The Moment of Truth

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The Key to Conquering Procrastination.

Posted Apr 07, 2019

Marty Nemko Ph.D.

Countless articles, books, and lectures attempt to propose the cure for procrastination. I wonder of many of them over-complexify the solution.

I myself may have been guilty of that. For example, just yesterday, I wrote an article offering lots of anti-procrastination tactics. Earlier, I wrote an article focusing on an array of emotional precursors.

But after a rewarding exchange with procrastination expert Tim Pychyl who had read my aforementioned tactics article, I decided to offer you a simpler approach.

1. Be vigilant for “the moment of truth,” that second you’re deciding, consciously or subconsciously, whether to do the task or to escape to something more pleasurable. Too often, we opt for the burrito rather than TurboTax without taking a moment to really take in how much your life would be better if you did the task and worse if you didn’t.

For example, by doing a task, you avoid the guilt of waiting until the last-minute, when the work risks being slipshod or even not done. You avoid the anxiety of having it hang over your head, reducing the pleasure you get from the burrito. If you get your taxes done, you get the benefit of not having to file a tax extension which would keep your tax preparation hanging over your head for another four months. In other situations, getting the task done will, for example, improve your status at work or get your spouse off your back. It may also help you realize that by not procrastinating on that one task, you’re taking a doable yet meaningful step toward shedding your lifelong procrastination albatross.

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2. Assess whether it really is wise to accept the short-term pain of doing the task for the long-term gain: Picture the benefits of doing it and the liabilities of not. Sometimes, you blame yourself for procrastinating when, actually, it’s your brain wisely telling you that you have better things to do with your time.

For example, I recall a client who was beating herself up for not working on her novel. But on reflection, she concluded that was wise. She found the process onerous and, deep down, believed it very unlikely that her book would ever get published, let alone do well. Subconsciously, she realized she was better off devoting her time elsewhere.

3. Make it as easy and fun as possible: Put music on, get a study buddy, promise yourself a reward after 15 minutes, whatever.

Or try to think of an easier way to do the task. For example, instead of writing that report based on poring through mountains of data, maybe you’d have more fun and even create a more useful report if it were based on interviewing a few people.

Or try gamification, for example, “Let me see if I can reach that milestone by noon.” If you’re procrastinating doing your taxes, maybe think of it as a game in which, while staying within the law, you’re aggressive without greatly increasing your risk of audit. 

If you’re doing a large task, perhaps you’d find it fun to list all the milestones and then, as you get each one done, cross it off.

4. Force yourself to do the first one-second part of the task. Having, in the previous step, reduced your task’s onerousness, it’s still often necessary to force yourself to take the task’s first step. That’s because procrastinators’ habit of choosing short-term pleasure even if it causes big long-term pain is so entrenched that despite tamping down that feeling of what Tice and Bratslavsky call “giving in to feeling good,” the procrastinator is still tempted to procrastinate.

So yes, force yourself to do that first one-second part of the task. For example, open TurboTax rather than shop on Amazon. Your next one-second task might be to enter your name on your tax return. Often, doing just a few one-second tasks are enough to get you rolling.

5. Use the one-minute struggle. Procrastination is likely to next rear its destructive head when you reach a hard part. Generally, if you haven’t made progress on it within a minute, you’re unlikely to. So at the one-minute mark, decide whether to keep struggling, get help (if only from Google), or that you can do the task without conquering that hard part.

6. Forgive yourself. Even most go-getters sometimes procrastinate. Remember that if you fall off the wagon, you can always climb back on and get a fresh start. Keep at it and you will procrastinate less, maybe even finally get that career- and life-damaging procrastination albatross off your back.

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