I read an article the other day, somewhere online in which the author suggested several things to do, daily in order to remain productive in your professional career. The author mentions posting several or more industry based content to all your social media accounts, including networking, completing several goal oriented tasks, locker-room chit-chat, etcetera. Didn’t the author mean all in one week, I thought? I had to look back at the title. Are they really that productive? Aren’t we all just hooked-up to intravenous caffeine running through our veins while burning a candle at both ends? No?
Well, I personally can’t seem to catch my tail. I’m overwhelmed with lists and to-do’s. I refrain from posting stickies but tasks find their way into my everyday life, even obstructing my sleep through apps that beep, LED lights that flash and emails that chime. I wonder which app or program was it that convinced me to integrate all these GTD apps onto every personal wireless device or tablet that I own? Was it IFTTT? Or was it the native app, itself? I can’t seem to recall.
Nevertheless, I decided to take a closer look at the root of the problem and soon realized that perhaps there are people out there who don’t find it part of their daily religion to procrastinate. In my case, when I procrastinate, I perform meaningless, mindless activities such as organizing papers, filing, shredding, surfing the web and the like. I realize that I am ultimately wasting away my day but somehow can’t seem to control myself, like some mindless, wide-eyed, giggling robot that gets a kick out of sorting mail into “urgent”, “scan” and “follow-up” piles; as if I’ll really get around to doing these things. But for some reason I find these tasks less daunting than what the required tasks at hand have in store for me. I seem to find these mindless tasks immediately gratifying, perhaps even rewarding?
Maybe so, according to Dr. Chrisoula Andreou, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Utah. In her article Understanding Procrastination in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, the author states that “compared with an aversive task, a merely boring chore counts as relatively rewarding” (p. 185). The author goes on to describe that as animals, we forgo “future utility” in order to gain personal satisfaction in the present. I think I’ve heard of this before somewhere.
Dr. Andreou explains how past studies prove that the closer a smaller reward (e.g. watching a TV show), the more likely we will succumb to that smaller reward. However, if the larger reward is nearer, (e.g. imminent deadline for the completion of a novel), the more likely we will complete the larger reward. However, let’s say that the larger reward gets pushed off to the future again (e.g. novel completion deadline gets extended another month), then the smaller reward (e.g. watching that TV show) seems much more rewarding again. (This is so me.) The author describes this phenomena as preference reversal and demonstrates this on discount curves; a discussion beyond the scope of this post.
In identifiying the root of the problem we procrastinators can avoid self-deprecation and gain faith in our abilities to be productive. Any advice so far? Well, Dr. Andreou recommends imposing strict deadlines that hold high repercussions (e.g. financial penalties or verbal commitments to friends and family) to the procrastinator since this technique has been shown to improve productivity.
It looks like my filing will have to take a back seat. Oh, the horror.
Andreou, C. (2007). Understanding Procrastination. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 37(2), 183–193. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2007.00331.x