CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
You don’t have to be a member of Procrastinators Anonymous to appreciate how paralyzing procrastination can be. And yes, there is such a group. They call procrastination the grave where opportunity is buried.
We’re all prone to it. We all feel guilty about it. And yet we still do it. For many of us, it’s a hard habit to break. A lot of the focus on overcoming procrastination has been on habit forming and discipline, and getting the gumption to face the tasks you don’t like doing. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Our guest today offers three strategic paths to beat procrastination in a comprehensive way. Habits, emotions, and thought patterns. And she’s here to lay those out for us. Alice Boyes is a former clinical psychologist and the author of the book Stress Free Productivity. She also wrote the HBR article, “How to Stop Procrastinating. Alice, thanks for being here”
ALICE BOYES: Thank you for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s your understanding of procrastination? What purpose does it serve?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so it’s quite complicated. I think that it’s often part of the creative process that sometimes we procrastinate because we’re doing something hard. Sometimes we need that incubation period. So lots of forms of problem solving benefit from an incubation period where you take a pause between when you hear the problem and when you start working on it.
And of course, we all know about productive procrastination. When you’ve got that number one task that you’re avoiding but you’ve also got a bunch of other things that normally you would avoid, and it’s the only time you ever get round to doing those. So the classic example is the student who the only time they ever clean their dorm room is when they should be studying for exams. So there are some sort of useful forms of it but obviously it can also tie people in knots and lead to lots of self-criticism.
CURT NICKISCH: How do you know when there’s a good reason for procrastinating or when it’s actually just being counterproductive?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, I’m not sure that it’s that black and white. I find I do some of my best work when I’m procrastinating doing something else. On a level, that’s useful. But it still creates a bit of a problem of not having a habit of getting on and doing that other thing. So I think it can be quite mixed. There really is so much that goes on with it psychologically. Sometimes it’s just people have more things that they want to do and they’re having trouble settling on one. Sometimes it’s just there’s so much opportunity, we want to be doing all of these things and we sort of bite off more than we can chew in terms of the energy and focus that we’ve got. Sometimes we just overestimate how much we can focus in the day. And so we label our downtime as procrastination.
So it is really complicated, but there’s always times where people need to get on to doing something. When procrastination is a problem, that’s when you want to have some strategies so that you can feel confident that you can get out of the weeds whenever you really need to.
CURT NICKISCH: That was one of the things that I really learned from reading what you wrote, is just how much emotion is wrapped up in procrastination. It’s not necessarily just about thought processes and habits, but it is such an emotional process too.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, it absolutely is. And I think people tend to oversimplify that. People will say it’s an emotional thing and it’s caused by people being intolerant of emotions. And so we first think, “Oh, well, no one likes doing boring tasks.” So the idea is, okay, well, if you have habits of doing your boring tasks, then you won’t need as much self-control to get those done.
CURT NICKISCH: But that’s never addressing the emotion that goes with it.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, often the emotional intolerance isn’t really about just a task being boring or unpleasant. Sometimes it’s a much deeper seated thing than that. Often it is.
CURT NICKISCH: Is it more cognitive or emotional? Where can you place it?
ALICE BOYES: It can be both. In psychology, we never think of cognition, emotions and behavior as being separate. We always think of there being bidirectional arrows between all of those things. Emotions pretty much always come with thoughts and vice versa.
Because all of those things have bidirectional arrows between them, what it in essence means is that even if you see your procrastination as being primarily emotional or primarily cognitive, or primarily about habits. Whatever the causes, those other causes will be mixed in. And any strategy that you can use, whether it targets behavior or emotions or thoughts is probably going to work no matter what you see the primary root of it as being, because those things are so interlinked.
CURT NICKISCH: So let’s start down the line here and go through three different areas where we can really make a difference when it comes to changing how we work. Let’s start with better habits. How can we create better habits to avoid procrastinating?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so people will have heard a lot about habits in recent years. It’s been a popular topic. And the general gist of it is that habits make behaviors more automatic. So the classic example that’s always used in any intro psych textbook is driving: that once we’re not a novice driver anymore, whenever we sit in the driver seat of a car, we go through a sequence of behaviors without really even thinking about what we are doing. When we are novice drivers, we have to think carefully about checking the mirrors and all the steps. But it becomes over-learned and it becomes automatic.
