By February 26, 2012 Read More →

Why Do We Procrastinate?

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“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” – Jerome K. Jerome

Why do we procrastinate and what can we do about it?   Procrastination is a subtle and insidious thing.  It can hold you back from who you were born to be.

Procrastination can lead to painful outcomes like not preparing adequately for exams and interviews, not paying bills on time, and not finishing project tasks on time.

The good news is, the more you understand about procrastination, the better armed you are to defeat it.  Knowledge and know-how are a powerful thing.   The answer to procrastination is surprisingly simple:  Work on things for “Just a few minutes.”

In the book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman writes about the why we procrastinate and what we can do about it.

7 Reasons Why We Procrastinate

According to Wiseman, here are a few of the key reasons why we procrastinate:

  1. A Tendency to see projects as a whole, rather than breaking them down into smaller parts.
  2. Being prone to boredom.
  3. Fear of failure.
  4. Inability to estimate how long it takes to do things
  5. Low levels of self-control.
  6. Perfectionism.
  7. The feeling that life is too short to worry about seemingly unimportant tasks

Work on Things for “Just a Few Minutes”

Is there a solution to the problem of procrastination?  The closest thing we may have to a silver bullet is to leverage the Zeigarnik Effect.    The Ziegarnik Effect says our brains hold on to unfinished tasks.  In other words, we like to finish what we start.  Here is what Wiseman has to say, about the research:

“Procrastinators frequently put off starting certain activities because they are overwhelmed by the size of the job in front of them.  However, if they can be persuaded, or can persuade themselves, to work on the activity for ‘just a few minutes,’ they often feel an urge to see it through to completion.  Research shows that the ‘just a few minutes’ rule is a highly effective way of beating procrastination and could help people finish the most arduous of tasks.  It is also a perfect application of Zeigarnik’s work – those few minutes of initial activity create an anxious brain that refuses to rest until the job is finished.”

What can you work on for “just a few minutes” that might change your life?

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13 Comments on "Why Do We Procrastinate?"

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  1. Alik Levin says:

    Fantastic!
    Reading that it looks to me Agile practices could be so universal in so many ways wahahay beyond software. Create your backlog, set prioritization rules, define time boundaries and sprints, define sprint’s workitems from the backlog – execute. Boom boom boom! Results, finished high pri outcomes, and no time spent on low pri stuff.
    Yeah!

  2. Dawn says:

    I think a timer is key. Give yourself completely, and permission to stop when the timer goes off. I do this often with big jobs, like cleaning the house.
    Set
    Go
    Move on…

  3. rob white says:

    This is a big one JD. Thanks for introducing me to the The Ziegarnik Effect, “Just a Few Minutes” is a powerful tip. Indeed, visualizing an outcome that we desire to achieve, while feeling optimistic and confident, will surely attract ways and means of realizing your dreams – but we still must act. When we visualize positive outcomes while listening to discouraging excuses, we summon forth discouraging thought-voices that make us hesitate and procrastinate. “Just a few minutes” is a great way to break the grip of those voices and take atomic action.

  4. JD says:

    @ Alik — Agile is a nice frame for dealing with change while reducing risk and flowing value. I think the key is that it helps you hit windows of opportunity.

    @ Dawn — I’m a fan of focusing for short-bursts and a timer is a powerful tool. It helps us run a bunch of sprints vs. one big marathon.

    @ Rob — The Zeigarnik Effect really helped me put a bunch of pieces of the puzzle together: Why are small, achievable things so important?, Why do undone things feel like baggage?, Why is it important to really let things go?, Why does action often precede motivation?

    Motivation is rarely an issue for me, but now when I bump into a “chore”, that little phrase, “Just a few minutes”, works like a champ.

  5. The Vizier says:

    Hi JD,

    Indeed procrastination is a subtle and insidious thing. It is so easy to justify our actions when it comes to procrastinating. But as a result, we never really take action and nothing gets done. I enjoyed reading the 7 reasons Wiseman gives for procrastination.

    I agree. For me the main reason for my procrastination is that I see projects as a whole. As such, it becomes too big and overwhelming to begin. I rather put it off and do something else. But when I break down the project and begin on one small task, I usually feel compelled to carry on to finish as much as I can once I build momentum.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

  6. This is a fantastic tip! I have to admit that there are certain realms in life in which procrastination visits me. Now, I am armed and ready to overcome. Thanks!

  7. JD says:

    @ Irving — A little kindling goes a long way, and I like how momentum is can be like a snowball rolling downhill.

    Now that I know the name of it, I think every day so far, I find a chance to leverage the Zeigarnik Effect. Before I knew it’s name, I leveraged it in the form of timeboxing.

    @ Sandra — It feels great to have science on our side. I was actually able to get some colleagues to help out on a few things by asking them to pitch in for “just a few minutes.”

    It’s easy to turn the few minutes into a challenge, or a game, instead of a chore.

  8. Maria says:

    I think one of the reasons we procrastinate is because we have unrealistic ideas about work. We are not supposed to be busy all the time. When we feel guilty because we are not, then we start a negative spiral that brings us down. We need to create time for reflection, in order to be at our best. I think that procrastination may be a hidden need for balance.

  9. JD says:

    @ Maria — I like how Deepak Chopra put it some time back, that we should [lay like a child, and rest like a child.

  10. Hi J.D.

    Good list of reasons why folks procrastinate. I’d also add the fear of the new outcome meaning a change in their lives. For example, if they finish the book and it gets published what does it mean?

    Sometimes procrastinating maintains the status quo and that feels safe.

    Thanks!

    j.

  11. JD says:

    @ Giulietta — That’s a very good point. Sometimes we don’t really want the change that we’re creating. The grass isn’t always greener, and we do have to be careful of what we wish for, just in case, we do in fact get it.

  12. Yep, I have successfully wooed myself into tackling a big ugly project with the magical “just a few minutes” approach. Interesting to hear there’s a fancy name for the technique. Thanks, JD!

  13. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. I get times when something sits and festers – and it’s interesting that the mind doesn’t like unfinished things. Today is a day for knocking off lots of jobs – so better get on and quieten that brain – then so much else gets done too – the momentum is there.

    Then I can rest like a child .. and have some time to just mull and think .. cogitating space is good …

    I’m not sure I’ll remember the name – but I’ll remember to get on with things! Cheers Hilary