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Procrastination or intentional delay?

In a regular chess game you would be foolish to make it lightning fast move when you have the time to think over the possible repercussions of such a move. But in hockey, deliberating for any length of time over whether you should pass or shoot could mean a lost opportunity to score. There are situations that call for quick action and ones that call for delay.

In hockey, you wouldn’t call the lost opportunity to score due to passing instead of shooting, procrastination. It might be better described as an error in judgment or even a wrong guess. But in either case, the player’s action was a result of an earnest intent to get a goal for his or her team, not the result of inertia, disinterest, a lack of motivation or fear of making the wrong decision. Perhaps an older, more experienced player would make the correct decision; but then again, a younger more experienced goalie might stop the park regardless.

Similarly in business, there is a time for action and a time for delay. But if you delay in responding immediately to a derogatory or sarcastic email rather than snap back with an equally unflattering response, you wouldn’t call that procrastination. You would call it intentional delay. There is a time for quick action and a time for delay, depending on the situation. Launching a new product before first doing adequate market research is not procrastination. Neither is editing a manuscript before submitting it to a publisher or rehearsing a sales presentation before visiting a prospect. Delay is sometimes essential to success.

Probably more problems are caused by making decisions too quickly than by waiting too long. This is especially true in this digital age of speed, when we are being urged to think fast, act fast and make split-second decisions.

This “act now or else” mentality puts one under undue stress – the consequences of which could far exceed that of a lost sale or other missed opportunity.

Frank Portnoy, author of the book, “Wait: the art & science of delay,” not only believes that technology is speeding up all our decisions in an unhealthy way, but also has researched the impact of delay and has found that people are often happier and more effective in their decisions when they do delay – and even when they procrastinate.

I’m not in favour of procrastination if you define it as putting off something that requires immediate attention. But there’s nothing wrong with intentionally delaying something if you feel it would be to your advantage to do so.

It’s important for us to think before we react so that we are at least aware of the possible consequences of our actions. It also gives us time to “cool down” (such as the case of replying to an infuriating email message) and to have peace about our decision. In other words, be effective, not reactive.

Being impulsive and cause problems – especially in this hyper-connected world where people can become addicted to speed.  Practising self-discipline, on the other hand, can improve over time.

Continually putting off an important decision, even though you already have sufficient facts to make an informed decision, is procrastination. Even if there are no dire consequences of doing so, it produces a certain degree of anxiety, and delays any benefits derived from the decision. And delays in this case are likely motivated by an unwarranted fear of making the wrong decision or being overwhelmed by busyness or simply not wanting to do what the decision would require one to do as a result.

But there is nothing wrong with leaving something until a more convenient time if it’s not imperative to do it now. That’s simply intentional delay for a good reason. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip every time you do this.

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Disorganized? Don’t blame it on your brain.

Xray image of a human head brain
Xray image of a human head brain

You are not your brain

You were going to clean out that cupboard today, but a TV program came on that you didn’t want to miss. And after all, if you miss this program it may never air again – and you can always clean the cupboard tomorrow.

In the old days we used to call this procrastination – doing what you would rather do now and putting off the more important things until later. But with all of the brain research going on today, it’s now evident that it’s your brain that’s at fault. The brain’s default setting is “to tap the least tiring cognitive process,” according to an article in the December, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind.

We now have legitimate reasons for shirking our responsibilities, rationalizing our errors, and making snap decisions without examining the facts.

With the advent of functional MRIs, and locating the regions of the brain responsible for everything from lack of willpower to angry outbursts, we can pinpoint the blame even further. “It’s the insula or the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” we might claim.

We even have attorneys arguing in court rooms that their clients were not responsible for their crimes since it was some malfunction of a certain region of their brain.

I have over 50 books on the brain in my library – everything from Brain rules to A better brain at any age. What I have concluded personally is that the mind is separate from the brain. You are not your brain; you are your mind. Your brain is simply part of the body – your personal computer, which does your bidding. You can control your brain – unless this most complicated computer in the universe actually breaks down – so get ready to accept responsibility for at least most of your behaviours.

Most of brain books will confirm the neuroplasticity of the brain, and that you are able to reprogram it to develop willpower, resist impulses, overcome procrastination, and strengthen your planning and organizing skills, and so on.

Although most scientists believe the mind itself is simply a part of the brain, my own unscientific mind tells me otherwise. It is the only way that consciousness and immortality make sense to me. It may be linked with or even be another name for soul and/or spirit; but if it is energy, it cannot be destroyed, only changed in form.

My intention here is not to get you to believe in life after death, but merely to warn you not to blame your brain for every lapse in focus or any urge to take the path of least resistance. You may not be your brain; but you are able to control it. As one of those brain books urges, change your brain; change your life.

