Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.
Procrastination by Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen focuses on the challenging issue of procrastination. Why do we put off important, challenging work?
For me, procrastination is a “sometimes” issue. I tend to not put off work so much as to choose among things to do based on which one seems the most enjoyable to do at the moment. This often means that “un-fun” tasks languish longer than they should while more enjoyable tasks (this, for me, usually means the raw task of writing) find their way to the forefront.
Some of my friends are terrible procrastinators, finding “time” to play video games and other leisurely activities instead of taking care of business. In the end, though, it’s not all that different than my own procrastination.
Is there a solution to all of this? Does Procrastination have any answers? Let’s find out.
1 | Procrastination: Nuisance or Nemesis?
Life is hard. The authors argue that procrastination is a shield that we create that protects us against the hard things in life over the short term, but when the items become too strong for the shield to protect against them, they explode all over us with truly disastrous consequences. This “shield” takes a lot of different forms and the authors provide a list of them, with items like “I must avoid being challenged” and “I must be perfect” and “I can’t afford to let go.” Some of the statements listed really hit home for me.
2 | Fear of Failure: The Procrastinator on Trial
Some of us procrastinate out of a fear of failing, a sense that we’re not up to the task at hand. We believe that we’re not going to be able to succeed, so actually attempting the task is futile. The thing is very few tasks put in front of us are above and beyond our skill level. We’re usually able to handle all of it, from challenging work tasks to tough school assignments. The key is to start chipping away at the difficult problem, doing the pieces that we can easily extract and do, until we’re left with pieces that don’t seem all that hard.
3 | Fear of Success: Hello Procrastination, Goodbye Success
Others procrastinate out of fear of actually succeeding. They might get promoted to a job that they don’t actually want. They might receive unwanted attention. The best way to avoid that is a certain level of mediocrity. The thing is that such attention and “rewards” from success do not have to be the result. Simply talking to those around you about these issues can usually cut through them like a hot knife through butter.
4 | The Procrastinator in Combat: Fear of Losing the Battle
This type of procrastination often revolves around some form of the idea “if others are strong, then I must be weak and I will inevitably lose.” Thus, procrastination is simply a method of extending the battle to postpone the loss. In truth, though, concluding the battle, even if you “lose,” is often a win. You end up stronger and often in another battle that you’re capable of winning instead of the dread of prolonging the inevitable.
5 | The Comfort Zone: Fear of Separation and Fear of Intimacy
Here, we just want to maintain the status quo. Changing how things are seems painful, so we procrastinate because during the procrastination, our lives appear unchanged. The truth of the matter is that as soon as the decision is available at all, our life is already changed. We have the consequences of either side of the decision on our lap. All procrastination does is frustrate those around us – it doesn’t actually free us from the decision.
6 | Do You Know What Time (It) Is?
Some people simply have difficulty keeping track of time. They are poor estimators of how long a task will take and how much time they have between now and the due date to complete it. This misjudgment often results in being pushed up hard against deadlines, not because they’re putting it off, but because they misjudged the time investment.
7 | Current Neuroscience: The Big Ideas
This chapter is easily the one that will become outdated the fastest in the book, as it is kind of a “what’s hot in current neuroscience that might be related to procrastination” section. Some of this will prove true and useful. Other pieces will not. It’s interesting reading, but far from a game changer.
8 | Procrastination and Your Brain
Somewhere in the process of procrastination, your mind perceives danger and your body reacts to that perception in some way. We feel fear – or at least a sense that we should avert danger. Procrastination is just the “flight” part of a “fight or flight” reaction to perceived danger.
9 | How You Came to Be a Procrastinator
Most people become procrastinators because they found that the “flight” reaction was easier for them at an earlier stage in their life than the “fight” reaction. Think of grade school homework that could easily be done later, or avoiding a personal conflict in the hallways of junior high. If “flight” works, it becomes natural. Of course, later on, the “fight” reaction is usually much more successful, but we’re used to the “flight” reaction.
10 | Looking Ahead to Success
The key, then, is training ourselves to use the “fight” reaction more often – in other words, when we are faced with something that we would naturally procrastinate against, we have to train ourselves to actively and naturaly take it on instead. Doing this makes us more proactive.
11 | Taking Stock: A Procrastination Inventory
What do you procrastinate on? What are the benefits and costs of procrastinating? What are the benefits and costs of not procrastinating? The idea is to simply lay out the case for each of your procrastinations and look at them consciously and clearly. Is it really a net benefit to procrastinate? Usually, it’s not.
12 | Setting and Achieving Goals
What do you want to achieve? Going through the process of determining your goals, coming up with plans for achieving them, and starting through the steps of those plans is key. It puts things in perspective and helps you define a clear pathway to the things you want. Goal setting is all about clarity.
13 | Learning How to Tell Time
Yes, this means learning to keep a schedule and a planner. I think for most people that are involved in a demanding field (and/or have a demanding personal life), maintaining a calendar is a vital part of success. Part of this, of course, is penciling in plenty of time to take care of the big tasks you need to accomplish.
14 | Learning to Say Yes and No
Say yes to other people. Say no to time wasters and information overload. Say yes to those who want to support you. Say no to those who want to belittle you. Say yes to spending your time finishing tasks. Say no to spending all of your time in virtual worlds.
15 | Using Your Body to Reduce Procrastination
Keeping your body in reasonable shape is also a big key to solving procrastination because it raises your energy level and your ability to focus. Eat a better diet. Put aside some time to exercise. This seems counterintuitive – “How can I find time to do this when I’m already so overloaded I have to procrastinate?” – but I constantly find that my productivity per hour is way, way up if I’m eating well and am getting regular exercise.
16 | Tips for Procrastinators with ADD and Executive Dysfunction
The solution, as always, is to break it down. Break decisions down into the smallest chunks possible. Break tasks down into small, manageable chunks that you can do within your attention span. It takes additional time to do this, but it makes otherwise unamangeable tasks quite manageable.
17 | Neither Here nor There: Procrastination and the Cross-Cultural Experience
Many people fall into procrastination during times of culture shock – going to college or moving to a new country. The best way to get past this is to establish relationships and to dig into the culture of the new situation. That might include learning a new language or participating in activities you might otherwise avoid.
18 | Living and Working with Procrastinators
The best way to deal with other procrastinators is to subtly help them overcome their procrastination. Break their tasks down into bite-sized chunks when you make requests of them. Don’t ask for a five hour task – ask for a five minute task, followed by another, and another. Later, you can show the big thing they accomplished and show them how to break it down themselves.
Is Procrastination Worth Reading?
Procrastination is perhaps the single best collection of advice on, well, procrastination that I’ve yet read. It really covers the causes of procrastination extremely well – I don’t know how a procrastinator couldn’t read the first section of the book and not have something painfully hit home.
What really works, though, is how the diagnosis (the first part) is tied so well to some of the solutions (mostly, the second part). It’s that connection that really makes the book work – you see yourself in the pages, then you connect that image of yourself to a fairly straightforward solution.
If you have issues with procrastination, Procrastination is well worth reading.