Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What is procrastination telling YOU?

The Popular Practice of Putting Stuff Off by Alina Tugend in this weekend's New York Times lays out this really interesting point about procrastination:

"But chronic procrastination can be a symptom of a much deeper problem, one that does not respond to “just tweaking a variable,” Professor [Timothy A.] Pychyl said.

“It could be a symptom that you’re leading an inauthentic life,” he said. “You should take a look at the goals in your life and say, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ ”

So a key question to ask is what may be causing you to put off doing something. It may be as simple as not having enough information or it may be as big as no longer having the energy to invest in continuing to do the same unfulfilling things.

My own experience tells me that I put things off when I don't have enough information to move forward. The article makes this point as well when it tells the story of students who had to either briefly describe the type of person who opens a bank account, or define what's needed to open a bank account. Both would be paid $5, yet money proved not to be a motivator here. The difference was in how abstract or concrete the assignment.

The first group had to think, had to ruminate about a concept and then summarize their thoughts - and it's so true that it takes longer to write something short than it does to write something long. The second group simply had to list things, in no particular order. That's easy to do quickly.

My guess is that the first group might have been better able to act quickly if they had some guidelines to follow. "List characteristics of people who open bank accounts" might have engendered fast responses, as might "Briefly describe the type of person who opens a bank account. Use a friend or family member as your model." More information - either as explicit instructions or hints as to how to approach the task - makes the job easier to accomplish.

I now approach "procrastination" as a diagnostic tool rather than a character flaw. When I put something off that really needs doing, I know to ask the "why am I doing this? What additional information do I need? Or, is this really what I want to be doing?" Either way, I move off the dime and progress.

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