed. How does this help us to tackle procrastination?

Let’s look at what goes into our self-talk.

Procrastination is usually a symptom of one of the following four unhelpful behaviours:

Graphical user interface, text, application

Description automatically generated

Priority Management

Priority management is a significant part of procrastination. Let me illustrate that with a story from when I was about 10.

My family lived 5 miles from the nearest town. The nearest house – basically the only house we were anywhere near – was a few hundred yards away. A family came to stay there briefly, and they had a son who was about my age, but very definitely not my personality.

But I had no-one else to play with, so one Sunday I took a walk to the house, with a ball under my arm, hoping to while away a few hours.

As I walked up, I saw the other boy playing on his own, outside. He saw me coming, jumped up and ran inside. When I arrived at the house and asked after him, his mother told me that he was inside doing his homework and couldn’t come out.

She probably wasn’t lying – what had probably happened was that the boy had seen me coming, didn’t want to play with me, and needed an excuse to be inside. So he picked up his homework.

So what’s that got to do with procrastination?

Playing outside, he was procrastinating about doing his homework. When he saw me coming, he was faced with – in his eyes – a more unpleasant task, that of playing football with me. In his mind, there was a hierarchy of reward and cost, and in that instance, homework took priority over playing with the boy down the lane.

His procrastination choice was based on his priority management.

And we all do that. If your chosen procrastination is cleaning the oven, do you really enjoy cleaning the oven? Or is it just less unpleasant than the job you really should be getting on with?

That hierarchy of priorities really matters, and is key to most of the methods around tackling procrastination.

Society’s attitude to procrastination

The way that procrastination affects you can often have a societal basis. Since the industrial revolution we’ve been told that work is good.

Outcomes are essential.

Progress is founded on productivity.

You are the sum of your achievements.

Furthermore, creative endeavour has a whiff of worthlessness and idleness.

If you’re as old as I am, you might remember Victor Kiam (whose advertising slogan for Remington was “I liked it so much, I bought the company”). Here’s his take on procrastination.

A canyon with a mountain in the background

Description automatically generated

The other unsupported beliefs that underpin this attitude form a kind of internalised capitalism, where the capital that we’re dealing with is busyness – regardless of what it produces.

But is this true? If you feel that they resonate strongly enough with you that you want to address them, it might be worth taking time to talk them through with a coach.

Bingo!

It was almost time to go into breakout rooms, for the most valuable part of every Launch Pad – the chance to analyse, break down and chew over the various thoughts that had risen to the surface over the session so far. Each room would be hosted and facilitated by one of the Guildhall Coaching Associates.

But first, one more quick exercise.

Let’s find out what sort of procrastinator you are with…

Procrastination bingo!

Here’s your bingo card.

Table

Description automatically generated

Which of the boxes do you tend to tick off?

In fact, why not print out your own procrastination bingo card? Over the next week, whenever you find yourself procrastinating, put a tick in that box.

See which box gets the most ticks!

Fun for all the family!

But enough of that. I had prepared initial discussion points for the breakout rooms.

As ever, the Launch Padders were not going to be constrained by these ideas, they were merely starting points. Provocations or prompts. The conversations would, as ever, follow their own charm.

Each of the Guildhall Coaching Associates was to host a room. Past experience showed that the skill here was not to be a facilitator, but simply to try to corral the conversations to a polite halt at the end of the session, when there was still so much more to be said.

Not enough time

We reconvened after 15 minutes, refreshed by deep and stimulating discussions.

One group in particular had focussed on the self-talk around perfectionism that surrounds procrastination.

“I put things off because I don’t think I’ll do it well enough. Then when I do it at the last minute, it’s crap because I didn’t give it enough time”

“I get blocked by fear or anxiety, or by the idea of failing”

“It’s not just work that gets blocked – feeling uncomfortable can block me from having conversations that I need to have”

Other threads that emerged through all the break out rooms was about handling the size of the task.

“I procrastinate because the big picture is too big – I need tick box tasks that can be achieved”

“When I write down my tasks, I find that they naturally fall into chunks that can be achieved”

“I need to sort tasks out into things that can be ticked off vs long form issues”

Practice in the time of lockdown had to be re-assessed.

“I’ve had to reframe practice now that I don’t have to… I need to find the things that I wantto do. I need to find the love”

“Before, practice used to focus on the negative – I would practice what I was worst at. Without the chance to perform, I can now focus on improving what I’m good at, as well!”

And two other intriguing threads emerged.

“Without immediate deadlines, I’ve started to find a sense of flow. I’m finding streams of energy that I didn’t have before”

“In lockdown, self-care is being de-prioritised”

What’s your style?

So that’s taken a look at what procrastination is. Time to look at how to tackle it.

