Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

The Power of Habit

Habits, what can we do about them?

It’s typical to speak about procrastination as a habit. There are self-help books with this title in fact. Here are some key ideas from Charles Duhigg that I want to echo when we think about habits.

I often get criticized when I say that a key strategy to beat procrastination is to “just get started.” Most recently, an editor of a magazine said that it reminded him of Nancy Reagan’s slogan: "Just say no” to drugs. He didn’t believe either Reagan’s or my advice was helpful or effective. I disagree strongly.

Breaking habits requires establishing a new behavioral pattern, a new prepotent response; a new habit. A predecision to “just get started” or “just say no” can be a very effective first step in this process of change. It is not the only step, but it is a key first one. In fact, I think it’s the only possible first step for procrastination or drug abuse, respectively. It's just that we might all develop different ways to do this.

I’m not alone in my opinion about how this responsibility lies with the individual in question. Recently, I listened to the audio edition of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Although I didn’t agree with how widely he cast the conceptual net of “habit,” I did agree with most of what he said as he summarized recent research about habits, habit formation and how we change habits.

Interestingly, he saved a key statement to the very end of his book (the last nine minutes of the audio book). I’ve transcribed key ideas of these statements below. I added the emphasis with bold font.

"Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it . . . others have done so . . . That, in some ways, is the point of this book. Perhaps a sleep-walking murderer can plausibly argue that he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime, but almost all of the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives — how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention and money — those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work."

Duhigg then goes on to quote William James, and while it is tempting to add this, it isn’t necessary. The key points were well said above.

The Power of Habit (book cover)
“Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them . . . Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work.”

The procrastination habit can change, and it is through learning about why we procrastinate and how that relates to your particular habit that you can find that keystone habit that will be central to change. Perhaps your procrastination hinges on internalized unrealistic expectations of others and an irrational dialogue that this has set up in your own mind. Perhaps it’s your unwillingness to tolerate frustration or delay of gratification, you always want to feel good now. Perhaps it’s chronic disorganization. Whatever it is, it is something, and it can change. Find that keystone habit, and you will leverage change to more life-giving as opposed to self-defeating habits like procrastination.

I write about procrastination research here in my blog and interview colleagues for my iProcrastinate podcasts as a resource for this self-exploration, but the final step is always our own, as we take seriously our own freedom and responsibility for change. What a wonderful promise our agency holds for us, as we autonomously shape our own lives and enhance our well being.

The power of habit can be a life-giving, even life-saving, force in our lives.

As Duhigg concludes,

"Once we choose who we want to be, people grow to the way in which they have been exercised . . . If you believe you can change, if you make it a habit, the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit. The insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs, and becomes automatic, habitual, it's not only real, it starts to seem inevitable."

So, let's just get started. That's a keystone habit.

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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