And what they have figured out through habits research is that when a behavior becomes more automatic, it starts to require less self-control to do that thing. So if you have a consistent study habit, it becomes easier to resist distractions.
If you want a behavior to require less self control, then make it a consistent habit. And people really think about habits in a very narrow way. They think of it as being about daily habits. But there are also a lot of other ways to use habits.
CURT NICKISCH: You also argue for people to create better systems to help them start new tasks. In particular, starting new tasks is a problem. Why is that?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. So often what we put off is stuff that’s novel. People have a comfort level with tasks that they do all the time. And that’s what we often think first about. We think about people procrastinating things that they have to do every month or every week or every day. But often what we procrastinate and the type of procrastination that causes problems in our lives is things that we don’t have to do every day. So it’ll be things like if your air conditioner starts making you funny noise. And we all want to think, “Oh, well, I don’t know anything about air conditioners. It’s probably going to be really expensive. I’ll just put that off and hope that it goes away.”
Because putting off those kinds of things tends to cause big problems, like if your air conditioner breaks in the middle of summer or whatever it is, it’s useful to have a generic system that you can use for approaching tasks that you don’t do frequently, tasks that feel out of your wheelhouse, novel tasks. So we think about having systems for tasks we do all the time, but we often don’t think about having a system for novel tasks.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s interesting. And so what does this system look like?
ALICE BOYES: So I’m a huge fan of reverse engineering your system. So people think a lot about learning from other people and learning from science when it comes to productivity. We all want to pick up little tips and tricks from people about their morning routines or whatever it is. And we all want to learn from science. But what we don’t really think about is learning from ourselves. So a really good way to find a system for you for approaching double tasks is when you successfully do a novel task, look at the system that you used to get it done. Especially if it was something that you either felt really intimidated by or you had put off for a long time and finally got around to doing it.
So for me, my system is quite tailored to my personality. I’m an anxious person. I naturally worry about things that could go wrong. So my strategy and my system is kind of tailored to that. Part of it is I’ll think about three ways I could approach the task at the outset. And that’s kind of useful for everybody, because we all tend to think of one way we could approach something and start down that track. And then only later maybe realize that a different way of approaching it would’ve been more useful. So that just prevents premature foreclosure one route. If you force yourself to think of three different ways, then you can assess which is the best of those. The other thing I do is a pre-mortem. I think about what I think could go wrong with the task. And then I try and address each of those things that could go wrong in a specific way.
And there are more steps that are part of my process. One is quickly testing assumptions. So depending on how complex this task is, my system can have up to six or seven steps. But I don’t always do those six or seven steps. For a lot of tasks, I’ll just do one or two of them. Starting with thinking of different ways to approach it is probably the most important one for me.
I’m not advocating anyone adopt my system. What I’m saying is that people should personalize their systems to them. And they should have an explicit system.
CURT NICKISCH: For me personally, the idea of a pre-mortem and testing your assumptions is kind of attractive because I expect that could help a lot with things that always seem to take longer than you thought they were going to.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Yes. That was one way that it could be helpful. The way it’s helpful for me is that because I’m a worrier or I get wrapped up thinking of all the possible things that could go wrong, and it just helps me streamline that so that I think of just the three major things. And then I think of one way to mitigate against each of them. So I don’t think about a hundred different solutions to mitigate against each problem. I just think of one to mitigate against each and that keeps it contained and it satisfies my anxiety. But also it feels like it is approaching the tasks in a way that uses my strengths. So anxiety is both the strength and a weakness for me in that I’m good at foreseeing problems. So it’s also using that strength.
CURT NICKISCH: We talked about emotions previously, emotions clearly have a big role in procrastination. How do you think about separating emotions from tasks?
ALICE BOYES: I don’t think you need to separate emotions from tasks. I think one of the big misconceptions in all of this is that people think a lot about reducing emotions as a way of combating procrastination. But what we actually know about people who are healthy, happy, and productive is that they don’t go around spending a lot of time trying to reduce their emotions. What they’re much better at is actually using their emotions as fuel for their goals. So when an emotion comes up, like when someone’s feeling doubt or someone’s feeling embarrassment, that’s what people who function well do. They take a negative emotion and they use it as fuel for their goals. They don’t think, “Oh, I need to reduce all these negative emotions or they’re going to cause me to go off track with my goals.” They associate strong emotions with propelling them to their goals, not with them taking them away from their goals.