As an example, there are many ways you can strengthen your executive skills – those brain-based skills that allow you to focus, persist, plan, resist impulses and maintain self-control, among other behaviors. I suggest ways of doing that in one of my latest eBooks, Strengthen your brain’s executive skills, to be published in January, 2016 by Bookboon.com.

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Why 70% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned within one month.

New-Years-Resolutions

Don’t wait until New Year’s – set goals now.

People who make New Year’s resolutions are usually those who are least motivated to follow through with their plans. They have already procrastinated by saying they will leave any changing until the New Year. If they were really committed to lose weight or stop smoking or write a book or save money or whatever, they would have started when they made the decision. There’s nothing magical about New Year’s or any other date. And yet now that we’re into the second half of the year, already there are people telling themselves, “Next year I will…”

M.J. Ryan, in her book This Year I Will (Broadway Books, New York, 2006) claims you really have to want to change. The motivation comes first and then the self-discipline. In her book, she quotes statistics that approximately 45% of us make New Year’s resolutions but only 8% succeed. According to Mike Sion, writing in Woman’s Day magazine, almost 25% of those people making New Year’s resolutions lose their momentum after one week.

Back in 1993 a St. Petersburg Times article reported on a study conducted in 1988 that tracked 200 people who made New Year’s resolutions. Within a month, 55% had abandoned their resolutions. At the end of two years, only 19% had kept their promises.

Studies seem to indicate that from 35% to 70% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned within one month. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment and make ourselves a lot of promises that we are not committed to keeping. We really haven’t thought through the sacrifices or effort that might be required.

David Niven, author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People (HarperOne, 2000) agrees that motivation has a great deal to do with the attainment of goals. He says that those who do not feel they are taking steps towards their goals are five times more likely to give up and three times less likely to feel satisfied with their lives. He claims that people who construct their goals in concrete terms are 50% more likely to feel confident that they will attain their goals and 32% more likely to feel in control of their lives. So motivation and the way you go about setting goals go hand in hand.

That’s one of the things that make New Year’s resolutions difficult to achieve. They are simply weak attempts at goal setting. They seldom are reduced to writing, and have no deadline date for instance. A goal without a deadline is like a check without a signature. If they are going to write a book, or clean the basement or lose ten pounds or save $5000, there must be a time frame added.

Joy Browne, writing in the March 18, 2007 issue of Parade, urges us to avoid New Year’s – type resolutions. She claims people should set personal goals according to their own internal timetable and stay clear of the type of goals traditionally made at the start of the year. She further states that those recurring unmet goals such as lose weight, stop smoking, get fit, and spend more time with the family focus exclusively on the negative.

It’s difficult enough to develop self-discipline without being wishy-washy. New Year’s resolutions are frequently unrealistic and not even measurable, Self-discipline is continuing to do something whether we feel like it or not. It goes against our natural tendency to take the path of least resistance. Our natural inclination is to seek pleasure and avoid pain – and working towards goals can sometimes be quite unpleasant. Especially if we have a goal to lose weight or exercise or complete some arduous task.

New Year’s resolutions have an exceptionally high failure rate because most of them lack the characteristics of effective goals:

 

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Procrastination revisited

BiologicalWhen it comes to procrastination, it seems like our brain has a mind of its own. According to Esther Landhuis, writing in the January/February, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, you can trick your brain into meeting any due date by thinking differently about deadlines. When we think of a deadline as something occurring in the present, we are more likely to begin the task.

For example, something due this week would be perceived by the brain as something more urgent than something due this month; something due this month would be perceived as being more urgent that something due next month, and so on – even though the actual number of days to the deadline are identical.
So a project due date of March 31st set on March 21st would prompt action faster than a due date of April 1st set on March 20th even though you had the same number of days to complete the task.

Research confirms this. One experiment, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, involved asking 100 students when they would start a data-entry task if they had 5 days to complete it. The ones who were assigned the task late enough in April so the deadline fell in early May were less likely to start the task right away compared to those whose deadline fell in March – even thought they had the same number of days to work on the task.
Since the brain seems to divide time into segments, we could use this fact by issuing assignments early enough so the deadlines fall in the same week, month or year. This might necessitate breaking the longer tasks or projects into shorter sub-tasks with shorter deadlines.

It might also suggest that making New Year’s resolutions might be best moved to the middle of the year rather than the end of the year so that the deadlines fall in the same year. After all, leaving a resolution until next year when you thought of it this year could be construed as procrastination.

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How to stop procrastinating once and for all

Procrastination 3Everyone talks about how to stop procrastinating; but polls confirm that most of us still procrastinate. And it’s more than simply matter of everyone wanting to take the path of least resistance.

