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Procrastination

by Bill Meacham on April 1st, 2019

One of the main themes of my book How To Be An Excellent Human is that our happiness and fulfillment depend on how well we exercise our uniquely human abilities, the chief of which is second-order thinking, that is, thinking about our own thinking. It is variously known as self-awareness, self-knowledge, metacognition, mindfulness and emotional intelligence. A recent article on how to cope with procrastination nicely illustrates how we can use this ability effectively.

Procrastination, putting off something you know needs to be done in favor of doing something less important, is an example of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia, often translated as weakness of will. Literally it means lack of command, specifically lack of command over yourself. You suffer from akrasia when you know what’s good for you but do something else instead.(1)

The ancients puzzled over this phenomenon. Socrates thought it was merely a product of ignorance; if you do something harmful to you, you don’t really know what is good for you.(2) Aristotle had a more nuanced view, recognizing that people’s rational judgment can be overcome by emotion. You know what’s good for you, but your emotions influence you to do something else instead.(3)

And that is exactly what recent research says about procrastination. According to journalist Charlotte Lieberman, citing research by psychology professor Fuschia Sirois, procrastination is not due to a lack of time-management skills, but to lack of mastery over your emotions. For whatever reason, you find the prospect of the task before you distasteful. Perhaps it’s boring; perhaps it’s inherently stinky, dirty or in some other way disagreeable; perhaps it triggers insecurities or fear of failure. In any case, you’d rather do something else. Finding something else to do alleviates those unpleasant feelings, and the immediate relief acts as a reinforcer, making it harder to avoid procrastination in the future.

The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — “you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,” Dr. Sirois says. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.(4)

So what can we do about it? Sheer will power may work for some, but probably not for most of us. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says human nature is two-fold. Each of us is like a rider on an elephant. The rider part is how we like to think of ourselves, as rational beings in charge of our actions. The elephant part is the mass of instinctual desires and reactions that really, in a great many cases, determines what we do.(5) Imagine trying to stop a stampeding elephant by standing in front of it and waving your hands and shouting at it. That’s how ineffective our will power is during moments of procrastination. A more effective approach is to ride the elephant and gently nudge it in the direction you want to go. The trick as rider is to outwit the elephant. There are a number of ways to do so.

Lieberman suggests things you can do when faced with the temptation to procrastinate:

  • Notice and pay attention to what is going on in the moment when you feel tempted to procrastinate. How does your body feel? Where is there tension? What’s going on with your breath? Is is rhythmic or irregular? Is it slow and deep or fast and shallow? Putting your attention on these things interrupts the compulsion to do something other than what you know you should.
  • When tempted to procrastinate, consider, purely as an abstract exercise, what your next action would be if you were to undertake the task you want to avoid. Would you get out the vacuum cleaner? Would you put a date at the top of the document you need to write? Then do that little action, and start some momentum in the desired direction.

She also suggests things you can do ahead of time, when you are not faced with the task you are typically tempted to avoid and are not in the grip of the urge to procrastinate:

  • Make your temptations inconvenient. Put obstacles in the way of the things you typically do instead of what you really want to. For instance, if you compulsively check social media, delete such apps from your phone.
  • Make it as easy as possible to do what you rationally decide you want to. If you want to go to the gym before work but you’re not a morning person, sleep in your exercise clothes.

Education consultant Christopher Rim also recommends mindfulness: “If procrastination is spurred on by a knee-jerk reaction to a negative emotion, the first intervention has to be noticing … those negative emotions.”(6) And he suggests cultivating habits that promote getting things done:

  • Practice mindfulness on a regular basis, perhaps as a daily meditation, so you can more easily notice what goes on when you are tempted to procrastinate.
  • Learn to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment more than just being busy. Aim for getting things done rather than just working a lot.
  • “Touch it once.” When a text message or an email arrives or an idea comes up, deal with it immediately instead of putting it off. Do it right away, say “no,” delegate it, schedule it or ask for input; but don’t just put it aside.
  • Avoid perfectionism. Getting something done sooner is better than waiting until later to get it perfect. It is easier to deal with a first draft than an empty piece of paper or a blank word processing document.

All of these tricks and techniques—and there are more; this is not a complete list—are ways of exercising our capacity for second-order thinking.

Humans have far greater intelligence than other animals. We make plans, imagine states of affairs not immediately present and target our behavior to reach envisaged goals. When this intelligence is directed at affairs in the world, it is first-order thinking. It can range from the very simple, such as jotting down a grocery list, to the very complex, such as planning a multi-year project. Not only do we make plans, we execute them and accomplish our goals. We make corrections along the way to overcome obstacles and take into account changing circumstances. When this kind of observation, planning and execution is directed at ourselves, it is second-order thinking, also known as self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-reflection (as one examines one’s reflected image in a mirror), and metacognition.

We can turn our attention to ourselves in two ways: We can observe ourselves in action, in the moment; and we can think about ourselves before or after we do something. The first is the mindfulness recommended by Lieberman and Rim. The second is the habits and strategies they and others prescribe.

Second-order thinking is the peculiarly human virtue. By “virtue” I do not mean some kind of high moral standard, but what the Greeks called areté, or excellence at being effective in the world. For example, an excellent teacher imparts knowledge accurately and thoroughly, and an excellent student learns quickly and retains what he or she has learned.

But what do you do to be an excellent human as such, not just as a occupying a particular social role? You use second-order thinking to improve your ability to master life. Second-order thinking enables us to hone and improve our first-order thinking and thereby accomplish our goals more effectively. Even better, it enables us to examine our goals themselves to see if they are really worth pursuing, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, take this advice about dealing with procrastination and see how you can apply it to other areas of your life. Your reward, I expect, will be a greater depth of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Notes

(1) Wikipedia, “Akrasia.”

(2) Plato, Protagoras, 358b-d.

(3) Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

(4) Lieberman, “Why You Procrastinate.”

(5) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 4.

(6) Rim, “How To Defeat Procrastination.”

References

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Online publication
https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/aristotle-ethics/ as of 30 March 2019.

Lieberman, Charlotte. “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control).” New York Times, 24 March 2019, page B8. Online publication https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html as of 29 March 2019.

Plato. Protagoras. Collected Dialogues, pp. 308-352. Ed. Hamilton, Edith and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Foundation, 1963.

Rim, Christopher. “How To Defeat Procrastination With The Psychology Of Emotional Intelligence.” Online publication https://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherrim/2019/03/28/how-to-defeat-procrastination-with-the-psychology-of-emotional-intelligence/#6dda8efa33a5 as of 29 March 2019.

Wikipedia. “Akrasia.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akrasia as of 30 March 2019.

From → Philosophy

5 Comments
  1. Patricia permalink

    Bill I decided to not put off sending you a message about this wonderful article. Progress. I enjoyed and could easily relate to the content. Thankful for your gift of writing.
    Blessings to you this day.
    Patti

  2. Wiseacre1 permalink

    I would but I’m currently busy procrastinating something else.

  3. I found reading your philosophy blog titled “Procrastination” a great way to put off doing other things on my TO DO list. Thank you for the immediate pleasurable reward of forgetting everything else for a few minutes.

  4. Prema permalink

    You’re a good, accessible writer, Bill. Thank you for sharing your research, good thinking, and helpful tips!

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