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A new way of looking at procrastination

A new way of looking at procrastination is from the perspective of an executive function skill – task initiation. Task initiation is the ability to begin tasks without undo procrastination. If you have no problem digging right into a task at the scheduled time, seldom put things off, and have no trouble getting started with priorities at the beginning of each work day, you have string task initiation skills. But if you tend to procrastinate, are slow getting started, do a lot of preliminary stuff like read the paper, have a coffee, straighten your desk etc. then you are weak on task initiation.

Most people procrastinate occasionally. Weak task initiation skills are one of the major causes of poor time management. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist, after analyzing psychological literature, concluded that 95% of people admit that they sometimes procrastinate.

Telling other people about your goals and making commitments rather than simply intentions have been known to help. Also recording starting times – including blocks of time in which to do your priority tasks – is a good idea. Having all materials ready before you start so there’s no excuse to interrupt yourself and doing unpleasant tasks first are good ways to partially compensate for weak initiation skills.

Forming a habit of starting for early in the morning, having policies as to when you work on the various tasks and choosing a quiet location all might help.
But we tend to avoid unpleasant things and gravitate towards pleasant things. This tendency is so common that it has even been given a label, the Pleasure Principle, which has been defined as: “an organism avoids pain and seeks immediate gratification.”

In a way, the marshmallow experiment is an example of this principle. It was originally conducted at Stanford University back in the sixties. A group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Those who gave into temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They didn’t cope well with stress and stayed clear of challenges. Yale University later conducted research on adults and found the similar results.

The executive skills needed to wait for the greater reward include task initiation and response inhibition. It may explain why we tend to procrastinate on distasteful or overwhelming tasks and work instead on those brief and pleasant tasks, even though they may be less important. When we procrastinate, we are frequently putting off what we want most in order to get what we want at the moment.

But how were the few four-year-olds, who also had very weak executive skills (since these skills take almost twenty years to fully develop) able to resist temptation and wait for the second marshmallow? Well, in examining the tapes many years later, researchers noticed that those children used strategies that allowed them to resist temptation – strategies that we could use ourselves in order to manage ourselves more effectively. They all changed their environment in some way to offset their natural inclination to devour the marshmallow right away. Some put the marshmallow out of sight by sitting under the table or by facing away from the marshmallow. Others sang a song or hummed a tune, focusing their attention on something other than the marshmallow. They did something to avoid having to face the temptation.

Translating these strategies to the business environment, you could turn off your cellphone, engage voicemail, turn off email alerts and close your office door at specific times while you work on your priority projects. You could remove all clutter and other potential distractions from your immediate work area – including any in-baskets. Don’t have family photos or memorabilia in your line of sight. Face a blank wall, not a window or open doorway. Work on projects for 60 or 90 minutes at a time – maximum. If you find that’s too long to postpone urges to interrupt yourself, shorten the work sessions even more. You can always increase them gradually later. Between sessions you can check email, return phone calls and grab a coffee. Work in short sprints rather than attempt marathons. Research shows that willpower consumes a lot of energy so you must pace yourself.

Through environmental and procedural changes it will be easier to resist the temptation to put things off. And the more you practice self-discipline, the stronger the neural connections in the brain, and the stronger those task initiation skills will become.


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