This article was published on: 22/1/2011

Pieter Bruegel (The Elder) - The Seven Deadly Sins

I hate procrastination. It is the product of the weakest parts of our minds, yet a very strong force. It does its nasty deed in the short and long term and often we do it without even realising. It comes in many different forms, unique to each of us. You might even be doing it now!

What is procrastination? I think of it as anything which prevents us from doing the work that needs to be done. Nothing of value comes for free; we need to put effort in to get the returns. The problem is that the work is often hard and taxing. The part of our mind which concocts acts of procrastination feeds off this prospect.

I clean and tidy when avoiding work. I tell myself “clean and tidy means an unmuddled mind”. To be fair, it’s probably a little bit true, but in my heart of hearts it’s about me shirking from the real work. Let’s face it the world is never going to write “Had a tidy house” on your gravestone. It takes great physical and mental effort to achieve clarity of thought.  But here is the rub, somewhat perversely, it takes very little effort for your mind to concoct clever sabotage when facing exertion.

How to deal with this menace then?  Well self-awareness is a big factor here; you need to recognise the resistance and your acts of procrastination. How many times have you put off going to the gym but once there loved the exercise? Or once you sit down and focus on something literally felt the surge of mental energy run through your body? All it takes is for you to recognise the insidious Gollum like creature sitting inside your head. He craves the act of doing ‘precious’ sweet nothing. But he must be respected for he is cunning and tricksy, wielding procrastination as his greatest spell of all. He’ll try everything to subvert you from doing the work, but banish him you must. All it takes is seeing him for what he really is.

Here are some of my practical tips as a veteran of many battles with the ‘p’ word:

  • Remove yourself from as many distractions as possible (even if it means closing the door to the cat). Distractions are like Piranhas, they’ll keep eating away at you, specifically your will to work.
  • Nike were right; ‘Just do it’. Plonk yourself down and start working. I stared at this notepad for half an hour and faced off my usual nemesis when it comes to writing these articles, that being the rationale “I can’t write the article, I haven’t had the inspiration yet”. Its poppycock, I know it as the voice of my own personal Gollum. So what do I do, I just start writing. That’ll teach the little f*cker.
  • Recognising procrastination is the hardest part. The only way to succeed is to be honest with yourself. Seeing the enemy will help you fight it. It’s one of those weird things where you can catch yourself doing it, sometimes so ingenious that it’ll make me laugh.

We are all guilty of procrastination so no need to feel too bad about it. But I do liken it to the 8th DEADLY SIN, just so you know. Treat it like a game, a battle to outwit yourself, to overcome the cunning schemes of your own Gollum. Good luck fighting the little blighter!

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  1. David Barton Said,

    Like. But by writing this are you just procrastinating because you should be doing more important things? You could go on forever and never do anything apart from prioritise what needs to be done.

  2. pcollier Said,

    Hahah! Only if the blog wasn’t important to me, which it is. Pete 1 vs Procrastination 0! Glad you enjoyed the post 😉

  3. David Barton Said,

    I’ve obviously failed. By posting twice I must gave something more important to be doing 😉

  4. jon Said,

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/10/11/101011crbo_books_surowiecki

    Please read this book review.

    OK, just read this part::

    “If identity is a collection of competing selves, what does each of them represent? The easy answer is that one represents your short-term interests (having fun, putting off work, and so on), while another represents your long-term goals. But, if that’s the case, it’s not obvious how you’d ever get anything done: the short-term self, it seems, would always win out. The philosopher Don Ross offers a persuasive solution to the problem. For Ross, the various parts of the self are all present at once, constantly competing and bargaining with one another—one that wants to work, one that wants to watch television, and so on. The key, for Ross, is that although the television-watching self is interested only in watching TV, it’s interested in watching TV not just now but also in the future. This means that it can be bargained with: working now will let you watch more television down the road. Procrastination, in this reading, is the result of a bargaining process gone wrong.”

    That struck such a chord with me. I now accept that if I give in to the delaying voice, it will still delay me tomorrow. I never bought the reward yourself later idea. I buy the it’s lying don’t listen idea.

  5. pcollier Said,

    I’m glad I offer a procrastination service for you Dave 😀

    Jon, thanks so much for the link it was a very interesting read. I think I might buy the book actually. It really stuck a chord with me too, for me it is definitely tied into the short-term gratification against work now to achieve long term reward. I’ve got to admit way back at university it really worked for me to treat myself at the end of the day with episodes of Red Dwarf. Knowing that I’ll be doing something really gratifying to my short term brain later on was enough to subdue it whilst I got the real work done for Mr long-term i.e. my degree!

    These day’s I’ve come round to your stricter approach of treating it as a lie and to just do the work. I find that if I do put off work I can’t properly enjoy myself procrastinating anyway, as it’ll be nagging away at me that I’m letting myself down. I’m like a pushy middle class American mother 😀

    I loved this section from the article:

    “Viewed this way, procrastination starts to look less like a question of mere ignorance than like a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict. But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel “Solar”: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.” In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem.”

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/10/11/101011crbo_books_surowiecki#ixzz1Bu5RdN4K

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