Science and Sensibility

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Protect Yourself From Procrastination

Stop setting absurd conditions for taking productive actions.

A clock may break, but time won’t stop.  Inspired by these words, you tell yourself, “I’ll ponder this idea for a while. Later,  I’ll use my time efficiently and effectively.” (This conditional procrastination is a stealthy time thief. Learn to recognize and successfully combat it and you are likely to feel emotionally happier and healthier.)

It is absurd to habitually make acting effectively conditional on sidetracking yourself first. Nevertheless, millions do this every day.  Here is how this procrastination paradox works:

1. You tell a friend, “Eventually I’ll break my procrastination habit.” 

2. Your friend suggests, “Why not start now?”

3. You respond: “Yes. That sounds like a good idea. But I need to study procrastination so I know what to do.”

4. After gathering materials on procrastination, you put them in a box. You tell yourself, “Now is not the time. I have too much to do.”

When sealed in a corner of your mind, procrastination absurdities of this sort seem sensible. When illuminated, these excuses mirror Swiss cheese logic. They are full of holes. So, how can you find and then clear these conditional procrastination creations from your mind?

Red Herrings

Procrastination conditionals are like red herring fallacies that put you on a track where there is an emotional crisis heading your way.  If you are sick of repeating these crises, look for the rancid red herring in your conditional thinking and forcefully eject it. Here are three examples that illustrate this thinking:

1. You may hear an inner voice wheedling you to tarry. “You have to keep up with tweeting, lest you lose your friends or miss out on vital information. Tweet first. Work later.” In your more reflective moments, you’ll see such conditionals as fictional.

2. You may lock yourself into a double agenda dilemma: finishing the priority versus doing something that distracts from the priority activity. Here’s a version of this Wheedler con: “I deserve pleasure now. When I satisfy my needs, I’ll finish up with _________.”(You name the priority.)

 3. You wait to feel comfortable before doing something that you—and most others—would find uncomfortable.  With this ease and comfort conditional in place, you’ve primed yourself to procrastinate.

Three Exercises to Combat Conditionals

You may quickly learn to recognize conditional thinking that prompts procrastination. However, it takes an informed effort to stop sidetracking yourself with these mental distractions. 

Once you see your conditionals, (1) use them like red flags to signal impending procrastination dangers. Heed the signal and you may quickly get back on the right track. (2) Use the conditional as a reward for taking a priority action. Using this flip technique you do something rewarding, like having a cup of coffee, after you put in an hour preparing for a presentation.  

To support the concept of making informed efforts, use the following propinquity, color wheel, and priority techniques to help yourself contest and correct conditional thinking, and stay on a productive path:

Propinquity technique: Propinquity means nearness in time and space. A propinquity problem occurs when you are in proximity to a situation that can activate thoughts and feelings of distress, such as having a task to do that you haven’t started and that you are running out of time to do. Let’s look at how procrastination conditionals play out in a propinquity problem situation where you are behind on your housekeeping.

Your dwelling swells with clutter and you feel stressed about the mess. You’d prefer to avoid the effort of cleaning. You think, “This is too much work.” You decide to make a to do list for items you’ll discard. You put off making the list. Your propinquity problem continues.

You can prevent procrastination propinquity problems and avoid the penalties that commonly follow. Start with a propinquity procrastination analysis (substitute your propinquity problem for the housekeeping example). Use the results to sharpen your perspective on this issue and, perhaps, to change course.

1. What is the worst that can happen if I live with this propinquity situation for the next five-years? What is the emotional cost?

2. What is the best that can happen if I finish my housecleaning and prevent another clutter buildup for the next five-years? What is the emotional cost?

3. What is the most likely outcome if I clear the clutter and keep up with my housecleaning for the next five-years?  What is the emotional cost?

Is the cost to end this propinquity problem lower or higher than living with a mess?  

Color wheel technique:  The color wheel game shows how to avoid distractions by putting your attention onto timely and effective actions.

Print off the image of a color wheel on something like text cover paper stock. On the slice where you see the color green, write down your top priority, such as housecleaning or preparing a speech. On each of the other color segments, write a word that describes a conditional, such as waiting to get in the right mood.

Pin your color wheel on a thin wooden rod (perhaps a straw).  Make it so you can spin it like a pinwheel.  Put a green mark on the top of the rod. Spin the wheel.  The part below the green dot designates what you’ll do.

The odds are against your priority landing on the green (go) dot. Now, change the game to where you control the outcome. Instead of trusting to luck, move the wheel so that you center the “green” priority below the green dot. Then start what you visualize.

Priority conditional technique:  Conditionals are not all fictional. Here is a productive conditional for breaking a procrastination cycle: Overcoming procrastination is a byproduct of doing something else first.  

You engage productive conditionals by doing what is important without procrastinating first. In short, you prevent procrastination by doing your priority. As a byproduct, you prevent pressures from procrastinating.  You also accomplish more, and that is the bigger benefit.

“Okay,” you ask, “How is this to be done?”  Use a sequencing approach. Map the logical order of a do it now approach: getting priority things done in a timely fashion without needless distraction. If you feel tempted to insert a conditional into this process, get back to the map. Use it to follow a productive track.

Do these three exercises put conditional procrastination into a sharper focus?

Visit our free Combatting Procrastination:  Basic Steps to Take Charge of Your Life video series.  Part 4: Procrastination Thinking is the most recent release and it delivers important information on spotting and combatting conditional thinking, and other forms of procrastination thinking. Also see: Part 1: What is ProcrastinationPart 2: A No Blame Approach; and Part 3: 7 Principles for Change. Click on any topic and you'll get to the video. (The series appears on the SMART Recovery® Channel: www.youtube.com/smartrecovery.)

To substitute productivity for procrastination, click on End Procrastination Now. To combat a tenacious form of procrastination—the kind that sticks--click on The Procrastination Workbook.

Special to this blog: Brighter Days Ahead thumbnail PhotoArt image by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art & Design, Fayetteville NC

© Dr. Bill Knaus and the SMART Recovery® Combatting Procrastination team Dolores Cloward, Suzy Whalen, and Don Sheeley

Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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