Procrastination: It’s the Age not the Size of the Monster
Procrastination. Nearly everyone does it at least occasionally, ending with curses and empty promises. Why is it so familiar yet idiosyncratic?
You might procrastinate terribly on a task that takes 5 minutes, but then buckle down on some grueling project. Maybe you like the grueling project more? But then you’ll immediately do a 5-minute task but procrastinate on a nearly identical one. Were you in a more productive mood that day? But why didn’t you end up doing the other 5-minute task as soon as you were in a productive mood?
We think of procrastination as just not wanting to do something, that a task's unpleasantness is the driver. This doesn’t seem to explain the quirks though.
A model that does seem to work better though is that it’s about the age, not the size, of the monster you're avoiding.
By “size” I mean the intrinsic scariness of the task while by “age” I mean something like “how many times you’ve seen it and fled”. This is correlated to how long the task has been around, though really it's about how much experience you have running away from it.
(Running away: Anytime you’ve thought “I should probably do that thing” and then not actually done it.)
Whenever you feel the pang of “I should do that” but then soothe that feeling with a “but not right now” you are rewarding yourself for not doing that thing.
Bad feelings → Do X → No bad feelings
This is textbook avoidance and escape conditioning, where X is “procrastinating”.
Of course, how initially scary a task is will affect whether you'll procrastinate; you’re more likely to run away that first time, making a conditioning feedback loop more likely.
However, we procrastinate on many small tasks for no discernable reason, and on big tasks we avoid making even small, tentative steps. This is often something of a famous for being famous situation: you procrastinate because you procrastinate. Once you've started procrastinating for some tangential reason, e.g. you're short on time at that moment, you further condition yourself whenever you again avoid the task. Eventually, it's built up into a seemingly-unconquerable monster.
This I think explains why the advice of “break the task down into smaller, more manageable tasks” so often fails. The problem usually isn't that the task is too big and scary (you probably already have a sense of the sub-tasks anyway), the problem is that you're conditioned not to go anywhere near it! Breaking a 10-hour task into 10-minute sub-tasks isn’t helpful when you’ve proven yourself perfectly capable of procrastinating from 5-minute jobs.
What's often more helpful is figuring out a painfully tiny way to start. This must be so tiny that it’s genuinely painfully embarrassingly to not do it. For example, with an email you haven't replied to it would be something like opening the email and starting a blank draft—but nothing more.
You may get the urge to beat yourself up for needing to start so ridiculously small, but that’s when you need to remember it’s about the age, not size! You’ve procrastinated from this so you’re conditioned to find it especially aversive; the conditioning overwhelms the facts on the ground.
This reframing helps me not be too hard on myself because I'm reminded that “old” beats “small” any day of the week.
But more importantly, I’ve come to mostly recognize the feeling of task aversion and use it as a signal that I must do, delegate or delete immediately because otherwise, the monster will grow with each passing day.
You may note this weekly post is arriving on a Sunday night. ↩︎