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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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6 Answers 6

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 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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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'd also begin with a To Do list –  spocchio Mar 11 at 9:18
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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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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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Eliminate distractions

Quoting from How To Eliminate Procrastination:

"Making decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision — like constantly resisting the urge to check your email. (Another example: continually trying to follow a new, strict diet.)

You might be able to resist for 5 minutes or an hour or maybe even a week, but eventually, your willpower will begin to fade and you’ll give in."

So basically, if you constantly have inputs on which you need to decide, you'll eventually give in (and start doing something you 'should' not do).
So start making an inventory of how you can eliminate distractions: a quieter workplace, having other people work for you, switch devices and software notifications off, etc....

With that as background: eliminate distractions. Every decision you don't have to make, every input not happening that makes you lose focus, helps.

The artice goes on to describe that the Freedom app developed by Fred Stutzman helps by eliminating decisions. There's more of that kind of software available for different platforms ('airplane mode' on a smart phone is one).
If you want to investigate/inquire about specific software for that go to Software Recommendations StackExchange.

That article references an earlier one on decision fatigue.

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If you're feeling totally unable to stop procrastinating, then, you need to start building your self-discipline "muscles". Start building the habit of doing what you write down on paper by picking a list of 3 very simple and specific todos and assign a time to get them done.

Here's a little example that you can (literally) use to get started:

Write this whole list on paper and then do it: - Clap 3 times. 5 seconds (strike through when done) - Walk to wall then come back. 5 seconds (strike through when done) - Fill a glass of water and drink it. 3 minutes (strike through when done)

Never put on the list something that's vague, can not be measured or can not be timed. It's okay if you fail sometimes, don't beat yourself as you're more likely to procrastinate if you're stressed. Think about it like increasing weights in the gym: if you can't lift a certain weight, go for something lighter. If you succeed, go for something heavier.

Increase the difficulty of tasks on the list little by little and give yourself a little praise when you finish them. You're literally building up your self-discipline muscles.

Another way to fight procrastination is to actually start working on a simpler version of what you want to achieve. Personally, if I want to write something, I draw a little sketch about the points I want to make on my tablet. Usually, it's very hard to get started and this is why you tend to avoid the whole task altogether. By sketching what I want to do and start writing some sentences, I later find out that I have some content to use, which makes it easier to do the work.

To summarize:

  1. Build your self-discipline muscles incrementally.

    a. Tool: self-discipline simulation.

    Tool: write down todos on paper.

    Note: must be simple, specific, and time bound.

    Avoid vague items.

    b. Increase difficulty and experiment.

    c. Do not beat yourself as this will stress you out. Stress hurts self-discipline.

  2. Tackle a simpler version of your task

    a. Tool: sketch something.

    b. If it's a writing project, write some sentences, they don't have to be perfect.

    c. It will become easier to tackle your original task once you have some content.

I have read a lot of books on this topic but if I were to recommend only one book, I would say this is THE book that did it for me: Self-Discipline in 10 days: How To Go From Thinking to Doing (I think different books resonate with different people, this is why I said it's THE book that did it for me =) )

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