The Procrastination Equation

Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but put off finding out.

"I am a procrastinator!" The ongoing story of one person's struggle to stop putting stuff off (Episode 2)

Erin P and I will evaluate anti-procrastinatory techniques

TV Watching Erin P.Last we left Erin P., our consummate procrastinator, she had just had enough of her dilly-dallying ways (click here for Episode 1). Procrastination had blossomed from a minor and amusing vice to a demon that was torturing her career. Time to vanquish it.

In the first foray against procrastination, Erin and I settled on the "unschedule." One of the most fun of the productivity techniques, it acknowledges that life is not all work and sacrifice. Time must be made for enjoyment and rest. By scheduling in some R&R, you satisfy basic needs that, left unattended, would increase in power and overwhelm your commitment to your work. For example, if you are a friendly person and love socializing, consider what happens if you haven't made time for any get-togethers. The need to belong or affiliate is still there, but there is no easy way to release or express it. Unchanneled, it pops up at the workplace as you start updating your social networking status every fifteen minutes instead of attending to that pressing project. On the other hand, if you had scheduled some real quality time with friends, something that really satisfies, your need to socialize would have been satiated and wouldn't distract you when you have real work to do.

The unschedule asks you to first write your play activities into your calendar, being sure to schedule a reasonable amount of time for them. Don't plot out an overblown orgy of recreation; just enough to satisfy your basic needs. Typically, you should schedule an activity that represents the temptation you indulge in when you procrastinate. Erin's temptation turned out to be typical.

In The Procrastination Equation, I reported that "In just eight years, from 2000 to 2008, TV watching in the United States went from 4.1 to 4.7 hours, a 15 percent increase. Since time is finite, everything else must suffer and suffer it does." Taking an opportunity to peek at the latest stats, I see that figure is already out-of-date. Any guesses? According to Nielsen, we've reached 5.1 hours, about an 8 percent increase since I last wrote about it, and still climbing.

Erin started off pretty aggressively with her unschedule, deciding on one hour of TV a day-less than 20 percent of what most people indulge in. But that didn't last long; an hour of TV just wasn't enough to truly satisfy her, so typically she gorged on alternating days. Instead of abandoning the unschedule, though, she tweaked it. By upping her hours of television watching from one hour a day to two, she found that she could commit to her self-imposed constraints. An hour at lunch and an hour in evening worked wonderfully; she was satisfied. She was careful to schedule in time to watch quality TV; as she reports, "I love the United States of Tara; it's where Toni Collette deals with an associative identity disorder—good stuff. And the unschedule helps me avoid Gossip Girl, which I used to watch just because it was there. I don't even know why I watched that except that it was on."

And then tragedy struck.

Pushing to get a project done, she exhausted herself entirely. The next day the idea of doing any work seemed ridiculous and she went hog-wild on television. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable choice at the time, but the next day, even after she had recuperated, she considered her schedule blown and thus continued to binge. You see the same sort of behavior with alcoholics. It's an example of the "abstinence violation effect," where one violation gives license to total self-regulatory abandonment. One drink opens the doors to a total drunk-fest.

Erin eventually put her unschedule back into action, which is a good thing, but it took ten days of intensive TV watching. We talked about what to do next time.

Erin: "It's a little embarrassing, because things were going well until everything went wrong..."

Piers: "When first of all, let's not consider this as going wrong. It really is a success. The unschedule cut your TV watching by three hours a day for a month. That's an extra 90 hours of productive hours that just materialized. It worked well and for quite a while. What we need to do now is make it harder for you to fall off the wagon."

Erin: "OK. How do I do that?"

Piers: "Expect there to be a next time. We are human here and we are make mistakes, we err. You need a disaster recovery plan; something to get you back on track quicker than in ten days."

Erin: "Yeah. Ten days is too long. I was a bit surprised how easy it was to go back to old habits, but I guess I can't expect myself to have perfect willpower."

Piers: "If you fall off the wagon again, keep track of the number of days it takes you to return to your ideal schedule. If next time you can do it in less than ten days, that's improvement and that's a success. Always try to do it in less time. Also, take the opportunity of a lapse to reevaluate and up your game. Now where do you watch TV?"

Erin: "Actually, I don't have cable, so I usually stream it online."

Piers: "On your laptop? Does that make it easier to simply slide into the next program?"

Erin: "Definitely, I often end up just clicking on another show. And many sites automatically add to your queue. "

Piers: "That's adding to the problem then. How about downloading the shows first and then only watching what you download? It should add a little crispness to the end of each viewing. Also, there will be a little delay, time for conscious thought, before you watch any additional programs. Even when you are tired and want to watch one more program, you will have to download it first."

Erin: "I think that would help. It's a bit more purposeful."

Piers: "Also, let's do some stimulus control. Do you have sharp cues about where you watch TV? You aren't watching TV where you work, are you?"

Erin: "It's on the same laptop, but I move to the kitchen when I want to watch. "

Piers: "A change of location is pretty good, though I would prefer a different computer if possible... which isn't an option. OK, create an alternative TV-watching persona for yourself instead - an alternate computer log-on. When you go to watch TV, log off your work persona and into your TV persona. And make sure the background screen looks entirely different for each."

Erin: "I can do that. Are we good to go?"

Piers: "Well, there is one last thing. Your TV binge all started because you let yourself get exhausted. Let's tackle that for our next episode. Shall we get going?"

Erin: "Sounds like a plan."

Energy Regulation

The number reason that people report for their procrastination is that they were "too tired." When our energy level is sapped, tasks that used to just seem difficult now feel excruciating. We really don't want to do anything but experience the couch beneath our bodies. This is normal. You need time to replenish and recharge, and acting like this ain't so isn't realistic. Instead, we are going to focus on extending and making better use of the energy you do have.

This is what Erin and I agreed upon:

  1. There is a very tight link between your blood glucose level and your willpower. Let yourself get hungry and your likelihood of giving into temptation goes through the roof. One wonderful solution is to... snack regularly! But not in the way she really wants ("Awwh," says Erin). No chips or chocolates, treats that explode in energy but then quickly fade away. We need something that Erin likes but will release its calories a little slower. Apples, especially Granny Smiths, are what we settled on. If they are cut up, bite-sized, and by her side, the convenience factor will make sure that that's what she eats.
  2. The other tip is to use her energy reserves a little more strategically. The body has an internal chronobiology or circadian rhythm. This means that there are peak periods of energy for productivity, times when we are twice as efficient. If you reserve these power hours for the real work (not emailing, not updating your social network status), you can often be more productive than most others even if you goof off the rest of the day. For most people, the magic happens between 10:00 and 2:00. Blow off the rest of the day if you absolutely must, but not these four sacred hours of work.

"Television keeps the masses occupied. What if everyone decided they wanted to make something of their lives? Television keeps the competition down and keeps more criminals off the street. What if everyone decided to go to law school or medical school? It would sure make it tough on the rest of us." - Jim Urbanovich

"I could have been a doctor, but there were too many good shows on TV." - Jason Love

Click here to take "Are You a Procrastinator Quiz!"

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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