Getting Things Done

From crossing simple tasks off our to-do lists to achieving long term goals, there are few better feelings than knowing we've accomplished something. But why does procrastination so often get in the way, and what can we do about it?

Disguised Procrastination

How do you see through procrastination self-deceptions?

You can put things off for what you think are good reasons, and don’t realize that you are deceiving yourself by using misleading excuses to justify delaying. That’s disguised procrastination.

When procrastination comes camouflaged, how do see through the disguise? We’ll explore two examples. Then, I'll describe the hydra solution.

Look for Excuses

You disguise procrastination from yourself by believing your own excuses for delaying. For example, you have a habit of feeling anxious about social gatherings.  Your procrastination urges kick in when a friend invites you to her birthday party. You dread feeling awkward and tense. You tell yourself “People won’t like me,” or “I can’t make small talk.” But is this true?

You feel too embarrassed to share these negative thoughts with your friend. Instead, you say, “I wish I could be with you on your birthday, but I’ll be out of town on an important business trip.”

You avoid what you fear using this two-excuse process: what you tell yourself and what you tell someone else that is different.  In the first instance, you've overgeneralized, or made sweeping statements that are too broad to be true.  In the second instance, your excuse helps you maintain a good image with your friend. However, you would not need to make the second excuse had you not made the first.

The bigger issue is subduing your social anxiety. By hiding behind excuses, you may not realize that a big part of your problem is procrastinating on overcoming your social anxiety.

When you put off addressing a needless but harmful anxiety, map the steps that you take to keep away from the source of your fear. I'll use the above party example:

1.What happens first? You fear a situation that brings out your anxieties and fears.

2.What happens second? You justify ducking the party by figuratively creating a mountain in your mind that is too high to climb. Who’d want to go to a party where no one liked you and you had nothing to say. (Would your friend dislike you. Is it impossible to make small talk with your friend?)

3.What happens third? You concoct an excuse to your friend that you hope will give you a socially acceptable exit.

4.What happens fourth? Except for some social situations where it is the lesser of evils to attend a social gathering than to avoid it, you repeat the pattern.

By writing out the steps you take to avoid facing a recurring problem, you've increased your chances of getting a handle on what is happening that is empirically associated with self-improvement.

Look for False Contingencies

What does it mean when you set contingencies for action, and then dally?  One meaning is that you’ve have acquired a form of procrastination in disguise.  For example, you’d meet that attractive person at the museum if only you had confidence.  You’d ask for a raise in pay, if only you felt comfortable about asking. If you had the will, you’d write that great novel. The word if can tip you off that you’ve set a false contingency. Can you act without the if?

Some contingencies are logical: to get in shape, you need to exercise. Procrastination contingencies are different. They are fallacies that sidetrack you from real problems that are important to solve or resolve. For example, if asking for a raise is an appropriate thing to do, why do you need to wait until you feel comfortable? 

Procrastination contingencies are convenient excuses for putting off what you feel uncomfortable doing, or doubt that you can do well enough. Perhaps you’ll meet the contingency later.  You ordinarily won’t get far with perhaps.

When you suspect you are using false contingencies to justify procrastinating, map the process: (1) There is something forthcoming that you feel uncomfortable doing. (2) You have a solution. You’ll wait until something else happens first. (3) That something else does not happen. (4) You keep deceiving yourself until opportunities pass or you have no better choice other than to follow through.

You can teach yourself to identify disguised procrastination through this analysis. You also can see can see this form of disguised procrastination by its results:  you get less done; you keep recycling the same problem(s).

By routinely doing procrastination mapping exercises, you can discover what you do when you procrastinate and where there are nuances and variations in the process. You can use this step to take another. After you identify your excuses and false contingencies, you have a clearer option. You can refuse to accept lame excuses and false contingencies. You can press yourself to use the time you waste in these diversions to follow through on what you are putting off.

By knocking off excuse making and false contingencies, you are in a better position to face core problems, such as anxiety. You are also in a better position to execute start-up techniques, such as my famous five-minute method.

The five-minute method is especially useful when you have a deadline to meet. Here's how it works. You commit to starting an activity but only for five minutes. At the end of that time, you decide whether you'll go another five-minutes. The odds are that you'll find it easier to continue once you've begun. (The five-minute plan is an inertia breaking strategy.)

The Hydra Solution

Battling procrastination self-deceptions can seem like you were battling the multi-headed serpent-like Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology fame.  If you cut off one head, two more grow back.  

The mythological hero Hercules’ second labor was battling the hydra. His first attempts to conquer the beast were useless. He persisted and found a way. In an analogous way, by contesting your procrastination urges and the formulas you follow when you procrastinate, you can discover many ways to successfully combat procrastination.

After Hercules met the hydra challenge, he wasn't done.  Nevertheless, he built upon what he learned from defeating the hydra and continued to follow an insightful, experimental, and focused approach to meet his other challenges. Had he been distracted by excuses and contingencies, the story would have been about the successes of his adversaries. The key point is that he stayed focused!

The hydra solution is carrying over what you learned about uncloaking procrastination deceptions from one situation to another. You use each new challenge to apply the knowledge and skills that you previously acquired, and to build your knowledge, skills, and personal effectiveness. Here’s a proverb to describe this process. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Meeting one procrastination challenge will not end all others. You’ll soon enough have another challenge to meet where procrastination is an interfering factor.  By acting to meet those challenges, you build resilience. You'll get more done and are likely to experience less stress.

For more on how to develop anti-procrastination skills, click on: The Procrastination Workbook

© Dr. Bill Knaus

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Getting Things Done