There are a number of productivity methods and styles that tackle procrastination – Get Things DonePersonal KanbanEat The FrogPomodoro, and so on, all good for different situations.

A good overview of these systems, by the way, as well as a questionnaire to decide which one is best for you (don’t we all love a questionnaire?) is on the To-do-ist website.

They all require a good deal of initial effort, though, which can be a challenge for chronic procrastinators – but who said it was going to be easy?

It’s all relative

The most helpful tool in taming procrastination is perspective.

Notice how much easier it is to work on something that doesn’t really matter. You’re more carefree and creative, the task feels lighter and it’s done in no time. Closer to play than work.

It’s when tasks become super-important that they weigh us down. But gaining perspective, thinking about how much a task will or won’t matter in 5 or 10 years’ time can remove the fear from the job.

Let’s take another example from my life.

In my inbox, I flag up important emails that are too big to be dealt with immediately, ones that I need to come back to.

I’ve just had a look at my inbox. There are 1,214 red flags in there. I had a look back at the first red flags, back in 2014. I didn’t take action on most of them – otherwise they wouldn’t still have red flags – and you know what? It’s not really changed anything for anyone. They didn’t really matter.

But that’s not helping right now, in the moment. You want to master procrastination. And here’s how. By becoming a Master Procrastinator (with apologies for the gendering of the acronym).

This isn’t a fool-proof system, but it’s a start that you can modify and flex to work for you.

M is for Make A List

The mind is a terrible filing system. Ideas appear at random moments and disappear when you try to find them. It deletes, it distorts and it generalises in order to save mental bandwidth and it rarely runs with the same efficiency on two days running.

When we leave things to fester in our heads, they grow in magnitude. Getting them onto the page diminishes their power and make them more manageable.

Make a list of all your tasks. Use a mind map. Draw them. Use different colours. Play with the list. It’ll take time, but it’s time well spent.

Now before anything else, if any of those tasks take less than 2 minutes, do them. Do them now. That will clear them from interfering with your thoughts. Just get those straight off the list.

But if the tasks are too huge, chunk them down into tasks that can be achieved in a couple of hours. If it can’t be ‘chunked down’ into different tasks then just literally slice it into 2 hour sections – or whatever time period you like to work in, so a 10 hour task is 5 two hour sections.

A is for Assess

You now need to rate and assess your tasks according to two parameters: how urgent they are, and how important they are. Rate them from 1 to 10, and make sure you use that scale effectively. Be ruthless.

Now take a large sheet of paper, and put the tasks onto a grid. One axis is how urgent the task is, the other is how important it is.


That means that each of your tasks lies in one of four quadrants:

This is called the Eisenhower Matrix, after President Eisenhower of the United States, who used it as a productivity tool. Here’s my interpretation of those quadrants:

S is for Set Timings

So now you have put your tasks more or less in an order, and deleted some of them – be ruthless and realistic here.

Now set timings for each of those tasks. How long will that job actually take?

People who procrastinate are often not good at knowing how long a job will take. But this can be improved by experience and awareness. Try it, experience it, observe it, learn from it.

Chunk each job down as much as you can into manageable tasks.

Now you have a set of tasks, an order of priorities, and a set of timings. If you’re like me, that set of timings will exceed that actual amount of time available.

That’s fine. Be curious about that. Why are you taking on so much?

Then, I’m afraid, you have to be ruthless again. If the number of tasks exceeds the number of hours in the day, then something has to give – and it won’t be the number of hours in the day. Sorry about that.

Go through the list again, and work out what needs trimming. If you have trouble deciding, talk to a trusted friend or find a coach who can help you to find what lies beneath this issue of taking on too much.

T is for Timetable

Now you’re in a position to diarise. Set up a spreadsheet, broken down into manageable chunks – I go for 45 minutes at a time – for as far ahead as you feel comfortable planning – I do a week. Then populate that spreadsheet and work out how to plan your day.

Remember to build in contingency for emergencies – I’d suggest 30 minutes a day – and sufficient breaks to be able to clear your head and do those really important procrastination tasks like sorting the bookshelves and catching up on Twitter. Again, Ruthless and Realistic are your friends here.

Remember to leave time for sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea, or just staring out of the window.

At this point, if there’s a particular productivity method that works for you – as in Pomodoro, Get Things Done or Eat That Frog – this is where it comes in to play.

E is for Execute

The first time you try this exercise, there will be errors. You will mis-time things, unforeseen crises will crop up, new jobs will emerge.

That’s fine.

Again, be curious about that, and learn. Try it, experience it, observe it, learn from it, adapt it.

R is for Rinse and Repeat

This isn’t a static tool. As time moves on, some jobs will become more urgent, others will lose their importance – or your perspectives will change. Take time every day, or every week, to review your Eisenhower Matrix.

