to do list
Of course, you have heard of PROcrastination. That is the action of delaying or postponing something. It’s the “put off until tomorrow” that we feel bad about because we know we should have done it today. You can find lots of advice on how to stop procrastinating, but recently I read that there is a science of PREcrastination.

Precrastination, according to this new research, is the idea that we can make ourselves less productive by rushing to do tasks in the same way that we are less productive by putting them off.

The research goes back a few years to an odd experiment by psychologist David Rosenbaum. I was a psych minor as an undergrad and loved these weird experiments. In this one, he asked students to pick up a bucket and carry it down a hallway in the “easiest way possible.” They could pick up either a bucket that was halfway down the hallway or one that was close to the end of the hallway.

You would think that the logical choice is to pick up the one near the end. That way you wouldn’t have to carry it as far and be slowed down in the process.

But most of the students chose the bucket closest to the starting point. Huh?

Since this behavior was a surprise, the students were interviewed. Those that chose the near bucket said they did so that they would “get the task done as quickly as possible.” Of course, that makes no sense as it would take the same amount of time to reach the end of the hall with either bucket.

Subsequent studies have confirmed the phenomenon. There will always be some people who try to get tasks done as soon as possible, even if it means more effort overall.

This subsequent experimentation with other tasks has led Rosenbaum and other researchers to suggest that precrastination enables people to “reduce cognitive demand.” That is the official way to say that we like to get those items on our mental To-Do list off that list. It is the opposite of procrastination in that that it is nice to get things done rather than add to that cognitive load. But doing so may not actually be efficient in the end.

Carrying a bucket a bit further isn’t such a big deal, but real-world focus on urgent tasks rather than important ones, or rushing to finish tasks without planning and preparation can definitely affect productivity.

The Art of Procrastination

I have written about procrastination here before, and I always read articles I come across about things like ways to break out of procrastination. I am a procrastinator, but I get things done.

Unfortunately, there are always more things on the undone list, and I lay a lot of guilt on myself about all the things I do to avoid doing the things I really need to do. The coffee breaks spent staring at the sky, taking the dirty laundry downstairs, writing a blog post, watering the plants, taking a walk.

But of late, I have been rethinking procrastination.

Scientists who study procrastination find that we are lousy at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, we might avoid doctor and dental appointments, exercising, dieting, or saving for retirement.  We know they have benefits, but the rewards seem distant and we may even question those benefits. What if that money is not there when I retire? What if we don’t live long enough to retire?

Most of us prefer to do things with short-term and small rewards. The benefits of that coffee, watering the plants or writing a blog post may be small or even dubious, but we see an immediate result. I like the coffee and it igh give me some energy. The plants need me to survive, and I enjoy looking at them, I like completing things, even if it’s a post that take me only an hour to finish. It is finished. Check it off the To Do list.

Friends tell me I am very productive. And some articles I have read say that productive people sometimes are very poor at distinguishing between reasonable delay and true procrastination.

Reasonable delay can be useful. I will respond to the request for information from my colleague tomorrow after I talk to someone about it and gather more information. But true procrastination –  not responding to the colleague for no reason, or watering the plants and making coffee – is self-defeating.

It is a way to rethink blaming yourself. I don’t mean that you’re off the hook. I’m not giving myself a free pass on procrastinating in all cases. I’m rethinking the why of the delay.

ABDThere is a phrase in academia, “all but dissertation” or ABD, which describes a student who has finished coursework and maybe passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend their doctoral thesis.

It is a kind of club, though you don’t see people putting an ABD bumper sticker on their car bumper.

I had read an article by Rebecca Schuman  about the Ph.D. Completion Project that estimates the ten-year completion rate for that degree. For STEM disciplines, it is 55–64 percent. It’s 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.

So about half of those in these doctoral programs don’t make it after a decade of working at it.

Of course, some of those people don’t even make it all the way to the dissertation phase. I am in that particular club. I bailed on my Ph.D after two years because it no longer interested me. I kept taking courses and getting credits, but they didn’t apply to the degree.

Was I procrastinating? Was it a reasonable delay? I think it was the latter. the delay helped me figure out what I didn’t want, which is often important to figuring out what you do want.

Back then, I was teaching in a secondary school. The salary formula advanced me for having my M.A. plus 32 credits, even if those credits didn’t equal another degree. That was good. The doctorate would have meant more money, and would have been useful when I moved into working at a university.

