Working Hard at Procrastination

As you may have noticed, I have been working very hard at practicing ‘Procrastination’ and hence was not able to publish any blog posts in the last couple of months. In this period, I have realized Procrastination is a strange beast. It gives you tremendous hope for tomorrow because you have all sorts of things waiting for you and you will always have something to look forward to. It gives you many reasons to make yourself believe you are too busy in the present. And as Mark Twain said, ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day-after-tomorrow’, I have been very diligent putting in practice that advise as it relates to lot of things including writing regular blog posts.

Now, Procrastination is like going on a luxurious vacation using your credit card; Its lot of fun until the bills arrive. And surely the bills did arrive for me and I am paying them in form of short reading sessions, inability to frame up topics for blog posts, bad dietary habits carried forward from my vacation, no exercise, excess weight, no preparation for the upcoming marathon, feeling of guilt, etc.

So why do we Procrastinate?

Research says we Procrastinate when something is difficult or it does not make any immediate sense. The brain naturally wants to get away from any such uncomfortable situation and rewards itself by doing things that it knows best that which requires least effort, as in my case, watching documentaries / movies, mindlessly surfing internet, spending time on Facebook to know who is doing what, constantly checking mobile phone for WhatsApp messages, being a loyal patron to the kitchen candy shelf, etc.

Researchers have a mathematical formula to predict Procrastination –

U = E x V / I x D

Where –

U – is the desire to complete the task

E – is the expectation of success

V – is the value of completion

I – is the immediacy of task

D – is the personal sensitivity to delay

Lets test the above formula to predict my desire to –

a) write a blog post vs. b) watch Star Wars movie. (No brainer right?)

Lets give some relative values on a scale of 10 each and see what this formula predicts.

Write a blog post Watch Star Wars movie
E – Expectation of success 3  (Writing is not easy. I might not succeed in getting the blog out in one go) 7  (It’s effortless to watch a movie but I have to drive to the theatre and get tickets)
V – Value of completion 6  (It’s a resolution I made and would like to keep at it) 10  (Once started, I HAVE to finish the movie)
I – Immediacy of task 5  (Not really urgent. I am already late by couple of months. Few more days delay does not really hurt) 7  (Have to watch asap. Don’t want to be left out of conversations at the water cooler)
D – Personal sensitivity to delay 7  (The personal guilt will continue but there are no consequences) 7  (Can wait for few more days through the holidays)
U – Desire to complete the task = E x V / I x D

= 3 x 6 / 5 x 7

= 18/35

= 0.51

= E x V / I x D

= 7 x 10 / 7 x 7

= 70/49

= 1.43

Result = I am almost three times (1.43/0.51) more likely to watch the move than sit and write the blog :(.

Well this result is not really helpful in changing the reality of the situation. I really wanted to understand why we do what we do and at a deeper level what drives our innate behavior. Few months back, I had read a very good article on ‘The Reasons We Work’. This was written mostly in the context of work or people doing their jobs. However it provides a great framework to understand what drives our choices / actions.

Here is the framework.Motivations

It’s a very elegant and simple framework to understand. Keeping things simple, there are three direct motives (#1, 2, 3 below) and three indirect motives (# 4, 5, 6 below) that drive our actions –

  1. Play – The work itself is the source of motivation and it’s a reward in itself. This is something you enjoy doing anytime and don’t mind paying money to do it. Take for example boxing. It’s painful, at times frustrating and all you do is beat-up or get beaten-up and people see it as a play and keep at it for lifetime. In my case my hobby of working with fire and earth (pottery) fits within this domain.
  2. Purpose – This is something you do because you value the ‘outcome’ vs. the process / activity itself. To me, fasting, working out at gym or training for marathon are not fun / play activities… I do them because I value the outcome and value the identity of healthy weight, healthy body and healthy mind. This is a less powerful motive than Play.
  3. Potential – Here you value the second order outcome vs. direct outcome. You do the activity because it eventually leads to some desired outcome. Generally students pursue higher education not because they love education and value the University certificate. But because it gets them good jobs that eventually helps them lead a better quality life. This is a less powerful motive than Purpose.
  4. Emotional Pressure – Emotions such as social shame, guilt, disappointment, etc. compel you to do the activity. Nobody enjoys doing laundry… you do it to avoid your wife / mother getting mad at you and perhaps you like to wear clean clothes for a change. This is a weak motive driven by internal and external forces.
  5. Economic Pressure – This motive is purely driven by money. This is something you do just to keep households running smoothly. Unfortunately for many, work / jobs fit within this domain. There is more pressure and less joy.
  6. Inertial – This is something you do today because you did it yesterday. This is just mindless repetition to avoid negative consequences. This is the worst of all the motives.

Lets apply the same a) write a blog post vs. b) watch Star Wars movie scenario to this framework to predict the outcome. Clearly watching a movie is Play for me and since I also pay to watch the movie my motivation and commitment for that activity is the highest. Writing the blog post is somewhere in-between Purpose and Potential. I value the outcome of developing a healthy and wise mind and also see the potential in practicing writing to be able to write a book someday.

The fight between a) write a blog post vs. b) watch Star Wars movie is the fight of the unequals. The stronger will always win and in real life we will always have these fights of the unequals clamoring for our attention and time. As I have written in the past, prioritization is key to getting things done and sometimes we have to coerce ourselves to do what is important. There are some brilliant tactics to lock ourselves in doing things we should be doing (which I have used to write this blog), and that would be a topic for future posts.

Motivation Framework Credits – Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor

3 thoughts on “Working Hard at Procrastination

  1. Good job on getting back to writing! Also, good topic, now I’m impatiently waiting on prioritization tips 🙂

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

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  2. It’s nice to see you writing again, friend. Your topic was informative as always, but also humorously appropriate. As it happens, I remember reading a study recently where it showed that the best method for beating procrastination is by splitting up the particular target task in many little chunks. Apparently that technique takes advantage of the reward mechanism in our psychology. What do you think about that? Do you find that’s true in your experience?

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    • Hello Friend, I completely agree with you. I initially approached the topic from the chunking perspective or as Barbara Oakley calls it ‘Pomodoro Technique’ and that is the most popular and widely accepted technique to beat Procrastination. I also approached it as a Habit Loop (Cue>Routine>Reward) concept from Charles Duhigg’s popular book The Power of Habit. Both these techniques attempt to solve the problem of procrastination but does not give any insight into the ‘why’ aspect of procrastination. The Motivation model and the components of the mathematical equation I have written about gives a lot of insights of ‘why’ for Procrastination. I plan to write about the tactics and techniques in later posts and will definitely focus on chunking. My observation so far is that the motivations that drive us to choose between alternatives are very innate and cannot be naturally changed… being aware of those are very important before attempting to change them.

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