When deadlines are not absolute or clearly defined, procrastinators do successfully meet them. In my previous post, The Secret Life of Procrastinators and the Stigma of Delay, I promised to discuss some of the strategies that are used by successful people who procrastinate. All of the strategies discussed below involve the activation of emotion that motivates getting things done.
Narrowing available time
Scheduling a task around other work or activities gives procrastinators less available time to get something done, thus creating a time crunch that activates energizing emotions. Some deadline-driven procrastinators challenge themselves to get something done just prior to leaving the house for a meeting or appointment. The upcoming deadline to be somewhere else is used as an immediate deadline for completing a particular task. The emotional activation under such circumstances may result in a last-minute flurry of activity.
Many self-identified procrastinators find themselves engaged in a “cleaning frenzy” using the energy they feel as a deadline nears for another task to complete. Unfortunately, they also tend to reprimand themselves for being “distracted” away from the task at hand. Nonetheless, when a deadline is imminent, procrastinators can complete expeditiously what a task-driven person accomplishes over an extended period of time, including cleaning and organizing their living space.
Deadlines are also constructed by interjecting other tasks that require attention, thereby limiting available future time. If a report must be completed within a 3-week period, for example, they may plan business travel for two of those weeks. The deadline for the report would be set within the remaining week. Purposefully narrowing the time available to complete certain tasks, and racing the clock in the process, many procrastinators make a list of what they will get done by the end of the day. Similarly, some procrastinators give themselves a specified amount of time to work on something. They may, for example, set a timer to a certain interval, such as 30 minutes, and then challenge themselves to complete various tasks within that given period of time.
Professionally successful people are emotionally attached to their goals. Keeping promises to themselves regarding their achievement aims is an important aspect of optimizing their motivational style. To-do lists are popular for a variety of reasons, and successful people also use them as a commitment tool. A daily to-do list also allows time to do other things until the end-of-the-day deadline approaches. Some procrastinators create a list of tasks every evening, along with a commitment to themselves that they will complete them the following day. The excitement of challenging themselves energizes them and motivates their efforts.
Financial considerations are also effective for establishing an absolute deadline. This is especially so for those whose income is based on commission or project completion. Regularly assessing whether or not one is meeting financial goals, and establishing future goals along the way, can trigger emotions that are action-focused.
As a commitment incentive, procrastinators often note their target dates for projects to another person whose perception of them is important. In some circumstances, procrastinators simply ask a partner or manager for an absolute deadline when it is indeterminate. Requesting a deadline in circumstances that do not have definite cutoff points creates a motivating interpersonal concern—shame avoidance—such as the possibility of incurring the disappointment or disapproval of a colleague or partner. A high-achieving student who self-identifies as a procrastinator illustrated her proficiency at establishing absolute deadlines in this way. Motivated to get through her doctoral program with minimal cost (determined by time), she created an absolute deadline for each step and sub-step involved in writing her dissertation: She scheduled consultation meetings with a mentor where specific steps that she had completed would be discussed, and at various points she would notify her dissertation chair that she would be sending content on a specific date.
Using Working Memory
The procrastinator’s ability to relax or get involved in distracting activities prior to a deadline is an important and indeed fascinating aspect of their deadline-driven style. Procrastinators organize data, particularly for written work, as they engage in what others might mistakenly refer to as “unproductive” activities. In the back of their minds, they are considering the uncompleted task while they surf the Web, play a round of golf, clean a closet, or engage in any number of unrelated undertakings. The burst of energy required to finish something appears as the deadline approaches.
The secret to pulling off excellent work at a deadline has to do with procrastinators’ capacity to hold subject matter in mind and deliberate. They trust that they can delay and remember well, in contrast to their task-driven counterparts who do not want to be burdened with having to remember or are afraid they’ll forget if they don’t do it now. People vary in their capacity to hold something in mind, although many other factors may influence a person’s comfort level about needing to remember something. Cognitive scientists refer to working memory as the system by which the brain temporarily holds and processes information. When they are not tangibly working on a task prior to the deadline, deadline driven procrastinators are often thinking about it and passively planning their approach. A news columnist explained, for example, that he absolutely cannot complete a story until the exact words of the ending appear in his mind, which is always at the deadline. He mentally constructs the story as time passes, recognizing that others may perceive him as doing nothing. Similarly, an entrepreneur explained his style of getting things done, claiming, “I look like I’m lazy and unmotivated, but I’m always thinking about it in the back of my mind.”
Diverting attention away from a task while holding information in working memory has been explored in terms of the process of incubation in problem solving. Deadline-driven people describe such a process as the period in which others may perceive them as being distracted and doing nothing. However, diverting attention away from the task at hand, according to the theory of incubation, allows them to passively work on it until they are motivated by emotions activated by a deadline to actively engage in the project. An internal solving process that is gradual, continuous, and unconscious occurs during this incubation period, and during this time what’s going on around them influences the solution process. Problem solving requires both analytic and nonanalytic processes: Sometimes focus is needed, and sometimes less focus is best—particularly on creative problem-solving tasks.
Making Use of Extraneous Circumstances
Notwithstanding their preference to wait until the deadline is near, under certain circumstances procrastinators are motivated to complete tasks early. For instance, they might choose to complete a task right away if interpersonal conflict will result from delay. In this case, the motive has to do with conflict avoidance rather than a true versatility with both styles. A deadline-driven executive explained that certain tasks led him to think about the possibility of undesirable consequences and feelings if he didn’t get them done immediately. Thus, wanting to avoid a negative outcome created some urgency. As he put it, “I initially prioritize tasks as they arise. High priority tasks are those set by my partner, safety or health issues, and money—the longer I wait the more it costs. These tasks get done quickly, given how I will feel if I don’t do them.”
Excerpted in part from my book, What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.
1. Segal, E. (2004). Incubation in insight problem solving. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 141–148.
2. Segal, E. (2004). Incubation in insight problem solving. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 141–148.
3. Wiley, J. and Jarosz, A. F. (2012). Working memory capacity, attentional focus, and problem solving,” Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 21, 258.