The Ph.D. Completion Project statistics show that a lot of the people who don’t finish the degree are into the dissertation phase before they bail out. In that odd parallel universe of academia where the ABDs live you’ll find people who did years of research and racked up big tuition bills, and have come away with nothing to show but three scarlet letters they can wear.

I met some of them teaching jobs at 2-year colleges. It is possible that if you have impressive job experiences or publish a book or are a known quantity at a university (true in my case) you still might get a position (non-tenure, probably) at a 4-year school.

Some people have suggested that a new kind of degree between an M.A. and a doctorate might be offered — an “MFA” in other areas.

I attended a party for a friend this past summer who has finally completed the dissertation and degree. He is in his late 50s. He started late and moved ahead slowly but steadily because he enjoyed learning. Was he a procrastinator? He is an adjunct professor at a nearby university and I doubt that he expects to pick up a full-time position at this stage of his life. That’s a good attitude because the odds are against him.

There is an art to procrastination. It takes experience, skills and real work to do it right.

I no longer regret getting off the doctoral path. I really did not enjoy it. I was probably doing it for the wrong reasons. And now, I am long past the point where it would improve my life or work. I think it was reasonable delay.

This post is finished. I can check it off the list and make a cup of tea and look at the leaves falling off the trees onto the backyard deck. That is very pleasing to me. Yeah, I have to rake those leaves. But not now, not today.

The Value of Organizing Your Procrastination

Does it count as procrastinating when you’re just too busy to do something?  I had lunch with my friend Leon yesterday and he is always surprised at how much I seem to get done with work and with writing poetry or blog posts for my own pleasures. However, I always think that I am not accomplishing enough, or at least I’m not accomplishing enough of the “important” things.

I am so easily distracted. It is so much easier and more pleasant to walk in the woods, work in the garden, go out for coffee or watch a film than it is to call a lawyer about setting up an estate plan or finishing some webpages for work.

It might even be procrastination to write a  post about procrastination.

You won’t be motivated to do something that doesn’t have much value to you. Of course, “value” is relative. I have friends that do not understand what value I find in writing on blogs. (I have six that I use.) Certainly, there is no money in it. There are only a few comments that make you feel good about the writing. But there is the writing itself. I have been more disciplined about my writing by doing blogging than at any point in my life. I set myself deadlines – like writing something here on the weekend when I supposedly have the time.

Researchers call this malleability of value psychophysics and they say that there are ways to put value into tasks.

The best increase in the value of a task is when you have a passion for what you do. I like to work in my garden in the summer and I enjoy weeding and cutting the lawn. I’m know others see that as work or chores, but I find weeding relaxing and feel very satisfied when my garden is all clear of weeds. I will do it and  avoid doing other tasks outside like  powerwashing the fence.

But you are unlikely to be able to go through life only doing things you love to do. A technique I saw online to add value to a task that seems counter-intuitive is to take a boring task and make it more difficult. We sometimes do this with kids by turning a task into a game. Picking up the toys all over the floor becomes a race or a contest with time limits. As an English teacher, I have always dreaded grading papers. I often set myself parameters. If I grade 5 papers in 10 minutes (with a timer on the table), then I can take a break and have my coffee. If not, I have to do 5 more papers. This technique is known as adding “flow” (not a great term for it).

We also try to add meaning to the task by considering how doing it ultimately lead to something more pleasurable later.  Finishing grading student papers means having Sunday free from schoolwork. Finishing painting the hallway will make my wife happy. happy wife, happy life, it is said.

It’s hard to take on a job if you are physically or mentally tired Timing when you start something can be critical to completing it. The research I have read says that this depends upon your own circadian rhythm, but most people have the most energy during a period starting a few hours after they wake up and lasting about four hours. It’s 11 am as I type this and I woke up at 7:30 am this morning. However, I am a night owl and, for me, from 8 pm until the early hours of the morning are often my most productive in tasks that require writing, reading, organizing and being online. (It’s not a good time to be cleaning the garage, mowing the lawn or painting the fence.)

Some people work better when there is a routine to doing something. I know that sounds boring, but the person who jogs or uses their elliptical or heads out to the gym at 7 am every morning finds some stability in that.  If that sounds boring, then you may need to deliberately set up a routine that has variety built into it.

There are some other quick tips for energy that I have seen listed that you can sample as you wish and decide for yourself whether they work: drink lots of water, don’t eat things that contain wheat and other grains, use stimulants (from caffeine, to energy drinks to drugs) include short but intense exercise sessions (including stopping for a walk or a jumping jacks break), cold water on your face or a brisk (not warm) shower.

