What can children teach us about overcoming procrastination? Not much, you might think. Children play; they don’t work. And procrastination is all about delaying tasks that we must do.
Yet studies of preschoolers can teach us quite a lot about simple ways to stay on task. Psychologist Walter Mischel is best known for his marshmallow studies, but he has also done a series of “Mr. Clown Box” experiments to better understand procrastination. In these experiments, he and his colleagues hoped to learn how preschoolers can (or can’t) stay on task in the face of distraction and temptation, with an eye to applying this knowledge to strengthening adult willpower.
In a typical Clown Box study, researchers gave preschoolers a rather boring task—sticking pegs into a pegboard. If they completed this repetitive task successfully, however, they would be allowed to play with attractive, interesting toys.
But there was a catch! (As always...) The children were warned that “Mr. Clown Box,” a mechanical clown complete with flashing lights, noises, and tape-recorded talk, would try to interrupt them and distract them. It would be hard to resist this Clown. What would keep the children on task?
It turns out that the very tactics that helped the children resist Mr. Clown Box might also help you resist the attractive temptations that “help” you procrastinate. Here’s what the researchers learned from their Clown Box experiments:
1. Good self-talk helps. Researchers suggested this simple self-instruction: “I’m going to keep working so I can play with the fun toys later.” Self-instructions are a great way to cultivate willpower!
2. Specific plans work better than vague plans or no plans. Children with specific plans completed their tasks faster than children who had no plans or vague plans.
3. Children who are instructed to resist temptation will still fall prey to it but will return to the task more quickly. One group of children was given directions to focus on the pegboard task; another group of children was directed to resist temptation by telling themselves, “I’m not going to look at Mr. Clown Box.” All children, in fact, did look at the irresistible Mr. Clown Box, but those given instructions to resist temptation returned to the task more quickly. The moral of this story? Give in a little; then keep going.
4. Willpower can be fun! When young children can convert a difficult task or a frustrating delay into something fun or least manageable, they are more likely to persist.
To use this information, ask yourself, “Who or what is my Mr. Clown Box? What could disrupt my goals today?” Whether it’s the lure of email or chatting up that hot colleague in the next cubicle, do these four things:
2. Listen to your self-talk; try a better self-instruction if you are sabotaging yourself.
3. Realize that at times you'll give in to temptation and procrastinate. If you can skip the guilt and get back on task ASAP, you’ll finish what you need to do.
4. Transform work (“have to”) into fun (“want to”). (More ideas here.)
How do you transform procrastination into productivity?
Mischel, W., “From Good Intentions to Willpower.” In Gollwitzer, P.M. & Bargh, J.A., eds., The Psychology of Action (1996). NY: The Guilford Press.