On the web I discovered a site for the Procrastination Research Group. One researcher has identified five “cognitive distortions,” which are
- overestimation of time left to perform tasks,
- underestimation of time required to complete tasks,
- overestimation of future motivational states,
- misreliance on the necessity of emotional congruence to succeed at task, and
- belief that working when not in the mood to work is suboptimal.
The first two are pretty commonly known. The remaining three were a bit surprising to me, especially the last one. Although I intuitively knew them, I’ve never seen them spelled out so clearly.
Number three refers to putting things off with the belief that you’ll be in the mood to do them later. This presupposes that the obstacles currently in your way—being tired, distracted, depressed, overwhelmed—will be gone in time for you to complete the work.
Number four elaborates on that concept by asserting that you don’t really have to be perky, focused, happy and carefree to get work done, and the last point says that the work you do can be good work even when you’re not up for it.
It’s common to have a romantic hope that the muse of report writing, sales calling, house cleaning, sculpting or tax preparing will descend on you and will cause you to happily devote your energies to the appointed task and emerge with a masterpiece.
But let’s be realistic. For one thing, most great artists and other accomplished folk didn’t sit around waiting for inspiration, they just got down to business. Hard-working Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Here are some strategies from the same website for handling procrastination:
- Make a list of everything you have to do.
- Write an intention statement.
- Set realistic goals.
- Break it down.
- Make your task meaningful.
- Promise yourself a reward.
- Eliminate tasks you never plan to do.
- Estimate the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task, then increase that amount by 100%.
Again, most of this is pretty self evident.
The fifth point is one that sometimes escapes our attention and it can help you decrease reliance on being in the mood to get things done. It means remembering why you’re doing something. What is meaningful to one person may not be to another, so you have to find a meaning that will motivate you.
What’s the reason to write a report? Because it’s due? Because you owe it to the other people working on the project with you? Because you may get a promotion out of it? Because it will advance your standing as an expert in your field?
Any of these can be good reasons, but they need to have meaning for you. If they do, they can help you stay on task and discount your excuses.
For a more arcane discussion of the relation of feelings to action, I visited the ToDo Institute web site for the following insights.
Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will. You can’t simply make yourself feel what you want to feel. You can’t make yourself fall in love with someone or feel grateful to someone who has just hurt you. You can’t willfully and reliably change your feelings when you’re feeling depressed or lonely.
Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behavior. Though we can’t control our feelings directly by our will, we can often influence them by what we do. Taking action often causes us to feel differently. A lonely person who asks someone out on a date or organizes a dinner party is likely to affect his or her feelings of loneliness. Feelings of depression or lethargy are often influenced by vigorous exercise.
To the last statement I would add that completing a report can change feelings of overwhelm and inadequacy to feelings of accomplishment and validation. The next time you’re faced with a task you want to put off, try substituting your emotional reaction with a meaningful reason to complete it. Or be honest and follow strategy seven: eliminate tasks you never plan to do.