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Why does procrastination tend to block everything productive I want to do, rather than just the task I'm trying to avoid?

I have a report to write up for next week and I've been procrastinating on it for days. The way I'm procrastinating is surfing the web endlessly. What's interesting is that it's broken some of my other daily habits--which for myself to do but also enjoy--such as reading, drawing and working out. Doing those things would be make me avoid the task just as much, and yet I can't bring myself to do them.

Are there any theories (known or your own) about why that happens?

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4 Answers

I have spent some time trying to understand my own procrastination and that of others and best answer I have found so far is that it occurs when we have insufficient information to start, the task then looks hard and we avoid it.

The Solution is not to commit yourself to the task but doing the groundwork for it so you can start it. Often you find once you gain more information required to do the job you just go ahead and do it.

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I'd also begin with a To Do list –  spocchio Mar 11 at 9:18
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

I think there are three reasons for procrastination on any given task.

  1. The task fulfills none of your higher purposes that you are aware of. Can you get excited about a reason to do what you do? Not every task can be immensely fun but if you are motivated by some higher purpose you will find the will to do it. If you lack the will, ask yourself... "Why am I doing this? Could I be doing something else and make better use of my time?"

  2. You don't have everything you need to finish this task. There may be a missing piece of information or you may not have all the tools you need for this task. work backwards from a successful outcome to determine what the missing pieces are.

  3. You fear the negative outcomes that may possibly arise when you perform this task. This is probably the biggest trap for most folks. You imagine failure and blow it up out of proportion to the point where you avoid the task as much as possible. Your fight or flight response kicks in, your body loads up with stress and you tense up. To remedy this you have to consciously take control of your mind. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your frustration. Give it a name and say it out loud. "I'm feeling X". Take a deep breath and revisit the situation more objectively. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can't do.

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I suffered a lot from this some time ago. I use the following techniques to help overcome my procrastination.

Examine why you are procrastinating

Is it a task that you know is painful and not fun? Or is it symptomatic of a whole (eg. Don't like the job you are in). Or could it be that you are just bored?

Helping to understand why at that point you are procrastinating will help you to formulate a plan on to combat it.

Dealing with an annoying task

Look objectively at the task. Figure out how long it will take, the steps involved and how frequently you need to do it. Also look at how it fits in with other stuff you need to do.

Once you have that clear plan, determine realistically how much work can be done within a certain time, that won't make it feel like a chore.

So something that takes 5 hours, I may break it up 30 minutes a day if needed in a week, or one 1 hour and 30 minutes for others, etc.

I would also factor in the worst part (least fun) to be completed first if at all possible.

For studying related items where I had no fixed timeframe, I would use a 20/10/5 method. This is where I would study the material for 20 minutes fully focused. After that I would say to myself "Am I bored?".

If the answer is yes then I break and schedule for the next time. If the answer is no, then I study for 10 more minutes and ask the question again. After that I ask every 5 minutes. Although anecdotal, I found this technique makes the study feel less like work, and I become more focused on the material.

Blocking the procrastination

Next I would look at what am I using to procrastinate. In my case a number of websites. I would then mark them off if they were pointless or a fix I needed (all be in small doses).

  • boards.ie = Need
  • Game site = Block
  • Reddit = Need
  • etc.

I then allocate a certain amount of time that I will allow myself to procrastinate. Say 30 minutes. I will either leave it as a free block, or allocate per website (eg. 25 mins overall, 5 mins for reddit only).

I use a plugin called "WasteNoTime". It's a Mac safari plugin, but you will probably find similar for other browsers. It locks me out after the timer. Also gives me a breakdown of time spent, in case I need to adjust.

The plan is to slowly scale back time on the main sites likely to waste time on (hence reddit 5 mins :). While I gave myself 30 minutes, it's not a target I want to hit.

Productive procrastination

This technique took a while to get used to, but is habit forming.

In my case, there is a lot research on the products I support. It's time consuming, often not fun as the material can be quite dry. So just sitting down to learn it is a snore fest. However reading about how others use the products, or have issues they are trying to solve helps me to help learn the material.

So I set my browser to allow me to procrastinate on customers blogs (that fit in that rule), or on forums related to the products, or StackOverflow sites.

So I am still avoiding the main task, but I am tricking my brain into learning while it is procrastinating.

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I suggest reading "why procrastinators procrastinate". Somewhere in there the author touches on what I'm about to say with a better metaphor (but spends many more paragraphs setting it up).

I find that the main reason procrastination seems to be able to block out tasks unrelated to the work you are trying to avoid is (ironically) that you are trying to avoid procrastination and actually complete the task you are avoiding.

You're supposed to be writing a report, but instead you're browsing the internet. Browsing aimlessly is (in theory) something you can stop doing any minute now. You most likely won't, but you could. You'll keep telling yourself that in just a minute you'll stop slacking and get to work. This leaves you in a constant state of "about to start the report.'

The last thing you want to do right when you're about to start the report is go take off to the gym for an hour. You don't have an hour to spare. Anyways, you like the gym, and avoiding work to do something you like is irresponsible. That hour realy should go to the report.

So you don't do an hour in the gym, you do just five minutes of web browsing. And you make this decision every five minutes for the next 3 hours.

What I find works best in this situation is to make up a schedule and do your best to stick to it. Please note that I said a schedule and not a to-do list. Hold yourself to the times not the tasks. If you've scheduled 5:00 to 7:30 for report and 7:30-8:30 for gym, but by 7:30 you've accomplished nothing, then too bad. You screwed that up; think long and hard about it while you're at the gym, and try harder in the next report slot.

I think it probably goes without saying that this technique is less about boosting productivity, and more about cutting your losses and not letting your mistakes snowball. You should probably combine it with a technique for getting post the procrastination.

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