Despite the fact that Tim Herrera edits the Smarter Living section for the New York Times which covers how we can build better habits for work and life, Herrera is a procrastinator. But after editing a piece on procrastination for the Times, by Charlotte Lieberman, Herrera started to think differently about it.
“At its root, procrastination isn't about putting off a specific task. It's associated a lot more with the emotions that we're having regarding that task.”
Herrera learned that if, for example, if he was avoiding writing and instead, wasting away time on Twitter, it wasn’t because he was lazy. Instead, it was that he was feeling anxiety about the piece he was writing. So instead of seeing procrastination as just being about putting off doing a task, it's actually about wresting with the emotions that you have associated with that task.
Here are three tips to overcome procrastination.
1. Treat procrastination as an emotion management problem
Through understanding that procrastination was about managing his emotions, Herrera implemented strategies to help him stay on task and manage his emotional state. One method that worked for him was making himself accountable to another person - so that if he missed a deadline, if would negatively impact that person.
Herrera also tried to build out structures and habits into his day, so that at a certain time of day, he does his writing. And at another time of day, he says.
“Trying to build habits around these things is such a powerful tool because it takes away the idea of self-control or willpower. You're just not thinking about it, you're just doing it.”
And by making it automatic, it took the emotions out of the task at hand.
2. Surf the wave of discomfort
Behavioural design expert and bestselling author of Hooked and Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recognised that managing procrastination was really about how to manage discomfort. For Eyal, writing is really hard work. “It's never been effortless, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of concentration. I feel all sorts of negative emotions such as boredom, uncertainty, fear, fatigue when I write,” Eyal explained to me on the How I Work podcast.
Eyal refers to these emotions as internal triggers which lead him to wanting to distract himself from the task at hand. One strategy that Eyal uses to avoid succumbing to distractions is called Surfing the Urge.
Surfing the Urge involves first noticing the sensation you are feeling - such as boredom or anxiety. Eyal would then label the sensation. ‘I’m feeling anxious right now.’ ‘I’m feeling fearful that this essay is not going to be any good.’
Like a surfer on a surf board, Eyal says that what he found is that our emotions are like waves. They rise, they crest, and then they subside. And if we can allow ourselves to be curious about that sensation, as opposed to trying to resist it with abstinence (which can actually make the problem worse), whatever unpleasant sensation we are feeling will eventually subside and wash over us.
Eyal typically sets his timer for ten minutes, and tries to push through. More often than not, at the end of the ten minutes, the unpleasant emotions have subsided, and he simply continues on with his work.
3. Go to extreme measures
Prior to becoming CEO of Moment, a company that helps people reign in their mobile phone usage, Tim Kendall was President of Pinterest and struggled a lot with his own phone usage. For Kendall, his phone was a constant source of distraction that resulted in much procrastination. He started to research what he describes as “brute force approaches” and discovered a product called the KSafe.
The KSafe, a lockable kitchen safe with a built-in timer, was originally designed as a dieting product where dieters could lock away unhealthy food. But in recent years, the product has found a dual purpose for those struggling with mobile phone addiction whereby they could lock their phones in the safe.
Kendall, himself, tried experimenting with locking away his phone on weeknights, and then for a few hours on weekends. While he doesn’t use the KSafe regularly anymore, he found it effective at the time.
“The thing that works for me today is in my house, I have an office when I leave that office before I go have dinner with my family, I just leave my phone,” explains Kendall. “On my best nights, I don't go and get my phone until the next morning, which is effectively the same thing as putting it in a kitchen safe from 6PM to 8AM.”
When you are next feeling the urge to procrastinate, try to not beat yourself up. Instead, remember to manage your emotional state, surf the wave of discomfort, and remove potential distractions. These strategies will help get you through the day far more productively.
Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading behavioural science consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.