Managing the procrastination problem
How experts define procrastination and what you can do to control it in yourself.
The foremost expert on procrastination opens his seminal book of research on the subject by admitting he’s never delayed, deferred or put off writing himself.
“I almost hesitate to tell you that I keep my desk clean and organized, that I rarely strain to meet deadlines, that I am almost never stymied in my work. I hope you won’t hold those things against me; I do them with only a modicum of self-righteousness.”
The caring professor
Professor Robert Boice cared deeply about his students. As an adviser to graduate students, he witnessed the consequences of writing blocks. Immobilised and unable to finish their dissertations, he watched as promising careers were ruined.
Around him academic peers worked in inefficient and maladaptive manners which undermined their potential for success and happiness.
While he couldn’t understand why many put off writing, he shared their anguish. Empathy unlocked a new area of research.
Procrastination and Blocking
As a trained psychotherapist he wanted to understand why people delay. So, with his background in animal behaviour (ethology) he investigated the patterns behind procrastination and wrote this influential definition:
“Procrastination has at least two characteristics. It means putting off a difficult, delayable, important task—an act with distant, perhaps doubtful rewards (as in writing)—in favor of something easier, quicker, and less anxiety-provoking (for example, cleaning a desk before writing). Procrastination also means delaying vital actions until the performance and the results are less than they would have been if done in timely fashion.
“Blocking is often similar. It occurs when we stumble, delay, and panic in response to a demanding responsibility, when we avoid the threatening task by way of nervous slowing of activity, self conscious narrowing of scope, even immobilization. Blocking typically occurs when we face public scrutiny (as in a writing block).”
Noticing and naming
Noticing your behaviour is the first step in finding a solution. That’s why we think it’s your writing superpower (read last week’s Substack).
Boice believed that in naming what is happening to us, we can begin to gain control of the situation and take action to remedy it.
The power of his definitions helps us recognise our own behaviour, to understand that they apply to most writers - and that procrastination is normal. All we’re doing when we procrastinate is keeping ourself safe, our brain’s fight or flight response is protecting us from doing hard things now by seeking out a quick, easy, rewarding task.
Next week we’ll share the story of how one writer overcame writer’s block with a gentle approach to productivity.
But for now, to manage your procrastination - name it. Ask yourself:
When you procrastinate over your writing, what do you do instead? Do you opt for easier or less challenging tasks like reading, researching and editing?
Do you tidy your desk, empty the dishwasher or scroll social media?
Or all of the above?
We’d love to hear.
Writing is hard. If you get distracted it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself, beat yourself up or ‘try harder to focus’ next time.
More willpower is not the solution to procrastination - kindness is.
Just think how you can make the writing you want to do less challenging. Scale back, go in small steps, one foot in front of the other.
Q: Do I procrastinate? A: Yes/I am lying.
There’s a great survey designed by Angela Duckworth of Grit fame on the Seven Deadly Sins. The questions on sloth are all about our tendency to procrastinate. Take the quiz here. Read the transcript or listen to Duckworth’s discussion of sloth with Stephen Dubner on the No Stupid Questions podcast.
Unlike Professor Boice I do procrastinate! Today I am mostly procrastinating on a task that has been lurking on my to-list since September 2022. Yes indeed. Reading his definition it feels like more of a block caused by public scrutiny. But I feel more ready this week to chunk it into smaller tasks than I have for months. Wish me luck.
If you are keen to explore Robert Boice's work - check out 'Procrastination and Blocking: A Novel, Practical Approach' published by PRAEGER in 1996.