Recognizing when you procrastinate

May 2011

in Self-awareness

Many of the methods for defeating procrastination are difficult to use if you don’t recognize when you are procrastinating, both though introspection of your past, and in the moment. This seems to me like an extremely important procrastination meta-skill.

For example, maybe I believe the reason I never floss my teeth is because I wrongly perceive that it has low value—and so I constantly remind myself how glad I’ll be in 40 years that I flossed regularly, yet still not do it—when the real problem is very high impulsiveness, especially when I’m tired. While using a value-increasing technique may help, if the core problem is impulsiveness then I won’t be taking the most effective actions.

It is very difficult to say, “Next time I’m being distracted by Reddit I’ll refocus myself, review my goals, and work on what’s important.” This is because what’s causing you to procrastinate (impulsiveness, low-valued tasks, whatever) is often the very thing preventing you from using your head and realizing that you’re not doing what you should be doing in the first place!

So there are two problems: incorrectly diagnosing the source of the procrastination, and being unable to initiate a ‘fix’ to the problem in real-time because you’re not even aware that it’s happening.


The only way I can think of to catch procrastination when it happens is to periodically assess your procrastinating tendencies. Then, using the Procrastination Equation from Piers Steel that I mentioned recently, categorize your sources of procrastination as falling under Expectancy, Value, Impulsiveness, and Delay. (A source can be from more than one category at once.) Having a breakdown like this will help you search for low-hanging fruit and then plan things in advance that will improve your procrastination.

Think about the clues that tell you that’s what you’re doing: for example, a nagging voice in your head, a visual image of what you are avoiding or the consequences of not doing it, physical ailments (stomach tightness, headaches, muscle tension), inability to concentrate, inability to enjoy what you are doing.1

Procrastination can be hard to catch, especially if you’re using ‘busywork’ to put off doing what really needs to be done. Browsing the internet or watching TV for 10 hours is pretty obvious, but cleaning the dishes rather than starting on that hard project is not always so obvious, because you are doing work. And not to say that this busywork isn’t important, there’s just a good chance it’s not the most important thing to be working on, all the time.

Here is my latest assessment of my procrastination sources:

In my case, high Impulsiveness seems to be the most common problem, followed by low Value, then low Expectancy, and finally high Delay.

Plan Ahead

Oh how ironic it would be to get this far and then stop, by being distracted by something ‘more important’ or Reddit or Digg or forgetting the value in reducing how much you procrastinate.

After assessing yourself, come up with *concrete actions* you can do to help reduce procrastination. Otherwise, what was the point?

I’m still working out exactly what I should do, particularly for my impusliveness. I’ll be posting again on that soon. (I’m not procrastinating, I swear!)


Finally, your first self-assessment might be wrong. I may have a huge problem with Expectancy without even realizing it. So, reassessment is key. I’m not at this point yet, but within a few weeks I plan to assess how well the techniques I use have worked. Expect a future update.


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