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Understanding Procrastination

This lesson is a part of an audio course Productivity Systems for Developers by James Bowen

In our previous lesson, we learned all about gatekeeping – making sure that what we commit to is giving us the most value. After all – everything that can be excluded without reducing value is implicitly adding value – it’s freeing you up for higher impact work.

In this lesson, we'll explain why we struggle to focus on the work we do commit to. There are many reasons we might get interrupted, but we are often our own worst enemy. Let’s try and understand the enemy that is procrastination.

Procrastination vs Deferral

Now funny enough, productivity systems can seem a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, we’re encouraging deferral of tasks. But we also know that if we do that for everything, then we don’t get anything meaningful done. So I’m going to distinguish procrastination from deferral in the context of this course.

  • Procrastination, in this context – is putting off stuff you really should be doing.
  • Deferral, on the other hand, is delaying something on the grounds that it doesn’t need to be done right now. Implicit in this is that there is something more important that you should be doing right now.

Why We Procrastinate

Simply put, procrastination is a habit like any other. And habits can be good or bad. The excellent “Learning How To Learn” course by Barbara Oakley and Ted Sejnowski over at Coursera sums this up rather well.

When something seems difficult, neurologically speaking, we have an unpleasant reaction to it. As humans we naturally want to avoid discomfort, and come up with ways of protecting ourselves. Facebook, Instagram, reading the news, making coffee – all of these are a bit easier than knuckling down and tackling something overwhelming. Let’s look at this habit in a bit more detail.

The Anatomy of Our Procrastination Habit

A habit consists of:

  • A trigger, called the cue. In our case a feeling of ‘ooh this is gonna be hard’.
  • The behaviour – what we do when the cue happens. Going to Facebook for example.
  • The reward, what do we get out of the behaviour. The unpleasant feeling is replaced by a somewhat nicer distraction.

Except of course the reward is short lived. We still have the original problem to deal with. So what we need to do is change the behaviour and the reward system.

Given the same cue, then we want to recondition ourselves as follow:

  • Cue – “Ooh this is going to be hard”.
  • Behaviour – “Well if I can just stick at this for a bit, I might get on a roll”.
  • Reward – “Cool. I got through it when I thought I couldn’t. Just like last time”.

In order to change our behaviors in this way, we need tactics. Habits, good or bad, are unconscious once they’re ingrained. We need a tactic that’s equally easy to ‘fall into’. Something with a proven track record, that gives little gains that compound for big wins...

The Pomodoro Technique is precisely this tactic. Many of you will already have come across it but you may not have used it beyond the basics. The 80/20 principle again, if you will.

In our next lesson, I’ll explain how it can overcome procrastination, with a more in-depth look at it.

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Written by

James Bowen