A lot of people have problems with procrastination, myself included.
We start off the day with a list of things that need to get done, and by the end of the day those plans are often hijacked and many tasks remain untouched. To some extent, that’s understandable and normal. We can always point to legitimate interruptions — an urgent assignment from the boss, a sick kid, an unexpected visitor. And of course there’s ultimate excuse: In the complex new business environment, you have to stay flexible and go with the flow! Can’t be rigid!
But be honest: a lot of the time, it’s just because we prefer to procrastinate.
For those with office jobs or self-employed knowlege workers, connectivity is the norm. But this comes with a new kind of temptation: cyberslacking. It’s so easy to take a peek at an interesting blog, check your Twitter or Facebook, play a quick online game between phone calls. Before you know it, you’re wasting a lot of time.
There are a lot of tasks that we tend to put off at work. Difficult, undefined tasks like planning or starting a writing project. Boring or mind-numbing tasks like tabulating numbers. Stressful tasks that require us to deal with unpleasant people or situations.
Think about phone calls. There’s that phone call you’ve been meaning to make to resolve an issue you just don’t want to deal with. Or that client, associate or relative who likes to boast, berate you, or bore you with infinite detail. That call is just not going to be any fun. Easier to put it off.
At home, that storage room or garage stuffed full of old junk just sits there all year. There are all the little projects you dread doing–like bills, taxes, repairs, or organizing the closet.
I think you get the picture. If your life is perfect and you can’t relate to any of this, just stop reading here.
There is a simple change you can implement today, that will help you stop procrastinating. Won’t cure it, but I think it will help. It’s called the Premack Principle, named after David Premack, a behavioral psychologist. He studied the reinforcement of behavior. Here is what his principle says:
A high probability behavior can serve as reinforcement for a low probability behavior.
What that means, in plain English, is that something you really like doing (playing games, relaxing with a drink or good book, calling a friend) can make it easier to do an unpleasant activity — if you put the pleasant activity after the unpleasant one. What David Premack understood is that pleasant tasks are reinforcing tasks, and when we put reinforcing tasks after something, we get more of that something. So put the pleasant tasks last in the sequence! Sometimes this is called Grandma’s Rule, because your grandmother told you to eat your spinach first and then you can have your dessert.
Aubrey Daniels realized that this concept can be turned into a great way to overcome procrastination:
The Premack Principle also provides us with the most effective time-management system known. Make a list of the things your have to do. Rank them from the thing you most like to do to the thing that you least like to do and then start at the bottom. If you start at the bottom, a curious thing happens. When you complete the last item on the list, the more reinforcing the tasks become. If you are like most people, you will start at the top, but look what happens then. When you complete the first task, the next one is less desireable. The farther you go, the more punishing the tasks become. Is it any wonder that people who start at the bottom get two or three times more done than do those who start at the top? (“Other People’s Habits, p. 86)
Daniels used this technique to overcome his own writers’ block and finish his Ph.D. dissertation on time. I think this method is sheer genius and it has helped me fight procrastination. One specific change I’ve made is to no longer start my day by checking e-mail. I find reading e-mail very “reinforcing”, so I do it twice a day now: right before noon and again at the end of the day.
A surprising side effect of using the Premack Principle is that unpleasant activities eventually become more tolerable, or even pleasant! This follows from the principle of reinforcement. I didn’t believe it at first, but it has been validated by my experience.
I’ve made one small adjustment to Daniel’s method which helps if you find his “reverse to do list” too hard to do. Use this approach if you are dealing with very unpleasant or difficult tasks, or as a way to get started if you have a serious procrastination problem: If you have a short tolerance for drudgery or unpleasantness, put a pleasant reinforcing task as every third or fourth task. In the extreme, you can even do “task pairs” of unpleasant and pleasant tasks. The downside of this approach is that you risk getting sidetracked early in the day on something very reinforcing. You can’t be playing an Internet game every hour. So in most cases, it’s best to withhold the super pleasant, highly reinforcing tasks until later in the day when you’ve accomplished something.
Another suggestion for dealing with unpleasant, difficult or ill-defined projects comes from the GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology: Determine just the very Next Action, the first concrete step needed to get things moving for your procrastinated projects. It could be making a first phone call to get some information, or buying needed supplies. Put these Next Actions ahead of the more pleasant tasks in your “reverse to do list”
Procrastination is not the only problem than can be attacked using the Premack Principle. Here are a few other applications I’ve come up with myself. Perhaps you can think of your own:
- Workouts. For a more effective workout at the gym, start with the more difficult exercises or the ones you dislike, and save those that are more relaxing or enjoyable for the end of the workout. When going for an outdoor run, do the steepest uphill section first and end with the downhill.
- Dieting. To cut back on calorie intake, start your meal with low-calorie appetizers and end with a small calorie-dense dessert. This is much better than starting out with calorie dense appetizers. If you practice intermittent fasting, do the fasting in the beginning of the day and break your fast as late in the day as possible. That gives you something to look forward to as a reward for your discipline. This may be why most people who practice fast-5 break their fasts in the late afternoon or early evening, rather than in the morning.
- Phone calls. When making phone calls, make the one you don’t want to make first, end with the people you like talking to.
- Space organizing. When re-organizing a cluttered house or work area, start with the worst or most visible area first. You’ll notice the impact immediately and it will give you the energy to continue.
The Premack Principle can be thought of as yet another application of Hormetism, the application of a controlled stress to build your adaptive strength and resilience. With the Premack Principle, you are actively reshaping the way you respond to unpleasant or challenging tasks. The more you apply it, the more you will lower the barrier to doing these difficult tasks the next time around.
Try it today (don’t procrastinate) and let me know if it helps your day go a little smoother.