The universal starting point is to accept that what is going on is not inherently bad, it is just what is actually happening. If we want something different to happen, we need to understand the structure of procrastination and seek to change it.
Procrastination occurs when the (often unconscious) motivation to procrastinate, in the moment of action, is greater than the motivation to get the desired job done. This can be due to a greater reward (comfort or immediate gratification, for example) or because of a deep-seated avoidance of something else, for example, risk or pain aversion.
The procrastination action is still an action and might even have some merit – washing the dishes, cleaning the desk etc. The most dangerous procrastinators are those, like continually checking emails and browsing websites that feel,in the moment, like they are valuable work. Even non goal-oriented actions have advantages: we have a sense that we need to be entertained sometimes (watching TV) or be playful (computer games).
Isn’t it just OK? If your unconscious mind is telling us what action to take, what’s wrong with that? To a degree that is a valid point, particularly for a highly driven person who hasn’t taken enough time to smell the roses. It then becomes a debate about how many roses we actually want to smell.
Here are some things we can do to tackle the issue. We can’t guarantee any quick fixes, because the structure of procrastination is sometimes so subtle that it is difficult to pin down, and the underlying issues are often deep-seated and hard to detect. But let’s start by understanding the mechanics of procrastination.
The mechanics: TOTE
Procrastination occurs when we are in the moment – completely inside our current experiences. When the rewards from the procrastinating activity overcome the rewards (or discomfort) of the more constructive activity, they can keep us in procrastination mode for extended periods of time. There is no exit point, no trigger, to tell us to cease. We become lost within ourselves, looping round and round the procrastination cycle.
A simple structure for describing what is happening inside our brains is the TOTE model. TOTE stands for Test/Operate/Test/Exit, and operates like this:
Note: the diagram contains the Test question “Shall I procrastinate?”. The question we actually ask ourselves is actually phrased more like “Shall I do the seductively tempting and easy thing rather than the worthwhile but hard thing?”. The result is the same – when the answer is yes, we procrastinate.
If we keep answering yes to the procrastination Test, we will stay in this loop for some considerable time. If the balancing act between yes and no responses remains the same over time, there is effectively no way to exit.
The TOTE model points to three ways in which we can change the pattern of procrastination:
- increase the frequency of triggering a Test;
- change the nature of the criteria used inside the Test;
- change the balance of motivations so that an exit becomes more likely.
1. Increase the frequency of triggering a Test
Playing Solitaire on the computer doesn’t really have a defined end point – the games keep coming and coming and there isn’t a conscious Test point that would enable an exit. A simple technique is to set a time limit with an alarm clock: the ringing alarm forces a Test, and changes the nature of the Test question because the alarm is an explicit reminder that we know this is procrastination. An alternative is to choose a procrastinator with a defined end point: making a cup of tea might be one. But once the tea is made, it’s important to make a conscious Test rather than slip into an endless chain of different procrastinators!
The NLP technique known as chaining anchors can also be helpful in establishing a change of behaviour as a result of the deliberate use of a trigger, or cue of some kind, that already exists. This is a technique for subconsciously connecting one trigger (usually something external that happens to us) to another that fires off a different, more desirable, alternative behaviour.
For example, if we recognise that our usual default procrastination option is to go to a particular computer game then, by chaining anchors, we could use the visual positioning of the mouse on to the game icon as the trigger for a different (desired) response.
2. Change the nature of the criteria used inside the Test
We can become more conscious of the Test phase of the TOTE when an alarm goes off, or a procrastinator reaches its’ end. We can also become more conscious when someone else makes a comment about what we are doing, or we simply become more aware that we are procrastinating.
The trick here is to immediately dissociate and make a more objective decision about how we will apply the Test. By dissociate we mean the opposite of associate – in other words, move into our thoughtful, objective, unemotional judging mode, almost floating above ourselves. From this helicopter position we can spot the drivers of our decisions and seek to modify them. A few examples of this might be:
- deliberately balance the positive emotional payoffs from procrastination activities with negative emotions – embarrassment, shame etc.