Procrastination is the continual, deliberate postponement of tasks that are best done now. It is putting off what you want most for what you want at the moment. Deciding to complete a task at a future time is not procrastinating; it is planning. And delaying a priority task the odd time is only being human. But putting off tasks becomes procrastination when the postponement becomes habitual. When you procrastinate, you are borrowing time from the future that must be repaid at a later date, perhaps when you can least afford it. It’s doing the right thing at the wrong time.

Procrastinating on priorities is bad, delaying non-priorities is good, and knowing the difference is essential. Remember that important items have intrinsic value; but urgent items simply have a time restraint. Act on the basis of importance, not urgency. If something is both important and urgent, do it now. If it’s important but not urgent, schedule time to do it later. If it’s not important, ignore it whether it’s urgent or not. One thing worse than doing nothing is doing nothing while thinking you’re doing something.

Whatever you do today will impact tomorrow and whatever you put off until tomorrow will impact today. So never put what you should do ahead of what you must do.

Deadlines are the enemy of procrastination. Deadlines happen when you decide in advance when to do a task, and then schedule the time needed for it in your planner. A task on a “To Do” list shows your interest in doing it; but a task scheduled in your planner shows a commitment to get it done.

There is an exception to the priority rule: when confronted with something that can be done in two minutes or less, do it now and get it over with – regardless of its importance. Thinking about it consumes more time than doing it.

Although all this may seem logical and simple to do, you may find your brain doesn’t cooperate. Those of us with weak executive function, particularly working memory and task initiation, are prone to procrastination. But the more you force yourself to follow through on something, the stronger the brain’s neural connections become.

John Ratey, in his book Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain, says that working memory is the backbone of all the executive functions, and a failure in working memory explains why people with ADHD are terrible at keeping track of time and as a result are prone to procrastination.

My eBook, A brain’s eye view of time management, available from Amazon at http://amzn.to/1H4OGYP, provides several ways of strengthening these weak executive skills. Most of them involve exercising both the body and the brain, with physical exercise being even more important than mental exercise.

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Procrastination is the biggest barrier to goal-setting

ProcrastinationProcrastination is the biggest barrier to goal-setting; but you can overcome with a little self-discipline. With the average Canadian spending over 45 hours online each month, there’s not much time left to focus on goals. And goals are seldom urgent so they take a back seat to our firefighting duties. In addition, research suggests that Internet use is having a negative impact on how we think and behave, affecting our ability to focus, store memory, and interact with others.

Yet goals add significance to your life, and along with it, a sense of pride and accomplishment, a boost in your self-esteem, and a sense of purpose and fulfillment that impacts your health and well-being.

You’re not alone in your tendency to procrastinate. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist, after analyzing psychological literature, concluded that 95 percent of people admit that they sometimes procrastinate. But because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s right or acceptable. You want to leave footprints behind when you leave this earth – some evidence that you have been here, impacted lives, and took advantage of whatever life had to offer.

Don’t use busyness as an excuse to delay your goal-setting. Busyness looks more like real work than real work does – because of the flurry of activity normally associated with it. But don’t let the many things of minor importance crowd out those few things of major significance. You – and the world – can survive without them. If not, you had better work on living forever.

Self-discipline is the rejection of instant gratification in favor of something better – a higher and more rewarding goal. Once you have written down your goals and blocked off times in your planner to work on them, you have a reason to resist the temptation to go wherever your impulses take you. The more you resist temptation, the easier it becomes.

Task initiation is one of the brain-based executive skills that allow you to begin tasks without undo procrastination. Some people have strong skills; but most of us seem to be weak in this area. But our brains are malleable, and we can strengthen these skills though continued effort.

Walter Mischel, in his book, The Marshmallow Test (September, 2014), suggests there is a limit to how much self-control we can exert before fatigue take over, so don’t take overwhelm yourself with too many goals. It took about 20 years for your executive skills to develop so it will take more than a few weeks to strengthen them.

Avoid goals that don’t excite you or you will be more vulnerable to digital distractions and unmindfulness. Telling other people about your specific goals and making commitments rather than just voicing intentions have been known to help as well.

Make it even easier by not trying to accomplish everything on your own. Weight Watchers claims that people who use a support group are three times more likely to lose weight than folks on their own. Have someone to be accountable to when you set goals. The” buddy system” can be applied to job and lifestyle changes as well.

The most important thing is to build the habit of spending a certain amount of time each day or week working on a specific goal-related task. You can then apply this habit to any goal, no matter how large, whether it is writing a book one chapter at a time, completing a self-study course one lesson at a time or becoming a super salesperson one sale at a time.

One more thing – there’s no law that says you have to wait for New Years to start working on a major goal. After all, wouldn’t that be procrastination?

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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.