Eureka! Impulsivity and Procrastination

I’m in the middle of my second experimental Themed Work Week, and I think I’ve discovered what I needed to know. It really comes down to addressing the difficulty in starting and its broader context. An article from The New Yorker kicks off the thread of reasoning.

Dissecting Procrastination

I’ve been beating my head against my procrastination habits for years, and have slowly built a pretty detailed personal understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Despite this, I didn’t have a clear anchoring concept that allowed me to “let go” of the issue. Until today, when I happened upon Maria Konnikova’s article in the New Yorker Getting Over Procrastination via the American Mensa Facebook page. The generic article title didn’t promise much, but it was published by The New Yorker magazine, and there was this helpful summary:

People who procrastinate also have problems with impulse control–and there’s a genetic basis for both traits.

Impulse control? I can identify with that. Konnikova’s article follows a conversation with Piers Steel, a psychologist at University of Calgary whose observations lead to this hypothesis: What if procrastination was simply the flip side of impulsivity?

This idea resonates with me quite a bit. I know that despite my best efforts to be systematically productive, I have strong impulses to follow my flights of curiosity to where they take me. I gave up on systemizing my day long ago, and have tried instead to devise methods of harnessing what I did happen to get done, adopting a “harvest” mentality as opposed to the “assembly line” mentality usually associated with productivity. My most recent attempt to tweak my system has involved logging how I SPEND my time along with how I FEEL about what I did. I’m now again aware of the strong negative force, mostly emotional in nature, that I have to battle to just get started on a task. So, I’ve brought back two self-starter tricks: the “15 minute start” that I learned from my music teacher friend Elise, and the “experiment first” approach which reduces the feeling that everything needs to come out perfect to be worth the effort.

It’s a relief to know I’m not alone in experiencing this, and that according to research lead by behavioral genetist Naomi Friedman, impulsivity and procrastination is indeed strongly correlated. In fact, the genetic correlation between these two traits is 1:1.

If this is truly the case, then we actually have ways of dealing with it, though it takes a bit of rethinking. Steel notes that the usual model for being productive comes from something called “S.M.A.R.T.“, an “objective-based” management approach that became popular in the 80s, emphasizing “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound” goals. I’m a firm believer in this, and I actually LIKE making up goals except I substite a different set of criteria that gathers “intent, expectation, and motivation” then defines “assumptions, risks, resources, and dependencies”. In hindsight, my system is designed to execute S.M.A.R.T. style while anticipating the flawed communication that can bedevil a small project. And yet, despite all the cleverness I can employ in devising a strategic plan, I still kinda suck at starting them without one of three different motivations at work: an immoveable window of opportunity, opportunistic experimental curiosity, or when leading a group in person. Since I avoid being pinned as the leader as much as possible, and by working at home I have few truly hard deadlines, the net result is that I don’t get as much done as I think I could be capable of. Thus, all the time I’ve spent lately figuring out what my “baseline of productivity” by logging and categorizing what I actually did so I could recalibrate my expectations.

But after reading Konnikova’s article, I see that recalibrating my expectations is probably not the real solution. It comes back to starting. Steel relates one of the self-control and goal-setting approaches he recommends (emphasis mine):

For instance, Steel uses timed ten-minute sessions to get started on tasks that he doesn’t quite want to do. “The problem with a goal we’re avoiding is that we’ve already built into our minds how awful it’s going to be,” he said. “So it’s like diving into a cold pool: the first few seconds are terrible, but soon it feels great.” So, set the goal of working on a task for a short time, and then reassess. Often, you’ll be able to stay on task once you’ve overcome that initial jump. “You don’t say, ‘I am going to write.’ You say, ‘I will complete four hundred words by two o’clock,’ ” Steel says. “The more specific, the more powerful. That’s what gets us going.”

Bingo! That’s totally why I don’t start stuff, because I imagine how awful it is. There are many layers to awfulness too, which the article doesn’t address. For me, I know that if I can get myself to start something, I can keep going on it for quite a while and even enjoy it. However, I’m still susceptible to the awfulness of knowing that having to do the task in the first place is indicative of a greater systemic awfulness, which makes each subsequent restart harder and harder.

As an example of this, imagine that someone volunteers you for a cumbersome task that has dire social status repercussions, so you pretty much have to do it. Eventually, you do the task, get it out of the way, and redeem your social credits. In a way, it feels productive and great because it’s done, but it’s STILL AWFUL that you were put in that situation in the first place, and that it probably will happen again. This is the greater context that bedevils all startable tasks of a mildly unpleasant nature, and I’d be curious to know how procrastination and impulsivity correlate with it.

The Main Takeaway

So what is the bottom-line takeaway for me? My thinking goes like this:

  • Although physically I’m not very impulsive, my mind is very much so. It is a strength because it makes me a very fast creative thinker. It is a weakness when it comes to sitting still, or anticipating the need to sit still, to actually harness those ideas and make them into something of tangible value.

  • Tangible value is what actually will grant me creative freedom, because it will give me the money to keep control of my life. Which requires sitting still and doing the meticulous work myself, to create the tangible value that can be exchanged for money.

  • Starting is the mechanical bottleneck.

In more narrative terms, I think the working principle that falls out of this is stay as weird as you are, Dave, but figure out that “Getting Started” trick and practice it a LOT. It’s an issue I have that not everyone has, and perhaps its even a genetic peculiarity like not liking Brocolli or being unable being able to curl up one’s tongue. To a lot of people, it will just seem nuts. But that’s water under the bridge; I’m not going to worry about the WHY anymore, because I feel I’ve come to find a suitable answer and can move on. From now on, this getting started iss JUST IS. It’s the main point of failure, mechanically speaking, in my “productivity engine.” It’s also an admission that I do have limits, which is kind of a big deal for me to admit. Argh! Grrr!

The second point of failure, efficiency-wise, is perhaps what I’m choosing to make with my productivity engine. That is the subject of the next blog post regarding the “eureka” of what my innate passion may truly be…