Eureka! Impulsivity and Procrastination

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.


p>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…


  1. Erica 9 years ago

    Ooh, Dave, get out of my head. Starting is also where I run into trouble. Now that I work from home and my work is entirely self-directed (which has many advantages) I struggle greatly with productivity. I’ve been fiddling with a to-do system and project management and time management and still have yet to feel like I’m on top of it all, whether I’m actually getting stuff done or not.

  2. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Erica: First, congratulations on working from home! Second, one of the breakthroughs I made for myself was to start creating shorter but more meaningful todo lists, but of course “meaningful” is kind of a loaded word. I started by separating “customer service” from “quality work” in my unspoken expectations of how my work was supposed to go every day to start. This might be an interesting blog post in itself. Being entirely self-directed is wonderful, but it also means that we carry all the overhead of having multiple expectations and responsibilities that kind of work against each other. For example, the manager hat is impatient, but the work hat requires patience. Hard to maintain a sense of calm when both parts of one’s head are unhappy, and the distraction itself kills productivity.

  3. Avrum 9 years ago

    “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.”

    Son of a gun. I literally (and I mean, like 3 min ago) just finished speaking with a graphic designer about creating a worksheet (a la Mr. Seah) that would allow me to log how I spent my day re: thinking, feeling and doing. The overall goal… it would read like a narrative, with all the natural arcs of a story.

    Like you, I have also found myself giving into “impulses to follow my flights of curiosity”, and have eschewed most to-do lists, and other popular productivity advice (SMART goals…. ugh). However I’m quite committed to a Weekly Review/Reflection, and would like to create some scaffolding for this via a worksheet.

    The challenge: Can I design a sheet that is attractive enough to use on a daily basis, that, at the end of my week, tells a story (good, bad… whatever). I’m not sure, but I’m giving it a whirl.

  4. LouLou 9 years ago

    Hey Dave, good to see you’ve had a breakthrough.

    I’m a huge procrastinator too. Getting started is a big problem, as is maintaining focus once I get started, unless there is an impending deadline that focuses my attention to the exclusion of all else. Through using your ETP form I log what I actually do. I found that, on reflection at the end of the day, I often get done a lot more done than I give myself credit for. So hey, stop beating yourself up!

    Have you seen this article on Business Insider [dot] com : “How Procrastinating Can Make You More Productive”. It seems that the art of ‘structured’ procrastination is in making this trait work for you.

  5. Heather Brannon, MD 9 years ago

    Hi Dave, This is a great article because you describe your process (or lack of process when it comes to procrastination) very well. I thought it was very interesting that there is a genetic link between procrastination and impulsivity. I’ll have to go read the original article but I would say that genetic link is AD/HD. I know you didn’t want to change by taking medication but this is the exact situation where medication makes a big difference – when it comes to starting….without all the angst. When AD/HD meds are optimized people will say:

    • I closed those drawers in the kitchen while I was walking by.
    • When the dryer bell went off I just got up and got the clothes out.
    • When I was done eating I put my dish and silverware in the dishwasher
    • I don’t have to debate with myself whether I really need to get another roll of toilet paper out from under the sink vs just using these Kleenex’s that are within reach for toilet paper….for 4 days in a row.

    I certainly don’t want to be a pest but I see every day how much better things can be.

  6. Avrum 9 years ago

    [edited for formatting]

    I certainly don’t want to be a pest but I see every day how much better things can be.

    There is something icky about an MD offering their wares on the heels of a vulnerable blog post.

    This does little to debunk many of the concerns about our profession.

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    A Quick Followup RE: Avrum’s July 31 comment:

    Heather and I have corresponded about the AD/HD stuff before, in email and also in this past blog post, so I’m considering her comment as an ongoing conversation; she’s not a random MD popping in here to hawk her services, but is instead showing me the correlation she sees between what I’m writing about and her own professional experience.

  8. Avrum 9 years ago

    Hi Dave.

    Thank you for the follow-up. And yes, given the context, the post seems less swarmy.

    However, for every anecdote such as this:

    “When AD/HD meds are optimized people will say: I closed those drawers in the kitchen while I was walking by. When the dryer bell went off I just got up and got the clothes out.”

    I have encountered a plethora of nasty stories as well (over-prescription/diagnosis of ADHD in kids, adults, etc). Suffice it to say, in the area of psychiatry (and i’m married to one – and though biased, think she’s an excellent shrink) and mental health, the old adage of “buyer beware” might serve you well.

