12 Jun '19
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The Perpetual Backburner: Is Procrastination Part Of Human Nature?

Question: It seems it is human nature to put off any task that is not urgent, and at any given moment, we might be procrastinating on over a dozen things that we “should” do but are not. Even when we say we are ‘prioritizing’, we are still perpetually delaying some tasks. Given our energy is limited, is it humanly possible to completely beat procrastination? If not, how does one come to terms with it?

I don’t know of a single person who never procrastinates. There are some people who never procrastinate on certain things (e.g. they never miss the gym, they always wake up right away or they’re quick to get to work) but even the most productive people procrastinate on certain things.

The basic logic behind procrastination is that you’ll delay working on something if the aversion to working on it (or the pull to distract yourself) is greater than your motivation to work on that thing. This is why a lot of us get chores done at the last possible moment. It’s only when the consequences of not meeting the deadline are so strong that you’re motivated enough to start doing an unpleasant task.

This basic pattern doesn’t go away, so procrastination will always be with you. However, the flip side of that, is that once you recognize the pattern you can take steps to reduce the impact of procrastination. It won’t mean you’ll never procrastinate, but it will give you a path for handling procrastination when you do.

If taking action happens only when motivation > aversion, then there’s two ways you can combat procrastination:

1. Increase motivation.

Deadlines are one way to do this. Setting difficult goals that will only be met if you stay on schedule is another way you can motivate yourself. Sometimes even just thinking about your goal or the outcome you’re after can push you forward and create motivation. When I’m working on big projects that have a lot of difficult work, I like to try to set challenging goals, and then break them down into smaller and smaller increments until there’s always something I need to do right now to complete on time.

The problem with just increasing motivation is that it’s sometimes fragile. If you turn up the pressure too much, you may crack, as can happen when you miss one deadline so the pressure to meet future deadlines starts decreasing

2. Decreasing aversion

If you can make the task you’re facing more pleasant, you’ll be less likely to procrastinate. The Pomodoro Technique is a classic tool here. While contemplating working on an essay, math problem or difficult project can be enough to make you procrastinate, working for twenty minutes only is a lot more pleasant. There’s lots of ways you can make tasks more pleasant, even if that’s mostly in focusing on a small, less threatening component of the total thing you want to work on.

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