I have been a classic procrastinator most of my life. In school (including BE, MBA etc), I was the guy who never did his assignments or studied. I would scramble the last day & get in their somehow – still manage a good grade and think I was a smart alec. It generated certain awe and respect with my peers and I thrived on it. Interestingly my closest friends in school were the opposite of me – they stuck with assignments stayed at the top of the class. But with a 5-10% difference in marks at the end of the year I thought this was OK. Something changed as I entered professional life. I got on to a task and finished it and got onto the next one.
Over the last 5yrs that cycle kind of broke. Initially, the odds against me were so great I was just paralysed. Then when I finally started seeing how to break the problem into smaller parts and attack the ones I could with my very limited means and motivation – I was still not doing much. Mostly because I was not even starting. To a degree that when I was desperate for money – I had a purchase order for Rs 40 lacs for an assignment, I could individually turn around. But I never billed because I could not even start! Who does that?
Traditional thinking is procrastinators have a time management problem – they can’t estimate time well, they don’t’ track it well and/or have misplaced priorities about what allocation they do make. But I know I am not lazy – I have the capacity to stay and work on a problem for months. I am capable of explosive action – when I am required to have bursts of energy to get things done I get it done. Most of my professional reputation was built on getting assignments or roles that others did not want. But now I was not just slow I was not even starting off. I knew it was an emotional problem, not a time management one.
I read a paper from Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada – that indeed procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time. It woke me up. I was in a procrastination cycle (this is as I describe it, not steps from the quoted research). A cycle – because if you do not take the exit you stay in the cycle.
The Procrastination Cycle
- Step 1 – ‘The Task’ creates ‘Low Mood’: When I got the task I needed to get on with it I found every reason not to start – and for which and created other tasks and priorities. This is a defence mechanism that allowed me to say to myself ‘I could have finished this if I were not doing that other thing!’ Essentially the task was an onset of ‘low mood’ because of one of 3 reasons
- It was boring or repetitive – updating a ppt or a customer pitch for the 100th time
- It is unpleasant or intimidating – creating a narrative or preparing papers for the police and court appearances or tax offices was squarely in this category
- It was you’re worried about failing – working on direct customer assignments or starting exercise was in this category. I did not want to accept it but deep down I feared I would fail if started. So I was creating failure without starting. I was saving face.
- Step 2 – We identify a mood lifter: I needed a distraction that made me feel better when I felt low. I reckon that 90% of Facebook, Netflix, Youtube etc’s screen time is such time – people are not watching something they want to watch – they are watching something trying to avoid something else. Research published by Jessica Myrick at the Media School at Indiana University shows that procrastination is the common motive for viewing the ‘cat videos’ and watching them led to the highest mood shift. Researchers call this short-term positive ‘hedonic shift’, that comes at the cost of long-term goals.
- Step 3 – Stress increases: While effectively distracting in the short-term the distraction leads to guilt, which ultimately compounds the initial stress. Essentially this brought my mood even lower. By delaying my work I just ended up feeling more stress, guilt and frustration. Clearly procrastination is a misguided emotional regulation strategy.
- Step 4 – Stress causes health & performance to slide even more: Procrastination has two consequences:
- It is stressful to keep putting off important tasks and failing to fulfil your goals and stress causes health complication.
- The procrastination often involves delaying important health behaviours, such as taking up exercise or visiting the doctor. And I was doing both – I was increasingly unhealthy and unwilling to see doctors.
- Step 5 – Repeat: As performance and health slides I felt even more stress, focused on the task even less and focus on the distraction to lift your mood even more. It was a vicious cycle.
Breaking the Procrastination Cycle
My procrastination was chronic and I needed to get out of it. Chronic procrastination has mental and physical health costs – from depression and anxiety to cardiovascular disease – all of which I have experienced.
Knowing that my chronic procrastination came from avoidance I had to learn to be able to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and prioritising choices and actions that helped me closer to what I most value in life. I did not realize it then but counsellors call this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’. Chronic procrastinators are dominated by their psychological responses like frustration and worry, at the expense of their life values. Low procrastinators have more ‘action orientation’ the process or action takes precedence over outcomes. Clearly I had to shift my orientation.
When I recognised that procrastination isn’t a time management problem but is instead an emotion regulation problem — my focus shifted from “How to a finish the task” which led to the low mood to “What is the next step I would take on this task if I were to get started on it now?”. What I am saying is there is no failure attached to writing just one page or doing only 10 pushups.
This, in turn, took my mind off the overwhelming feelings and avoidance of failure. I started focusing on achievable action. As the small actions got completed – it lifted my mood – and as I mood lifted I felt motivated about taking the next step. I started with just wanting to write one page, address one customer, doing just 10 reps of an exercise. It took me a few months but slowly the pendulum swung back. At 48 and starting from a sinkhole just a few years ago I have more strength, more energy, more resolve and more drive than I have had my entire life.
My experience has shown me once you get started, you’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.
Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA™ is a framework for developing unparalleled Mental & Physical toughness developed over Rakesh’s life. It has driven 2 comebacks.
Rakesh Shukla has slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — TWB which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel and others. At 43, over one year he lost everything. Alone & friendless he spent the next 5 years repaying over INR 20 crores of debt & taxes, building back his company and reputation. While creating & funding VOSD the world’s largest dog sanctuary & rescue.
Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was 7 yrs old, had had 2 heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this 5 year period, Rakesh was 88kg in weight and very unfit. Today at 48 yrs he can lift well over 100kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2000 push-ups or 250 pulls ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer or taken any supplements.