Procrastination is one of the most annoying human behaviors. Even though we realize that it’s often small tasks that we’ve been putting off, and we’d probably feel better if we did them earlier, we can’t seem to go against our tendency to procrastinate. Understanding how procrastination works doesn’t mean we can stop it. At least not immediately. I still believe that understanding how and why we procrastinate may help improve our habits in the long run.
Anne-Laure LeCunff of Ness Labs has published two articles lately, sharing research around procrastination and introducing mental models for understanding the reasons behind this behavior. The DUST model contains four adjectives to describe tasks that we put off: difficult, unclear, scary, or tedious. Another model goes beyond that and includes eight procrastination triggers: boring, frustrating, difficult, stressful, ambiguous, unstructured, unrewarding, and meaningless.
I wanted to write this article to explain my personal experience with procrastination because I found both models not fitting well with what I experienced. I can relate to “unclear” and “ambiguous/unstructured” because I’ve found myself procrastinating when I don’t know exactly how to get started. Apart from that, I found others that I would like to explain.
For me, the main procrastination trigger seems to be a mismatch between the time I would like to spend on a task and the time that I should reasonably spend on it. It’s the choice between building a solution that works or a perfectly engineered solution. It’s the trade-off between executing a process or optimizing the process in ways that take more time now but could eventually (but not guaranteed) save time later. In other words, it’s a perfectionist’s problem—the fear of doing something in a mediocre way results in not doing it (maybe this fits “scary” from the DUST model). My difference is that I’m confident that I would have the skills to do it better, but I don’t have enough time (or the client doesn’t have enough budget). It may be a delusion, but I think it’s an interesting angle that I haven’t seen anywhere else yet.
In some cases, you can deliver what appears to be the same result with a perfect process or one that barely holds together. Whoever asked for the result may not care about the process, and I’m not sure how much the better one pays off in the long run. In these cases, “unrewarding/meaningless” may be good words because I’m doing something just for myself. I may care, but do I care enough to invest extra effort?
Another procrastination trigger is that when it’s apparent that I will miss a deadline or have already missed it, I find it even harder to get started. At least partly, this is the same perfectionism and time problem because I have to do something fast rather than doing it well in those cases. On the other hand, it requires facing yourself and your mistake. It’s easier to forget the looming deadline when you’re distracting yourself than when working on the project with that deadline itself. You may feel like whoever set that deadline, e.g., a client, might appear at every moment, and you have to explain yourself. Luckily, this is relatively easy to solve: ask for an extension of the deadline. Own your failure of delivering on time, and the stress dissolves. Then, you can focus on completing the task for the new deadline.
There’s another trigger that one could consider a combination of the previous two. I assume that I share this problem with other freelancers, entrepreneurs, and people who have a lot of priorities to juggle without clear order or who don’t like saying “no”. When you’re doing multiple projects in parallel, you will often end up overcommitting, and you will not be able to fulfill everything. It means you may have to deliver a flawed product or deliver too late, and you have to choose who you’re going to disappoint in which way. In these cases, I find that perfectionism leads to resignation. If I can’t satisfy all requirements, what’s the point in doing anything at all? I often find that I end up being tired, and I’m not sure if I’ve genuinely run out of steam or if it’s just a convenient excuse. However, once I’ve entirely accepted the situation that I’m in and then take a good rest, it’s easier to get back to my tasks the next day without procrastination.
I’m interested in your feedback! Can you relate to my experiences, or have you noticed some others for yourself?