How to Procrastinate Yourself Toward Success

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Two years ago, I started writing my PhD thesis. I had already done the hard part: all the experiments, the data analysis, even publishing a paper. Now I just had to sit at my desk and describe everything I’ve done in the lab, so I could finally get my title.

This shouldn’t take long, right?

Wrong! To this day, I’m still struggling to find the time, motivation, and discipline to buckle down and do it. But recently I stumbled upon a solution. During the past month, I managed to do as much progress as in the six months before that. You want to know how? I procrastinated my way toward my goals.

Like most people here, I’m quite familiar with procrastination. Let’s face it: that’s why you’re surfing the internet right now, instead of doing that thing. You know very well what I’m talking about. And the worst part is that while we keep fooling around, the list of things we have to get done keeps getting longer and longer.

Frustration at work
Frustration by Peter Alfred Hess

Case in point: my current top priorities are:

  1. finishing the PhD thesis
  2. writing a book
  3. planning our wedding.

Each day I wake up and think: Today I’m going to work toward these three goals. Or at least two of them. Fine, I’ll settle for one, as long as it gets me closer to finally achieving it. Then I sit at my desk (never try to work toward your goals in bed, it won’t work!) with a cup of coffee (you know you need that coffee, stop fooling yourself) and decide which of the three tasks to tackle.

To my surprise, during the past month, I’ve picked the PhD thesis about 3 times out of 5. Although it’s not the most pressing task (the wedding is), nor the newest/most entertaining goal (the book is), I keep deciding to work on the hardest one, which is writing the thesis.

Here’s the trick: whenever I feel too tired or unmotivated to write for my thesis, I take a break and ponder.

Do you want to work on the thesis or would you rather pick wedding invitations and call that girl with the cupcakes? Or maybe you want to finish the book chapter that froze your mind last time.

And before you know it, I’m adding citations and working on figures like there’s no tomorrow.

I’m basically using the PhD thesis to feed my inner procrastination monkey. It’s a way to avoid working on those other two tasks. But it’s also getting me closer to my goals, one day at a time. And whenever the procrastination monkey is on to the trick, I work on one of the other tasks for a day or two.

There’s probably some psychological explanation why this works. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. If so, let me know. And if not, give it a try! Stop fighting your inner procrastination monkey. Embrace it and work together toward your goals.

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3 thoughts on “How to Procrastinate Yourself Toward Success”

  1. Hi, Bogdan.

    Without further ado, here’s an article that methinks you might find interesting:

    The Many Faces of Perfectionism (Monitor on Psychology, November 2003)

    “Paul Hewitt, PhD, does not have much patience with researchers who argue that perfectionism – the ‘need’ to be or appear ‘perfect’ – can sometimes serve as a healthy motivation for reaching ambitious goals. «I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive,» he says. . . .

    “Since the early 1990s, Hewitt and Flett, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, have championed the idea that perfectionism comes in different ‘flavors’ [namely ‘self-oriented’, ‘other-oriented’, and ‘socially prescribed’], each associated with different kinds of problems. Some of those problems may be less severe than others, they argue, but no form of perfectionism is completely problem-free.

    “Other researchers, however, have suggested that some forms of perfectionism – particularly those that involve high personal standards – can be adaptive. . . .

    “At the heart of the debate lies a disagreement over definitions: what exactly is meant by the words [‘self-oriented’,] ‘adaptive’ and ‘perfectionism’.

    “For some researchers, the debate can be resolved by dividing perfectionists into two types, adaptive and maladaptive. . . .

    “Not everyone agrees that such a distinction is the best solution. . . .

    “In particular, talk of adaptiveness often ignores the role of context in determining whether a particular attitude or behavior is adaptive, says Frost, a professor at Smith College. . . .

    “As a practicing psychologist who frequently treats perfectionists, Hewitt avoids focusing on high personal standards. . . .

    “«I work more on the precursors of perfection: the need to be accepted, to be cared for,» says Hewitt. «Those interpersonal needs are what drive the perfectionistic behavior.»”

    • Doc, see also – maybe this will help you with your pro-cras-ti-na-tion (big word) issues:

      1. What ‘Flavor’ of Perfectionist Are You? It Matters! (Psychology Today blogs, April 2008)

      “It was originally assumed . . . that perfectionism undermines our action; all perfectionism was seen as maladaptive. It’s not that simple. Perfectionism is multi-dimensional, or there’s more than one ‘flavor’.
      “My focus today is on a relatively recent study . . . report on adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. . . .
      “Because the blog is about procrastination, I’ll simplify things by keeping my focus on this aspect of their results. As they summarize the findings, «Regarding procrastination, results indicated that socially prescribed only participants reported a tendency to procrastinate more than self-oriented only and generally perfectionistic participants. Additionally, non-perfectionistic students procrastinated more than did the self-oriented only participants». . . .
      “Clearly, at least in terms of procrastination, there are adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism.”

      2. Perfectionism: Are You Sure It Pays Off? (International OCD Foundation)

      “Try [a motivational interviewing] strategy with [obsessive-compulsive (OC)] perfectionists: «What are the payoffs of your perfectionistic behavior?» You get a much different and longer list of positive outcomes than for [the ‘typical’] compulsive behavior: good grades in school, feelings of accomplishment, praise from others, special recognition by a boss, etc. You then ask: «What are the costs of your perfectionism?» In this case you typically get an equally long list of negatives: time-consuming anxiety, provoking interpersonal conflict with others, low self-esteem («Nothing ever feels good enough»), etc. This is a trickier situation in that [OC] perfectionists on average see their perfectionism as something they like and value about themselves, even though they are able to recognize the costs. However, if you challenge their perfectionism they typically feel misunderstood, or believe that you are asking them to «just be average.» . . .
      Missing deadlines and procrastination: Procrastination [delaying] goes hand in hand with missing deadlines and is fueled by the belief that one should «Do it ‘right’ or don’t do it at all.» [OC p]erfectionists are [sometimes] shocked to hear that they are a perfectionist because, «My room/desk is always a mess.» If you ask them why it’s a mess, they say that in order to clean it up the ‘right way’ it would take enormous energy and effort they feel they don’t have. So they wait for a burst of energy or motivation, then work multiple hours without a break until exhausted, only to be dissatisfied in the end because they will still see something done ‘imperfectly’. These strategies and outcomes are remembered the next time the project [or task] comes up (e.g., cleaning their room), so avoidance and procrastination ‘kick in’ as the person says, «I just don’t have the motivation or energy to clean my room. I must be a lazy person.»”

      Note: There are some parts in this second article that I personally don’t agree with, such as that ‘wanting to stand out’ is healthy, or that one should write their own funeral eulogy (‘What do you want to be remembered for?’) in order to help them prioritize their tasks – I disagree because, in my opinion, that would simply lead to ‘socially prescribed’ (anankastic?) perfectionism. But, hey, I’m only a postman. 🙂

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