Procrastination and Self-Experimentation

Nathan Yau has posted results from the first two weeks of a self-experiment about procrastination. He tried

1. making a to-do list every evening for the next day

2. blocking the sites he wastes the most time at.

The results were not what he expected.

3 Responses to “Procrastination and Self-Experimentation”

  1. gwadzilla Says:

    wow!

    alcoholism
    procrastination
    and weight management

    looks like I could gain a great deal by reading these pages

    right now I am about to try the Shangri La Diet

    it all seems to make such simple sense!

    my brother tried it
    and it worked
    and he is a Phd that did not poo poo your theories
    he read about it
    he tried it

    it just made sense

    but that chocolate just tastes so good!

  2. Phillip J. Eby Says:

    If, per David Allen, one’s to-do list only contains “amorphous blobs of undoability”, it won’t have any effect on the kind of procrastination that’s caused by unclear goals.

    Resistance procrastination, on the other hand, will find ways around browser tricks.

    In other words, his results are about what I would have expected, i.e. Hawthorne-effect “willpower” improvements only. When his concentration lapsed, so did the improvements.

    My hypothesis: only if he reduces his anxiety repsonse to either the goals or the tasks will he significantly reduce his procrastination over any period longer than can be accounted for by the active use of willpower/concentration. Otherwise, when energy drops, he will abandon his approach or find new ways to procrastinate. (In other words, I posit that the real problem here is his conditioned feeling-response to the intention to work, not environmental distraction or lack of focus per se.)

    The anxiety reduction might be through changes in ideation about the goals or tasks, breaking them into smaller increments, or other methods. (Of these, I think the most effective ones can be classified under “other methods”, as it’s faster and easier to directly remove the response or association in the mind, rather than applying external workarounds.)

    Of course, it’s also possible that he hasn’t adequately defined his tasks, and isn’t doing anything because he doesn’t know what to do! But I don’t consider that the same thing as procrastination.

    Hm. I just noticed something interesting about his first post… He says he wants to stop procrastination so that “I am not a bum”. What’s funny about that, is that in my experience chronic procrastination is often strongly associated with identity fears, i.e. fears that “I am/will be (undesirable label) if/because I don’t do (project)”. Such fears are usually a significant *cause* of the procrastination, rather than its effect!

    If he’s genuinely afraid of being “a bum” (i.e., it was not just self-deprecating humor), then it’s highly likely that this is THE major cause of his procrastination (as the source of the goal/task anxiety), and eliminating it might slash his perception of procrastination and resistance by 50% or more.

    Some more on how anxiety leads to procrastination: http://dirtsimple.org/2008/02/backpedalling-your-brain.html

    In simple terms, we have two broad modes of behavior that might be called “acquisition” and “preservation”, and preservation-mode tends to bias behavior strongly towards low-risk, short-term rewards (like web browsing), rather than investing in long-term gains (like a degree).

    One reason why sufficiently fine-grained to-do lists and techniques like working in short bursts can sometimes help procrastination is because they decrease the time to rewards. Unfortunately, they can also just replace one set of large tasks with another, especially if the person begins to think, “I’d better make that to-do list, *or else*,” — a clear sign that they’re still operating in preservation mode.

    In my work with myself and my clients, I’ve found the most reliable way to eliminate procrastination on large, highly-desired projects (writing a book, recording an album, getting a degree, etc.) is to remove the threat focus so that the “acquisition” mode is reinstated. In this mode, people do things because they want the result, rather than because they fear the consequences of *not* doing them. And long-term goals are much more easily able to override short-term distractions, when not under the stress of a threat.

    I’ll leave the full evolutionary explanation of why we have different reward biases under perceived threat and non-threat conditions as an exercise for the reader. ;-)

  3. Tony Says:

    Phillip,

    That was a very interesting comment. Would this fit under your model?

    I realized that when thinking about doing various tasks, I thought about it being completed. I typically would then think about how hard it would be to complete (perfectly). I changed to thinking about some task and thinking “I’ll just get started” (with no or little concern about it being completed), which is kind of fun, often with a sense of exploration or excitement.

    Doing this, I’ve gone from doing what I really want to do 1-2 hours a day to 10-12 hours a day. Basically, it came about by examining the phenomenology of the key moments before starting a task. What was stopping me? It seemed there was some (half-)conscious kind of thought that tended to appear.