    Best of luck

  9. Cricket 9 years ago

    Heather, thanks for your comments. They were one more push towards me trying something else, since the old method of willpower and lists wasn’t working, and I was getting pretty depressed over it, but unable to think of what else to try. (Could be depressed for other reasons, but that’s the reason I identified.) The psychiatrist thinks ADHD meds will help, and identified another pattern that’s causing problems in other areas, which is increasing stress overall. (Still in the “internet says it’s terrible!” stage of working through it, but I know that’s temporary, and most of the features are real strengths, unless taken to extreme. And wondering if we incorrectly ruled out another pattern when I recognized the set of questions. I count it as progress, and will discuss it all with my regular counselor.)

    (I prefer “pattern” rather than condition or disorder.)

    Avrum, I share your concern about meds being over prescribed. Our pediatrician tried to put my son on them when he was 8, after a single page questionnaire when I’d had two young kids for an hour in the waiting room. He was right to raise the question, and private extensive tests confirmed his suspicions. However, his teachers, who are pro-meds for some kids, said he didn’t need them. He was learning well and not disruptive, though his social skills were a few years behind. Oblivious rather than obnoxious. We left it as “no meds for now”, put him in a social skills group for a season, and since my husband and I already use the standard ADHD tools of calendars and lists, made a big deal whenever we used them, then continued as normal. We also discussed it with him, including problems he might have without the meds, and the difference between street and doctor meds. Eight years later, he still has ADHD, but only on the tests, or if you know what to look for. He’s also happy with his life, and on track for a scholarship to robotics engineering. He’s doing fine without a calendar, for now, and will just have to learn that lesson the hard way. (Actually, my psychiatrist said most people don’t need a calendar, but I think that’s just crazy talk.)

    Dave, thanks for letting the conversations wander a bit. Sometimes I see a pattern I need to watch out for in my own life, or new hope that something will work.

  10. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Cricket: Thanks for sharing, and thanks for continuing the conversation. I think it’s pretty cool that you’re letting your son take the path he’s taking, and that it’s fascinating that your psychiatrist said “most people don’t need a calendar”. That strikes me as nuts too…I’d like to put together a profile on what “normal” is anyway in these people’s minds!!!

    (a few minutes later)

    I’m still stuck on the idea of living without a calendar. HOW DOES THAT WORK without everything falling apart? If there was a way to work with calendars, but opportunities, that would be what I want. Working for other people’s schedules is perhaps a way of letting another person’s priorities run roughshod over one’s own, an insidious tool of the benign oppressor?

  11. cricket 9 years ago

    I find a calendar, used well, is a way to stop other people’s priorities from running roughshod over mine.

    Hear: “Let’s go over this important information … sometime” Pull out calendar and say: “Either agree to a date, or agree the meeting isn’t going to happen.”

    (Many of the people in my hobby groups back out of their commitments. “I only volunteered because no one else did.” By now, it’s never a surprise to me. If they commit to this one, but mention even one other commitment or project, even in passing, but don’t pull out a calendar, then I know they won’t make time for the new one, usually long before they realize it themselves. If they either pull out a calendar or say, “I need to think about it before committing,” I trust them. Some refuse to commit because they don’t have their calendar with them. I suspect they know they have an easily-twisted arm, so leaving the calendar at home is intentional.)

    Friday morning, look at calendar, pick up phone: “You agreed to get back to me later this week. It’s now Friday.”

    “Let’s meet Monday morning.” Pull out calendar. “Sorry, Monday is nuts for me. How about Wednesday?”

    I’m pretty good at the first few. Not so good at saying, “I could squeeze another meeting in, but that would make it a 3-meeting day, so I’ll be tired, and the other meetings all have prep and/or things I will want to do shortly after.” Even worse at looking at the days before and after. (Progress: I respected my new “2 non-routine appointments per week” rule last week when making phone calls. In September, I averaged 1 a day, in addition to 4 recurring weekly appointments. I include group meetings and fun things as appointments. Anything where the time is set. I need a calendar that has room for “15 hour with other people and travelling, things tied to the clock; and 20 hours for anytime work; that leaves 5 hours.” Some people do well with penciling in time for anytime projects, but historically I rarely do what I’d planned when I’d planned.)