- revisit the goals that we would hope to achieve by not procrastinating. They can be far-off and big-chunk: we need to bring them into the here and now and inject them with sufficient emotional juice to provide greater motivation in the TOTE Test.
- what would the people nearest and dearest to us think about the decisions we are making inside the TOTE? Once again, injecting these thoughts with emotional impact is likely to have the biggest effect.
- consider what decision the ‘future you’ would make. This is the person we want to be in future, the person who is much closer to experiencing the positive effect of our bigger, longer terms goals.
Once we have juggled with the criteria for our decision-making in this way, we can step back into the associated state and, if we have done the juggling properly, the TOTE will automatically operate in a way that suits us better. Shifting back from dissociated to associated is necessary to enable us to engage fully with the new motivations we have been working on.
A dissociated state enables us to stand apart from some of the emotional content, but it is still subordinate to our overall sense of self – so we can’t hope to discover 100% of what is going on. Once again, an external facilitator can help by providing feedback and challenge on what we think is going on inside our head.
3. Change the balance of motivations
How our motivations work, and how we can manage them, is the biggest subject in dealing with procrastination.
The first thing to do is revisit the outcome thinking process to make sure that our desired goals are as well-formed as possible. The focus needs to be on re-checking the commitment score: a score of about 7 is often reported, but a score of 7 will often fail inside a procrastination TOTE: scores of 9 or 10 are really needed to get the job done.
Even with high commitment scores, it’s possible that our goals conflict with each other. This can cause a great deal of stress, particularly if a hidden goal with a high score conflicts with one of our consciously chosen objectives. A common occurrence is that we have major work-related objectives which conflict with deeper (sometimes hidden) goals relating to family and our need for fulfilling leisure activities. We cover the subject of Work/Life balance, and one of its’ solution steps, integration of parts in other chapters.
Towards and away-from
It’s helpful to be aware of towards and away-from goals when thinking about procrastination. The motivation to avoid or stop procrastination is clearly away-from. But the process of procrastination itself contains towards goals: the desired goal we are missing by procrastinating will usually be towards, and the seductive procrastinating activities will often havetowards drives (although, some, like requiring a clear desk, might be away-from). A strongly away-from person will have difficulty generating a high level of motivation for desired goals, so may rarely experience the discomfort of procrastination at all (although others may help here!).
Pain and pleasure inside the action steps
Pain and pleasure don’t just exist within the goals we select, they are part and parcel of every action we take. Although our desired goals may be attractive in the context of the whole of our lives, they can be daunting or uncomfortable in the immediate moment. I may be captivated by the idea of becoming a lord of the universe, but is the next step sufficiently obvious and exciting to motivate me to take action, right now? Does the action generate pain or pleasure?
One of my goals is to have written this web book – but to achieve this I need to take the action (as I am doing right now) to write. For me to write in the moment, the immediate rewards of writing need to be sufficient to overcome the attractions of everything else I could be doing. And the discomforts of writing need to be minimised too. Fortunately I already enjoy the creative experience of writing – but I have had to take a number of steps to reduce some discomfort that it generated.
I have had a book published before. So I knew I could write a book, and was pleased with the output. I thought this one would be fairly straightforward: I know the subject matter well and am working with a skilled co-author. But I had difficulty in getting going. During a session with my coach, the direct transferability of skills from the last book to this one was challenged. On further exploration I realised that my previous book had a natural structure from day one, whereas this one doesn’t: it is inherently open-ended. I find it much easier to write (a small chunk activity) when I know the overall structure (a break-down of the big chunks). I spent some time on creating an initial structure, and this made it easier for me to write.
Breaking our desired goals down into small enough chunks to enable us to take action is an important part of the process for effective outcome thinking. A trick of the trade is to generate a first action step, no matter how trivial, that we absolutely know that we can achieve easily. The action can be as small as writing a note in an action list, getting the phone number or email address for someone we need to contact, or even working out what the first action should be! Once we take this first easy micro-step, the momentum generated usually leads us into taking a lot more without even realising it. What has happened is that the vague discomfort of not knowing what to do (and whether it will be pleasant or painful) has been sidestepped, and replaced by the satisfaction of completing something. The switch is usually sufficient to generate positive momentum.