CURT NICKISCH: One of the really fascinating things that jumped out at me in your work was this idea of emotional granularity. And we all know that it helps to identify emotions. But I think this was the first time I really understood how identifying emotions could lead to something in the article you call psychological flexibility. Can you explain what that is?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, it’s actually just what I was talking about before. It’s the idea that you can use your emotions as fuel for your goals, that you don’t need to reduce your negative emotions. Like if you feel guilt. Guilt is a useful emotion because it causes us to want to repair things. There was actually a really interesting study that I just read in the last few days that said that doing mindfulness meditation reduces people’s feelings of guilt, but it also causes them to be less willing to do reparative behaviors. So that’s obviously a huge problem, right?
Emotions all have an evolutionary purpose. And we can learn to channel our emotions in service of our values, in service of our goals. One of the strategies that I often use myself is this idea of a task that you’re avoiding, thinking about it in terms of your values. So, “How does doing this task reflect my values?” So for example, my spouse is always asking for tech help, “Could you help me with this on the computer?” And I hate providing tech help, but I obviously have the value of being a supportive spouse. I have the value of the two of us being in a relationship where we make up for each other’s weaknesses, that we’re there to compensate for each other’s weaknesses. So even though I don’t like providing tech help, I like the idea that I will compensate for her weaknesses and she will compensate for mine, and that we’ll support each other through that. And that we can come to each other with things that we feel vulnerable about. So if I frame it like that, I’m a lot more willing to do it. And that’s something that people with psychological flexibility are able to do.
CURT NICKISCH: You mentioned earlier that when people do the tasks they know, those are often the easiest to do, and they put off the harder ones. And it’s this notion of accepting that work will be filled with friction that is actually a productive step in getting past procrastination.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. So there’s a great HBR article about how diverse teams tend to do better work, but they also tend to feel like they have more conflict. So a lot of things that we do where it’s of a lot of value, doing something for the first time, doing something that you’ve never done before, that feels really foreign to you, that’s a huge skill building thing. You build a lot more skills. You build a lot more resilience. You build new relationships, for example, by working with a new collaborator versus with someone you’ve already worked with 20 times before. But those things feel worse while we are doing them.
When you’re doing work that has more potential to be impactful, it’s usually more uncertain. And uncertainty is one of those emotions that people really do avoid. So people want to do things with certain outcomes and they tend to procrastinate more with things with uncertain outcomes. But we all know that a lot of these things with uncertain outcomes are the things that have the higher potential for reward.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. So what’s a good way to overcome that, to accept that this friction-filled work, as you put it, is good for you and may help you? Can you feel a good emotion from that? Or can you get to a good emotion from that?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. Sometimes it’s just noticing that relationship. Sometimes it’s just making sure you don’t make that cognitive error, or catching the cognitive error when you’re making it, as recognizing that it’s almost like there’s an inverse correlation there between how awkward and yucky things feel. And we all have personal examples something felt really yucky at the time, but it ended up being really, really fruitful. And so that’s useful.
And then the other thing would be self-compassion. So doing compassionate self talk is useful about the feelings that you’re having. And then back to the psychological flexibility concept of using the difficult emotions that arise. But really just the more you learn about emotions, the more your psychological knowledge is, the easier this it is to work around all this and not be scared of negative emotions. One of the findings I really like is about ambivalent emotions. So ambivalent emotion is when you’re feeling fearful and exhilarated all at the same time or any combination of intense positive and intense negative emotions. The presence of ambivalent emotions tends to put us on alert. And when we’re on alert more, that’s often what sparks creativity. Because being on alert, partly we’re alert for our usual associations between things. And obviously creativity comes from noticing unusual associations between things or noticing things that we don’t usually notice.
