Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blog review: Don't Delay

I read all of the posts on Don’t Delay; they were very good. I’d like to distill here some of the highlights that made an impression on me. First let’s review the costs of procrastination:
“It has been associated with depression, guilt, low exam grades, anxiety, neuroticism, irrational thinking, cheating and low self-esteem. …It can be an extremely disabling psychological condition.”
And some of the speculated reasons for procrastination:
  • Lack of conscientiousness, defined as self-discipline, orderliness and organization, is a key personality trait that is highly correlated with procrastination.
  • Lack of self-discipline is the strongest facet-level predictor of procrastination.
Who is not likely to procrastinate?
Individuals who tend to use an early action pacing style in task execution [as opposed to a deadline action pacing style] are most likely to meet deadlines. At least in western cultures, there is a common planning bias that leads to overly optimistic predictions. Generally, people underestimate how much time tasks will take and overestimate how much they will get done.
A few parts confirmed my suspicions:
  • External control has negative consequences in the long run, possibly including alienation from personal preferences.
  • Different types of procrastinators respond differently to certain levels of evaluation threat.
  • Those who consider themselves procrastinators may actually be quite efficient at getting [tasks] done once they start.
Emphasis was placed on procrastination as an existential issue, and Pychyl explains the reasons behind this very well. I had never thought of it this way before, but it makes a lot of sense. In support of this he has referred to three well known books:
  • Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be
  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1945)
  • Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
From the existential point of view “procrastination is about choice”, and consequently we need to “bring conscious attention to our choice to needlessly delay a task and examine this honestly in relation to our values, needs, and goals. Empirical research has repeatedly shown that striving toward self-concordant goals strengthens the link between goal progress and well-being... Our actions, goals, and personal projects need to align with our sense of identity and purpose in life or we're more likely to disengage... We need to link the personal meaning of our goals to the tasks at hand.” Paul Tillich argues that courage is needed to live an authentic life, as opposed to living in “bad faith” (an existentialist phrase, which also describes something procrastinators do all the time). Engaging in life courageously requires we do three things:
  • Affect change in our lives by taking control and not waiting on fate.
  • Be committed to whom we are as individuals and the uniqueness this represents.
  • Accept the changes and stresses of life as a challenge to address as opposed to a threat to avoid.
These steps are echoed in several other formulations. Pychyl himself has said:
  • Just get started (behavior or action).
  • Don’t give in to feel good (emotions).
  • Be honest with yourself (cognitions).
Similar general advice to defeat procrastination:
  • Set short-term goals.
  • Learn and use strategies to make the task at hand more interesting.
  • Look past the initial negative feelings you might have about a task.
Frankl used two simple ideas to combat any tendancy he had to procrastinate:
  • "Do everything as soon as possible"
  • "Do the unpleasant tasks first."
Addressing the existential nature of procrastination is important, though it is equally important to remember that “emotion regulation can often undermine self-control efforts.”
"Don't give in to feel good! It's easy to focus on our feelings and work to feel better now at the expense of the long-term goal. Don't. Expect to feel lousy when you begin.. If you can move past this initial discomfort and get started, your attitude will follow your behavior."

"Acting on our intentions, even on our self-concordant goals can be problematic at times because we can fall prey to some all too human shortcomings such as the way we think (e.g., temporal discounting, intransitive preference structures or irrational beliefs like worry), or our tendency to want to do "mood repair" first to feel good... Work with what you have. Move in the direction of the desired behavior. Don't give up. Keep a positive attitude [but it isn't a necessity]."
In the end:
"Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life. Interestingly, positive emotions have the potential to motivate goal-directed behaviors and volitional processes (e.g., self-regulation to stay on task) that are necessary for further goal progress or attainment. Very clearly you can see how if you "prime the pump" by making some progress on your goals, the resulting increase in your subjective well-being enhances further action and progress… we experience the strongest positive emotional response when we make progress on our most difficult goals."

"We often need to transcend the current situation to see our current task within the context of our overarching goals and values. Doing this allows us to find the meaning in what may seem a meaningless task. Linking the task to our values and finding meaning in the task also reduces its aversiveness... Hope springs eternal for those who transcend the immediate situation, particularly their feelings, and find meaning in their goals... Helping people become more hopeful might reduce their procrastination. Be kind with yourself, yet also be relentlessly mindful, firmly bringing your attention back to your goal and your focus to the schedulable act at hand."
A quote favored by Pychyl that seems particularly suited to the subject:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." Robert Frost (1874-1963)

My reflections:

The identification of procrastination with existentialism is very important. And so, to me, the most important entry Pychyl wrote was when he identified procrastination as a existential problem, describing existentialism in this way:
"I'll stick with Sartre and his terse, I think rather clear, way of defining the existential problem, "man's existence precedes his essence." We're in the world and exist before we know our purpose, before we understand that essence that provides meaning, that defines us. Our essence is what we make of ourselves. It's our choice, and this is the crux of it. Existentialism is a philosophy of choice."
For many years I have often thought to myself "I don't know why I am doing anything." At these times when I need a motivating reason, I find one that will suit the purpose though it is dropped quickly. Perhaps this was because it was too superficial. My latest effort took a different approach. Usually I have looked for recurring themes in what I have taken an interest to over the years in my life, as well as what is important in my relationships with other people. This time I created an all encompassing task list of several hundred items and from this identified four things to focus on. The task list is periodically updated as new things are added when they arise and other things are removed as they are completed. The abridged list of four items remains relatively constant and serves as a reminder of the purpose and meaning I have chosen for my life. This has lent greater stability to my life and brought much more focus to my efforts, though I have yet to fully realize its benefits.

Procrastination is very much an existential issue for me. People used to ask me why I procrastinate. At first I said I don't know why. Later I said I don't know why I should do anything. Now I can say it is an existential problem. But hopefully I won't be asked that question as often. Incidentally, the four items are: provide quality youth education, family activities, learn Japanese, and make a few useful things out of wood. They define my life and aspirations fairly well.

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