Away-from goals are primarily about avoiding or removing pain and towards goals are about achieving pleasurable results. But as we have already seen, real-life goals contain a mixture of pain and pleasure. If we want to make a lot of money we might have to work long hours and introduce pain into our relationships. We want to evacuate the burning building, but we also want to be as comfortable as possible having done so. When thinking about motivation in general – and procrastination in particular – there is a lot of scope to modify some of the positive and negative elements in order to get a better result.
I mentioned earlier that I enjoy writing, but experienced some difficulty when starting this book. The root of the problem was a shift from an obvious structure to a less obvious one. A benefit of the previous structure was that the software I used was simple and easy to use. But it would not work for this book. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a combination of software that coped with a looser structure without adding lots of pain in terms of management overhead. Once I had done this, my motivation for working on this book increased significantly.
The previous example also contains a less obvious motivator.
I am a bit of a computer geek. I can’t write much longhand text and I find it impossible to dictate, so writing is all about using technology. Watching words emerge on a screen and subsequently editing them helps me to think, and is deeply satisfying. Working with elegant software and high quality hardware, wherever and whenever I like, is important to me. So my search for the right software wasn’t just about structure, it was also about my experience of writing.
In the business world we tend to discuss aspirational values and avoid the ones that are slightly embarrassing (like my geekiness) or are considered unacceptable: greed, the desire to be noticed, the need for power and so on. Although these motivators are driven by values that are often hidden, they have just as much influence on the balance of motivators inside our TOTES as the ones that are acceptable to speak about.
If we are serious about tackling procrastination and don’t seem to be making much progress, we need to consider the possibility that hidden motivators may be at work. They may be hidden because we don’t like admitting to them, or they may be operating at a deeper level – below our consciousness.
I used to run a regular procrastination pattern: any detailed preparation for a workshop or training programme would be left until the last possible moment. On the surface, there was a feeling of stress linked to the behaviour but it continued nonetheless. The consequences were greater than purely personal because the delay would inevitably put additional pressure on support staff to print hand-outs or prepare manuals at the very last minute. A deeper analysis of the issue, facilitated by a colleague, finally revealed that the hidden reward related to identity – a recognition that “I am the kind of person who can deliver something of high quality even against the tightest of deadlines”. The final resolution of the problem was to create new personal deadlines well ahead of the actual requirement and to incorporate a new, conscious belief that the whole system would be enhanced by the new approach.
As this example illustrates, it can be difficult to work out what is happening with our motivations when we are sitting in the middle of them. That is where a skilled third party can really make a difference, by identifying and challenging patterns and motivations that we can’t notice because they are such an integrated part of us.
Payoffs from procrastination
If we are continuing to procrastinate, that means that we are getting a bigger payoff from it than by not procrastinating.
This is a subtle but important point. If we are continually going round and round the procrastination TOTE without exit, the evidence is that the yes answer has greater power than the no answer to motivate us in the moment.
In the process of thinking about, and managing, motivations in the steps below, we need to thinking about changing this balance. This can be done in a number of different ways:
- Increase the motivation of the desired goal
- Reduce the pain of the desired goals – usually contained in the activities necessary to achieve the desired goal
- Add some likelihood of additional pain if the procrastination continues
- Transfer some of the pleasure from the procrastinating activity into the activities that support the desired goal
Although the first three are pretty straightforward, the third should not be ignored. When we procrastinate, we are taking action. We are strongly motivated to do something, even if the something does not lead towards our desired goal. Rather than fighting our inbuilt mechanism, we can use this information positively. Identifying the root cause of the motivation that makes our procrastinators attractive, and replicating this powerful motivation in the actions that move us towards our goals, is one of the most effective ways of dealing with procrastination.