So when you learn that actually strong emotions and tense emotions, diverse emotions are incredibly healthy, you can just fear them a lot less and have a more open attitude toward them. But then you do still need those other little skills to soothe yourself a little bit. You can’t just white knuckle it through things. So things like compassionate self-talk can be really useful for them.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Well, that’s really helpful. There’s hope for all of us, even if it’s plagued us for a long time.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. And again, it’s coming back to this idea that it really isn’t about stopping procrastination. It’s about identifying the forms of procrastination that cause problems for you, like where you’ve got a sense of a possible problem in your mind, and you just keep putting off thinking about it, putting off dealing with it. And then it turns into a big problem that could have been avoided. And things like with healthcare, that would be an example. That if you notice a funny mole or you notice a funny lump or something, or change in your bowel habit of it or whatever it is, that is an area where procrastination can be deadly. It’s something that is potentially really harmful. So what people want to do is look at the forms of procrastination with the most potential for major harm in their lives, that are causing them the most bother, and be really confident that they’ve got strategies for dealing with those.
And then also, cut yourself a little bit of slack about some of the creative procrastination, like recognizing that we’ve got this image of a productive person being this person who is never distracted, who’s always focused, who never procrastinates, who’s just hustling all the time. It’s a really false image. It’s the equivalent of the Instagram image of perfection. And recognizing that actually if you’re doing things that are creative, if you’re doing things that are hard, you’re going to need more recovery time. You’re going to need more working up to doing things. Potentially you’re going to need more reflection after you’ve done something. It is important to be able to make all of those distinctions.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s talk about the work setting a little bit in the sense of teams and organizational culture. Because you’ve given us a lot of tips on managing yourself individually. But what about that culture of procrastination at a place or in a team? How does this play out interpersonally? I’m thinking of putting something off until Friday afternoon and then writing an email to kick it into somebody else’s pile of work at the end of the week. How does procrastination affect others around us? And how can we be more conscious of that?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. So think, again, using your values is a really good thing there. Most of us are decent humans and it’s not consistent with our values to be being jerks. But sometimes we end up being jerks because we’ve got ourselves into a procrastination pickle, because we’ve left something. Some people find it easier to do things for other people than themselves. So if you’re like that, then it is thinking about, “Well, I need to this thing because I need to be reliable for somebody else. I want the other person, if they’re waiting on something from me, I want them to understand that it’s not because they’ve done anything wrong or I’m angry at them, or I just want to take that uncertainty off their plate.” And that might be something that is a really strong value for you that you can use as a motivator.
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s say it’s not an organizational culture issue or a team culture issue, but you do notice that there’s procrastination as an issue within your team, among team members. What can you do, either as a manager or a colleague?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah so some level of emotional education around this is good so that people do have strategies. Making things easier on people, like finding out if there’s some sort of basis to the procrastination, learning how to support people. Adam Grant posted this interesting thing on Instagram a few weeks ago where he said, “I would’ve started on Instagram a long, long time ago if I had realized I could just repost my words, if I could just post pictures of my words rather than having to post pictures and videos that we more associate with Instagram.” And obviously he does these, they’re essentially like tweets, they’re just these little quotes. They’re the same thing he does everywhere else, but he puts them on Instagram. There’s no pictures. He doesn’t do pictures. He doesn’t do video. He does what’s in his wheelhouse. He approaches the platform of Instagram through his strengths and his posts get like 40-50,000 likes each post. It’s incredibly successful.
And we can all do that with everything basically. Maybe with the exception of form filling and really basic things, but most things that we procrastinate we can approach through the perspective of our strengths. And help from a manager’s perspective, drawing that out of people is something that is a skill that any manager should have. Knowing what the strengths of people are or knowing how to discover them from conversation. And being able to help the person see ways of approaching tasks from the perspective of their strengths is something that’s useful.
But again, these very much are self-regulation strategies. People often come to therapy wanting to change somebody else. And really the name of the game is people changing themselves. So these mainly are personal strategies. You can extrapolate out a little bit. But people have to have their own motivation.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, Alice you’ve given people a lot of tools to deal with something that can really be frustrating. It’s really been great to have you on the show to talk about it.
ALICE BOYES: Thank you very much.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Alice Boyes, a trained clinical psychologist and the author of the book Stress Free Productivity. You can find her article, How to Stop Procrastinating in the May/June, 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review and at hbr.org.
And since productivity hacks never go out of style, let me recommend another IdeaCast episode, Boost Your Productivity with Micro Breaks. That’s episode 295.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.
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