“The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off til our deathbed,” wrote Steve Pressfield in War of Art – his challenge to the forces that resist our ability to create and produce meaningful work. And indeed, there are few more frustrating problems than our tendency to procrastinate.
Procrastination’s common because it’s easy to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves that we’ll never accomplish our goals; we just say that we’ll work on them tomorrow.
It also comes in many forms – with many disguises. Sometimes it’s spending hours answering email while letting that complex initiative go untouched. Or maybe it’s drawing out a project longer than necessary to avoid actually putting it into the world and welcoming judgment.
But the result ends up being the same – busyness without impact. And that disappointed feeling that despite having a day full of activity, we have precious little to show for our results.
Few people enjoy this habit. I know I don’t. And I’ve yet to meet anyone outside of the DMV who was happy wasting their time on the trivial as opposed to making a real impact. As James Surowiecki described it,
“This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.”
And yet, few people ever change this behavior. Because ultimately, our brains are working against us.
Your Present Bias is Pushing You Around
“Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” – Christopher Parker
If I gave you the choice between $100 today and $110 tomorrow, which would you choose? What if the choice was between $100 a month from now or $110 in a month and one day?
Both options present the same situation – wait an extra day and get an extra $10. Yet in the first option, many people choose to take the smaller amount immediately. Whereas in the second choice, they’re happy to wait an extra day for the larger payout.
Same choice, but different results. Because contrary to rationality, we give much stronger weight to immediate consequences than long-term ones.
We can see the same bias against future work efforts. If you ask people whether, in the following year, they’d prefer to work an extra 7 hour day on March 1st or an extra 8 hours on March 30th, most will choose the 7 hours on March 1st.
But if you asked that same question at the end of next February, people are more likely to choose the 8 hours on March 30th. The idea of working 7 hours the next day is enough to put it off for four weeks, even though we know we’ll end up doing more because of the delay.
We’re often able to make the rational choice when thinking about the future, but as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm our long-term best interest.
This present bias – our tendency to overvalue immediate rewards at the expense of long-term goals – resides in all of us. Our brains have a much easier time processing near-term, certain consequences rather than future, abstract ones. Which explains why we sit on the couch eating junk food instead of exercising – maybe it will cause us to get fat in the future, but that immediate consequence is just too good to pass up.
This also explains why it’s so easy to procrastinate. Most of our significant projects are long-term, with uncertain consequences. Clearing out an email inbox on the other hand, offers a straightforward way to cross some items off our to-do list right now.
Our brains are literally programmed to procrastinate. So the answer doesn’t lie in fighting it, but using it to our advantage.
Awaken Your Inner Panic Monster
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein
In one of my favorite TED talks, blogger and self-proclaimed master procrastinator Tim Urban introduces us to the Instant Gratification Monkey – essentially a primate form of the aforementioned present bias. This impetuous creature runs havoc over minds, choosing instant gratification over actually doing our work. Whether we choose random Wikipedia pages or mindless tasks instead of focusing on our real work, the monkey is often to blame.
The monkey’s only fear is the Panic Monster, who comes out in the wake of a looming deadline or impending personal embarrassment. The monster’s able to scare the monkey into submission, letting us finally get to work. Often in a flurry of last minute finishes, feverish all-nighters, and ulcer-inducing stress.
Unfortunately, for many of our most important aspirations, there’s no clear deadline. And with no cue for the panic monster, there’s no forcing function to drive us into taking action. As Urban explained,
“If you want to be a self-starter, something in the arts, something entrepreneurial, there’s no deadlines on those things at first. Because nothing’s happening at first. Not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get some momentum. If the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the panic monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations the panic monster doesn’t show up. So the effects of procrastination they’re not contained, they just extend outward forever.”
An obvious solution then, is to create our own deadlines.
Few things drive behavior like an impending deadline. They’re why you reliably pay your bills, show up for work every day, and deliver your daily tasks. And their absence explains why we struggle to invest for retirement, haven’t started that passion project, and can’t seem to get traction on our long-term plans.
More importantly, deadlines transform long-term efforts into short-term ones. They take our present bias and make it work for us instead of against us.
They awaken our panic monster and force us to get something done.
Make Deadlines Work for You
“A goal is a dream with a deadline.” – Napoleon Hill
Deadlines are easy to hate. They bring up visions of your manager bothering you for some useless report. Or those manic all-nighters to finish a school term paper on time.
But this is only because we’re using them poorly. We’re letting them drive the urgent instead of the important. We’re using them to count beans rather than drive critical work.
There’s no reason that we can’t use them more effectively. Deadlines can be a strategic tool to focus us towards the critical efforts that will actually make a difference. They can be a done-for-you prioritization tool that sharpens your focus and energy towards a critical goal. We just need to make sure they’re working for us:
Make Them Near-term: Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in both (perceived) importance and complexity with the time allotted for completion. The task that’s allowed a month will miraculously finish in those 30 days. Yet make it due a week from now and it will likely get done in that timeframe as well. Control your deadline and you control your scope. Keep it short.
Reserve Them for Top Priorities: Arbitrary deadlines are morale killers. When everything’s an emergency that needs to be done tomorrow, few things actually get done. Deadlines give us a tool to align our resources against our priorities. They allow us to ruthlessly prioritize our time and energy against a singular objective. Just make sure it’s one that’s worth it.
Use Them to Drive Creativity: We tend to shun deadlines on creative work, thinking that you can’t rush art. Yet it’s often in the face of impending constraints that we have our greatest breakthroughs. For success-driven individuals, a deadline becomes an exciting challenge and a chance to further raise the bar. Steve Jobs was notorious for setting “impossible deadlines” to bring out the most creative energy in his employees. As Ed Catmull wrote, “Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances.”
Make Them Realistic: There’s always more to do than time available. And we tend to have optimistic outlooks on just how much we can accomplish in the average day. So it’s not surprising that we occasionally bite off more than we can chew. But consistently falling short of our promises is one of the easiest ways to ruin credibility. Plan accordingly and set realistic deadlines. Because the best way to keep the promises you make is to only make the promises you can keep.
Allow for Uncertainty: Jeff Bezos operates on a 70% rule. If he has 70% of the information necessary to make an informed decision, he executes. Bezos knows that a well-executed plan that might be imperfect often yields better results than waiting and taking no action at all. Deadlines force you to move forward. And if you’re moving forward with some uncertainty, you’ll get better at recognizing and correcting those bad decisions.
Let Them Build Your Confidence: If your work is important, it’s likely going to be difficult. And just as likely, it’s going to take time, often lots of time. As we move forward on major efforts, it helps to have some short-term wins to show us we’re on the right path. Short-term deadlines help demonstrate measurable progress and demonstrate that you’re that much closer to achieving your goal. This brings confidence, which brings the energy needed to advance even further.
This is by no means a complete list. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But we all need something to pull us out of our present bias and focus us on what truly matters. As James Clear put it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Deadlines are a tool. And when used appropriately, they can be the difference between a life of procrastination and one of meaningful focus. We all have this opportunity. As Steven Pressfield wrote,
“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.”