Saturday, December 5, 2009

Procrastination: "Being in the Mood"

Feeling Good by David Burns has a nice discussion of why people procrastinate. I particularly enjoyed this piece of advice:
Motivation does not come first, action does! You have to prime the pump. Then you will begin to get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously. [...] Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don't feel like doing it, you automatically put it off. (qtd. in Bonnie Runyan McCullough, Totally Organized: The Bonnie McCullough Way, p. 52)
I proffer some additional notes. They're all pretty obvious, but I find that I benefit from reminding myself of them frequently.
  • Decide on goals and tasks; then act. The point of avoiding procrastination is to get important things done. This requires that you know (1) what you consider important (your objective function) and (2) how best to achieve your goals (what your tasks are). Decide those first; then use Burns's anti-procrastination technique to do the highest-value tasks.
  • Update your to-do list over time. There's no need expending willpower to accomplish unimportant tasks, even if they're included on a to-do list. As you learn more and as priorities change, update the ordering of the to-do list. Drop old tasks that you once found important but now do not.
  • Don't "save work for later" unless you're sure you'll get it done later. This is the old "never do tomorrow what you can do today" maxim. There are times when I'm tempted to put off a high-value task for later (like checking emails) because I know it'll be fun. This is sometimes a good idea, but not if it causes a backlog of tasks to build up over time. Then finishing them all becomes a chore. And in general, I've found "there's plenty more where that came from," i.e., I can pretty much always find some high-value task for which I'm in the mood, and I don't need to save particular fun tasks for that purpose.
  • Avoiding procrastination allows for more time when you don't need to override your mood. In many cases, if there's no hard deadline or stark difference in productivity value between several actions, you ought to do the one that you most want to do, knowing that you'll probably want to do others later on. And if not, you can expend some willpower to get yourself started on them at a later point. Such is the luxury afforded by not being late in finishing time-sensitive tasks: You don't need to constantly expend willpower in forcing yourself to do the next put-out-the-fire item on your list.


  1. It's interesting and common that all the measures people take to external. What I mean is they're tasks and activities. Those certainly help but the real cure comes from finding your purpose. Once a person really understands that, it's easy to get into action.

  2. Thanks, Bernie. Yes, it's true that any "task" is only worth as much as the amount you value the goals behind it; those goals are ultimately up to us to decide. And I agree that lots of tasks do become fun once you're motivated to do them. However, there are some counterexamples. I have a hard time imagining a completely painless cavity filling no matter how much I have the desire for healthy teeth. Maybe some people have succeeded at this.