Okay, my lads and lasses, today I am finally taking on the subject of procrastination. No, I have not been procrastinating about doing so. I have been studying the subject. Back in October, I began to wonder if what a lot of us call procrastination had become a catch-all term. According to Timothy Pychyl who maintains the blog Don't Delay at Psychology Today and is the author of the very fine book The Procrastinator's Digest A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, I was right. According to Pychyl, procrastination is not just "putting off work for whatever reason," as I stated here in October. It's not just waiting until the last minute and working madly to catch up. It is more than a habit.
Pychyl says that true procrastination "is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him- or herself. Procrastination is a needless voluntary delay." It has a very specific definition within psychology.
True procrastination, Pychyl explains, is a self-regulation issue. Individuals are not regulating their behavior in order to achieve goals, meaning they are risking not achieving those goals. He doesn't describe procrastination as a time management problem. Instead, it's similar to gambling, drinking, overeating, and trouble managing money. Real procrastination, the hardcore stuff, involves individuals choosing to do something that will, essentially, harm them, meaning not doing the work toward a goal that would benefit them. You can procrastinate about going to the doctor, getting started on a diet, working on a book, submitting writing to an agent or publication.
All these things have value to the individual who wants to do them. Thus, choosing not to do these things is harmful.
A big part of the reason procrastinators procrastinate is that they're giving in to the need to feel good immediately. Yes, loosing forty pounds would make my health better six months from now, but if I eat three cookies now, I'll feel good immediately, so I'll put off starting the diet until tomorrow. Yes, finishing writing this book I've been working on would be a very positive thing because my editor has already voiced interest in it, but feeling good about finishing that won't happen for a couple of months and I can feel good about talking with some friends on Facebook right now.
Pychyl's book is extremely well organized and clearly written. He discusses various aspects of procrastination and strategies for change. Procrastination is much, much more than just a time management issue. However, I think there is one classic time management technique that writers could combine with one of Pychyl's strategies in a very helpful way.
Pychyl talks about implementation intentions. Essentially, with implementation intentions you're planning ahead what you're going to do in specific situations. (And you know how I love the whole situational thing.) He suggests using an "if-then" format for phrasing the intention you plan to implement. You've heard these kinds of things before relating to other behaviors that require self-regulation. "If I'm going to a party, then I will eat something before I leave so I won't get there hungry and overeat." "If I'm meeting friends at the casino, then I'll only bring $30 of gambling money so I won't risk losing more than I can afford."
Writers concerned about procrastinating can try combining an implementation intention with the unit system. "If I want to stop working while the timer is on, then I'll wait until it goes off." There are two helpful aspects to this scenario: 1. We've talked about relatively short units of time here, under an hour. So if procrastinators have to rely on their intention to get them through the unit, they shouldn't have to work long to make it to the end. 2. The break between units can serve as a reward. Whatever they do in the break can make procrastinators feel good now, and they can also feel good because their intention worked for them.
This feeling good thing is important because Pychyl says procrastinators often suffer self-esteem issues over procrastinating. So another plus I see with using the unit system to help procrastination is that if people can't make it through the short unit, they've lost only a small amount of time, and they can start again the same day. The unit system gives many opportunities over the course of a day to meet the implementation intention, feel good, and actually get some work done.
The Procrastinator's Digest is a marvelous book. If you have an e-reader, you can get it dirt cheap.