Procrastination is good…

But I need to say one thing before we all become M.A.S.T.E.R.s at tackling procrastination.

I want to speak in praise of procrastination. That’s right. I want you to embrace the benefits and love the flexibility that it gives you.

Any of us who have produced anything creative will know how often it is that your best ideas come after you’ve slept on them, or given yourself time off to think, or have a bath, or a walk.

Researchers have actually found a positive relationship between procrastination and an orientation to personal enjoyment and well-being.

Here’s one of my all time screenwriting heroes, Aaron Sorkin:

And the scientists agree… sort of

Earlier this year, Jihae Shin, a researcher at Wisconsin University, found a link between moderate procrastination and creativity. Full disclosure – I think this research is flawed, but a flaw is not an error.

She asked a sample group to come up with business ideas. Some people had to start straight away, some were given a simple computer game to play – Minesweeper or Solitaire, nothing that involved thinking or raising energy – and of that group, some were required to play for 5 minutes, some for 10, before starting the task.

What she found was that those who procrastinated for 5 minutes produced results that were judged to be 28% more creative (and there’s the first flaw – what does that even mean?) than those who had to start straight away. But – and here’s the kicker – those who procrastinated for 10 minutes produced ideas that were no more creative than those who didn’t procrastinate at all.

Adam Grant, who worked with Jihae and who wrote the book ‘Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World suggested this curve in creativity:

Here are the other benefits to effective procrastination:

  • there is a post-procrastination energy boost. A feeling of ‘right… time to get on’
  • increased focus – and you’re less likely to give in to distractions
  • you’re able to work faster and find flow quicker
  • many tasks suddenly feel much easier
  • the lowered expectations caused by imminent deadlines can produce more efficient work

However, when you approach everything this way, or start to over-use the pressure of deadlines to get things done, there can be a fatigue. Using fear as a motivator will blunt its edge over time.

So learning to use procrastination wisely, learning how to steer a path between the panic monster and the instant gratification monkey, can benefit your productivity and creativity.

Scientist? Schmientist. Here’s what Launch Pad thinks

Once again, the Launch Padders were sent off into break out rooms. 20 minutes to discuss, challenge, meander and think.

My prompts for the room were simple.


Time off, time out, time on

The subject of time and our new relationship with time since lockdown came up in many of the conversations.

“I need to award myself time off to think”

“Thinking at night is a challenge – but it’s a good time. As long as it’s not just after the news!”

“Exercise time is thinking time – but then I can’t write things down!”

Attitudes and behaviours have changed, too.

“Since lockdown, people have become more caring, in a more peaceful way. There’s less ego, we don’t need to be seen to be caring now”

“People have been holding their cards close to their chests. There was a shame about our attitudes if we weren’t working hard enough”

“I managed to play one gig recently and I was different… all the old problems just fell away. It was a completely different experience!”

And of course, the subject of procrastination came up once or twice…

“This has encouraged me to look at rewards and treats – what form could they take?”

“If you pre-crastinate and do a job too early, by the time the work is needed, the job will have moved on”

“I like to put things I’ve already done on my lists, as well as things I like to do”

And one Launch Padder put it perfectly.

“It’s OK not to be perfect…”

Final thoughts

I’d like to leave you with one last metaphor, from Classical times.

Plato had an image that our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But every now and then, birds need to settle. For that, we need periods of purpose-free calm.

Mindful procrastination, like going for a walk, staring out of the window, sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea or – in my case – cooking, can bring back focus and perspective.

There is no intention in these activities other than in allowing the mind to settle. Then it can take on its job of filing all those thoughts, ideas, plans and memories in peace.

For which, and finally, I offer those words of the ever-quotable Mark Twain:

As the Launch Pad closed, there were warm and gracious thanks for the time spent together:

“This is great for hearing from other people. I appreciate the honesty of the chats”

“Love the idea that  perspective is a way to tame the procrastination beast!”

“‘hierarchy of priorities’ and all the psycho stuff, very interesting, thanks!”

“Really great session, thank you everyone! Lovely space to explore procrastination in a curious and non self-critical way”

“Thank you as always. Taking away the acceptance that procrastination can lead to settling and clarity – a nice peaceful thought and good for self-esteem!”

(and if you enjoy my writing, why not buy me a coffee at Ko-fi.com/chrisbrannick? It’s not expected or demanded, but I’d be really touched. I live on appreciation and coffee… in that order)

The Launch Pad was run monthly by the Guildhall Coaching Faculty. For all enquiries about Lockdown Lounge and Launch Pad, send an email to: coachingandmentoring@gsmd.ac.uk headed ‘The Launch Pad’.

The exercises offered to our readers at home are sometimes slightly modified in the light of feedback from our Launch Pad travellers.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels