Or, I’m not lazy as such. I’m more of a work avoider.
Ok, I’m not really a work avoider. I love to do stuff. I just have a bit of trouble getting started.
Folks, my name is Filip and I’ve got procrastinitis. I procrastinate. Not because I want to. Not because I need to. Not even because I don’t want to do the work. I procrastinate because it’s hard getting started.
There are a lot of reasons why you can’t get started. Perhaps you don’t know what you want to do. Perhaps you don’t have the skills. Perhaps you don’t have the time[note]No, you aren’t going to get more time by waiting. That way lies madness, I tell you, maaaaadness.[/note].
But perhaps all you’re missing is the right hook.
What’s a Hook?
A psychological hook is something that can pull on your thoughts and feelings. Books have hooks – it’s when a story starts by giving you information but not giving you all the information. Take a look at these:
- I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. (Ender’s Game, amazing book. Way better than the movie.) – Who is “he”? And who’s talking?
- It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451, a Science Fiction classic.) – Who’s talking? What is it that they’re burning?
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984. Come on, you haven’t read 1984?!? Read it now!) – How the hell can clocks strike 13? What kind of a weird place is this?
- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Started the whole Cyberpunk movement, which then split off into such wonderful genres like Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and Clockpunk.) – Weird image, what’s going on here? Why is it dead? What port?
- Call me Ishmael. (You know, just so I can prove I’ve read the classics. Yeah, it’s Moby Dick. I’ve tried reading it but never managed to make it past the first few chapters. So no, I haven’t read the classics. Read Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. That’s a classic.)
All of those lines serve one purpose: to give the reader a start, somewhere for the mind to start unraveling the story. And you can use this technique to beat procrastination.
How Hooks Work
We humans love mysteries. We love to create stories, to build upon what we’ve got. It’s a very basic part of our psychology. In fact there’s an entire associative/reactive part of our minds, what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1, that does nothing but creates our view of the world based on the ease with which it can form associations.
That’s a key point here: it doesn’t matter how hard something is. It doesn’t matter how large something is, or how it is in reality. What matters to our psyche is how easily our System 1 can form associations about it.
There’s a famous experiment by German psychologist Norbert Schwarz asked students to remember six instances of when they acted assertively. Another group was asked to remember 12 instances. Now, you might think that remembering more instances of when you acted assertively would make you feel that you were pretty assertive, right?
Not so. What happened was that the students who remembered six instances felt a lot more assertive than the students who remembered twelve. This has nothing to do with whether they were assertive or not, and everything to do with how our brain works. We’re hardwired to regard things that come to mind easily as true, easy, joyful and plentiful (this is even true about negative things – recalling easy-to-remember negative things will make you more prone to smiling).
So what’s this got to do with beating procrastination? This:
Using Hooks to Beat Procrastination
The more able you are to associatively (using System 1) know what to do next, the less likely you are to procrastinate. For example, if you are going to clean the house, this might feel difficult – you need to consider what “cleaning the house” implies (do we vacuum the garage as well? do we start by making the beds? putting away the books?[note]Don’t put away the books. If you’re going to procrastinate, procrastinate in style![/note]), which is a generalized mental task, you need to consider where to begin, another generalized task, and you need to choose an option of what to do next, which involves cognition and causes ego depletion, with all its implied pitfalls. If you’re trying to beat procrastination you sure are stacking the deck against you.
But consider this: you have a glass standing on your table. Picking it up and putting it in the dishwasher (or sink, or washing it), is a specific mental task. Our associative mind immediately activates images to other times when we removed a glass, how clean the table looked and how good we felt over everything being clean. Cleaning away a glass usually doesn’t cause procrastination.
This is why breaking up things into small pieces works: our System 1 is adept at making associations from simple actions but is hard pressed to do so for complex tasks. In fact, when we see a simple task (or rather, a task that we easily can form associations about) we are hardwired to enjoy it. We tend to feel more certain and are more likely to act.
That’s what you need to do. You need to give your associative mind that hook.
Always Set Hooks for the Future
I do an ideas practice each day. I start with a blank page and write down at least 10 ideas.
Except that this didn’t work for me. I was suffering from procrastination. The task was too vague, and I couldn’t associate to what I needed to do. This made me feel like the task was insurmountable.
So I started writing down a topic to write ideas about. This was the last thing I did when I practiced my idea-muscles[note]Mental muscles, nothing dirty in here![/note]. This, in turn, gave me an instant association to what I needed to do. I knew that all I needed was to look at my practice document and there I’d have the next topic all ready. Thinking about ideas practice immediately associated to the feeling of writing ideas, of knowing what to do. By preparing a hook beforehand I managed to beat procrastination.
The same thing happens when I finish a story: If I don’t have another story already started, just a few sentences, then I have a much harder time sitting down to write. Same thing with these blog posts – no hook prepared and my mind shies away. I find myself doing other things. Instant procrastination.
That’s why I always try to leave a hook when I’m done with a recurring action. And I leave it in the same place, making sure that I’m never faced with a blank page. Thus “start this action” associates with “look there”, which is specific, easy and enjoyable. I want to do whatever it is I need to do. No procrastination.
How about you? Do you suffer from procrastinitis? Share your stories in the comments.