Mr. A, a writer – someone who knows how to capture emotions in sentences – let’s call him an artist – writes modest books of about 100 pages every 7 years. His output approximately is two lines of print per day. When asked about his miserable productivity, he says ‘Researching is much more enjoyable than writing’. So he sits at his desk, surfing the web for hours or immersed in the most abstruse books – all in the hope of hitting upon a magnificent, forgotten story. Once he has found his suitable inspiration, he convinces himself that there is no point starting unless he is in the “right mood”. Unfortunately, the right mood is a rare occurrence.
Mr. S has tried to quit smoking everyday for the past ten years. Each cigarette is his last. And me? My tax returns have been lying on my desk for the past six months, waiting to be completed. (Me being a Chartered accountant by profession, ha ha ha). I haven’t given up the hope they will file themselves in.
Procrastination is the tendency to delay unpleasant but important facts: the arduous trek to the gym, writing thank you letters, getting finances in order, go on a diet, spend more time with family and friends, get organized, stop being stressed, change job/career, travel plans. Even New Year resolutions won’t help you there.
Procrastination is idiotic as no project completes by itself. We know these tasks are beneficial, so why we keep pushing them on to the back burner? This requires a high degree of mental energy, as psychologist Roy Baumeister demonstrated in a clever experiment. He put the students in front of an oven in which chocolate cookies were baking. Their delicious scent wafted around the room. He then placed a bowl filled with radishes by the oven and told they could eat as many as they wanted, but the cookies were strictly out of bounds. He then left the students alone in the room for thirty minutes. Students in the second group were allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. Afterward, both the groups had to solve a tough maths problem. The students who were forbidden to have the chocolate cookies gave up on the maths problem twice as fast as those who were allowed to gorge freely on cookies. The period of self control had drained their mental energy-or will power- which they now needed to solve the problem. Willpower is like a battery, at least in the short term. If it is depleted , future challenges will falter.
This is fundamental insight. Self control is not available round the clock. It needs time to refuel. The good news is: to achieve this, all you need to do is refill your blood sugar and kick back and relax.
Though eating enough and giving yourself breaks is important, the next necessary condition is employing an array of tricks to keep you straight and narrow. This includes eliminating distractions. When I study, I turn off my internet access. It’s too enticing to go online when I reach the knotty part. The most effective trick is to set deadlines. Self imposed deadlines will work only if the task is broken down step by step, with each part assigned its own due date. For this reason, nebulous New Year resolutions are doomed to fail.
So get over yourself. Procrastination is irrational, but human. To fight it, use a combined approach. This is how my friend used to write her doctoral thesis. She rented a tiny room with neither telephone nor internet connection. She set due dates, one for each part of the paper. She told anyone who would listen about these deadlines. This way, she transformed personal deadlines to public commitments. At lunch times and evenings, she refueled her battery reading fashion magazines and sleeping a lot.