Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

How to Overcome Obstacles to Goal Pursuit When That Obstacle

What to do when you're your own worst enemy.

We've all seen it, if only in the movies - a coach detailing the plays for the football team. Deliberate strategies to get around obstacles to the goal. But what happens when the obstacle is you? What's your game plan?

If you've been reading this blog or others like Predictably Irrational, you'll know doubt agree that we have some biases in our thinking that make us our own worst enemy at times. We can undermine our own goal pursuit with some pretty irrational habits. The most recent example of this from my blog has been our dismal performance at affective forecasting.

How do we run a good offense against our own irrational defense?
A plan, as in the football coach's diagram above, is based on anticipating the defense. What typically can we expect? Based on the answer to this question, we're then in a position to ask, "what should we do?" Many great strategies on the football field and chessboard are classic "templates" for action.

The same approach can work when applied to ourselves. If we begin with the question, "What's my typical defense that seems to defeat my goal pursuit through procrastination?" - we can then make a plan of action. The template you need to fill in based on the answer to this question is in the form of an implementation intention to overcome this obstacle.

I've written about implementation intentions a few times before. These are important, deliberate, conscious strategies to overcome habits. They take the form of "In situation X, I will do behavior Y to achieve sub-goal Z." Let's take an example to make this more concrete.

The answer to the question, "What's my typical defense that seems to defeat my goal pursuit through procrastination?" is that typically I answer my email, check Facebook and stay active with MSN and text messages while I'm working on my assignments or reports. The implementation intention in this case is simple (although distasteful, I'm sure). "When I sit down at my desk tomorrow at 8 o'clock to work on my assignment, I will shut off my phone and all social networking tools to ensure that I don't get interrupted."

I'm not naïve here. That's not the whole plan, that's just one move on the chessboard or what one player does once the ball is snapped on the football field. Now we need to orchestrate further implementation intentions. For example, the next move might have to be an implementation intention related to emotional regulation. "When I shut off all of these social networking tools, I'm going to freak out, so I will remind myself of my goals, purpose and values (self affirmation), and I will keep the seat of my pants firmly on the seat of my chair while this immediate mood passes." (I will cling to the belief that "this too shall pass.").

The next move . . . typically you find that you feel overwhelmed when you start a task, often feeling anxiety when you think about what you have to accomplish. So, the next implementation intention also has an emotional focus. "When I begin to feel overwhelmed, which I expect to sitting there at my desk, I will simply take it one step at a time and keep my focus on the very first step to achieve the sub-goal of getting started."

I think you see the message here. It is a matter of building our own personal plan of attack based on "the examined life." How far do you have to take this? Drawing on our football play metaphor one more time, you just have to assemble enough implementation intentions until you're past the defending players and running free down the field. How many implementation intentions this will take really depends on the defense you typically face. After all, it is your plan.

Of course, we can fall back to self-deception, but that's where we started, "our own worst enemy."

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.


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