    The other pattern the psychiatrist found was OCPD. With the P. Very different from OCD. It countered the ADHD for most of my life. It’s why I could use a calendar, and even when most with ADHD can’t. Most of my strengths are directly related to it, and also the way I view and handle failure. And, looking back, other bits of the pattern cause me way too much stress, are causing problems with my daughter (who may also have it), and when I get depressed they’re a big part of it.

    How do they define normal?

    Start with a bunch of questions. Some of the questions are “In the past 2 weeks, have you struggled with…” Some are more objective, asking you to remember 10 numbers. Some of them are really neat. What they look for isn’t what you’d expect. Definitions, it’s not just whether you know the word, but how you define it. Analogy, functional, example, word history, in context. (I asked. Looking up the words when you go home isn’t cheating, it’s who you are. That’s one reason they don’t repeat the tests too close together.) One, they showed a picture of geometric shapes for 60 seconds, then replaced it with a similar picture and asked him to mark the differences. He aced it, compared to other kids his same age. Same test, but this time a cartoon of people in a library. He bombed it. Some kids do much better on the social one than the geometric one. Average kids, of course, do average on both.

    Give the questions to a bunch of people. (Cynic alert: Usually variations on the WEIRD population. Or kids who live near the university developing them, with teachers and parents willing to participate. That test that compared ADHD traits to DNA? Totally skewed, since the sample was heavily-biased towards those who go to the local science centre during the week, as a family, since parental permission was required and parents had to answer the ADHD-screening questions. Our kids were very proud to help Science.)

    Rinse and repeat a few times. Look for questions that always have the same answer, throw in some to check for consistency (not just answering at random, or always saying “worst”), and those that do or don’t support other patterns. Compare results with other tests, sometimes done on the same kids, sometimes on an historical set which was skewed in a different way), and say why yours is more-useful. “This 5-minute questionnaire gives the same results as the old 60-minute one that needs a professional to administer.” “This test predicts, more-accurately than the old one, which kids are likely to get suspended.” “This version more-accurately shows the differences between visual and aural skills.” “Those that score high in this set usually also have problems in these areas / respond well to this treatment.”

    Some are just to compare you to others on a bell curve. “In the 90th percentile for at least 3 categories”. Those are usually used when funding is involved. If you don’t meet the exact criteria by a hair, no extra funding. Some are more bimodal. (Bimodal?) They want to clearly distinguish between Has It and Doesn’t Have It.

    For myself, as an adult, I care more about “How does it affect you” tests. That OCPD pattern I was so proud of, and was a big part of my early successes, sometimes gets so extreme it causes me a lot of stress, and has done so for decades, and when I’m depressed, it’s a big part of what holds me there. Definitely I pattern I want to change, especially since my teenage daughter is “cognitively inflexible” herself. Knowing how I score vs the rest of the population is also useful. “Most people don’t get upset when they don’t manage to…” helps put it in perspective. So does, “You are not alone.”

    Definite pattern emerging with the ADHD meds. Still getting distracted, but then focusing on the distraction really, really well.

  12. cricket 9 years ago

    About most people and calendars:

    Last night, someone asked me to confirm a meeting time and place. Another asked me for the email address of a third, so she could confirm a meeting. (I guess most people don’t need address books, either. The meeting wasn’t in my calendar, since I didn’t plan to go.)

    All the group leaders I work with say they have to send out reminders several times before meetings, something I refuse to do.

    So, yeah, most people don’t need calendars. And I very rarely do jobs that require organizing other people.

  13. cricket 9 years ago

    All that information was sent in email, usually in the meeting minutes. I sent the address list to all members last month. Guess most people don’t need minutes or email archives either.

    (Those who do fine without, I have no problem with. I don’t mind, too much, sending something a second time. But eventually, I lose patience.)

  14. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Cricket: Regarding people not needing calendars: it almost sounds like the “why” most people don’t need calendars is because they are not really making commitments they plan to keep; this is what is considered normal and acceptable? I never got that memo, if that’s the case.

  15. cricket 9 years ago

    And they’re using other people as calendars and archives.

    The person who purposefully doesn’t bring a calendar doesn’t make commitments. She expresses interest, but says, “I can’t commit because I don’t have my calendar.” It’s a crutch that helps her limit her commitments to those she knows she can keep.