Of course, tasks that have actual rewards are less likely to be put off. There are the big rewards, like money and fame, and there are the smaller but still motivating ones, like my coffee break, a dinner out, or allowing myself to buy a totally frivolous thing. I cleaned out a bunch of junk in the basement last weekend and rewarded myself with some art supplies that I had wanted.Of course, I could have just bought those supplies, but seeing it as a gift to myself felt better.

I was working on a presentation about writing goals versus objectives for a presentation this past week. It’s not as easy as it sounds. One approach that is used in teaching, training and self-help courses is the idea of SMART goals. The SMART acronym is for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Anchored. The research on this is not super solid, but some ideas are worth considering.

For example, a goal of “cleaning out the garage” might be better set for Sunday afternoon as “sort through the old books in the garage and recycle or donate 75% of them.”  That’s more specific and therefore is also actually attainable in an afternoon. You could literally measure your success if you went from 8 boxes to 2 in that afternoon session. Last summer, I set my own garage-cleaning goal at filling one garbage can per weekend with stuff that I would just throw away, and I did it for 7 of 8 weekends. (I did get sidetracked looking through some boxes of old magazines which I am still convinced have some real monetary resale value. On this my wife disagrees.)

Just breaking up larger goals into smaller objectives with realistic deadlines can be very helpful.

I find that checking something off my To Do list is very satisfying. Unfortunately, I spend too much time making those lists. I also find it important and satisfying to keep track of things that got crossed off these lists as a a reminder of what did not get done.

Procrastination is normal. We all do it. Setting a goal to defeat it is doable. Get to it. Two more posts for this weekend and I can check that off the list.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

Today is the birthday of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519). I have always had a fascination for that Italian Renaissance polymath who was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. I love his notebooks that are full of drawings and his imagination.

I also love the many quotes credited to him. Here is one curious quote:

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.

Curious because, as far as I know, he never did get to experience flight, except in his vivid imagination.

He’s best known for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, two of the most famous paintings in the world, but he left fewer than 30 paintings when he died, and most of those were unfinished.

Though I make no claims to be a Leonardo in genius, I do identify with his perfectionism which often led to procrastination.

He worked on the Mona Lisa on and off for the last 15 years of his life. The Last Supper was likely only finished because his patron threatened to cut off his money.

He spent much, maybe too much, of his time drawing up plans for inventions. We marvel that he seems to have invented the submarine, the helicopter, the armored tank, and an alarm clock – but none of them were ever built in his lifetime.

We have 6,000 pages of his drawings and notes remaining today. We don’t know how many pages have been lost.  He moved from astronomy to anatomy to portraits to architecture the way I move from topic to topic on this and my other blogs.

Leonardo wrote these notebooks mostly in a backward script decipherable only in a mirror. Why? To hide them from a casual reader, but not so well hidden that someone with a mirror couldn’t read them.

As the night comes down on this day, I find it sad and telling that when he died, it is said that he apologized “to God and Man for leaving so much undone.”  I hope I don’t feel the same way at the end.


Procrastination. It’s a term I don’t have to define. We all live it. No matter how organized and motivated you are, you procrastinate.

There is no lack of advice out there in how to defeat it. It may be the most popular self-help topic. That’s especially true if you consider that it plays a big role in every diet book, exercise formula, and beating addiction plan.

According to  The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, the four components of procrastination are expectancy, value, delay, and impulsiveness.

For example, if you decrease the certainty or the size of a task’s reward -that’s  its expectancy or its value – then you are unlikely to pursue that task to completion with much enthusiasm.

If you increase the delay for the task’s reward – and we all have a built-in tendency to delay – then motivation also drops.

Now, impulsiveness is a factor that is part of the larger and most important factor overall – time.  It’s no great revelation to tell you that we are less motivated by delayed rewards than by immediate rewards. The more impulsive you are, the more your motivation is affected by delays.

Author Piers Steel’s website is about procrastination but it’s probably just as much about motivation.

So, what can we do to help the situation?  If you can increase a task’s reward, your motivation goes up. Rewards can include the pleasantness of doing the task and the value of its after-effects.  You can also improve motivation if the perceived odds of getting the reward  are better.

I am okay with all that. But not all tasks have real rewards. For example, why should I finish writing this blog post?  What are the rewards? A few more hits on a counter. A nice comment by a reader. There’s no money in it. No fame. I guess I could think that some day it will lead to some blogger fame and fortune. There are people who make a living at it.

I guess I have to focus on the “pleasantness” of doing it. That’s one I had not thought of much before I read the book. I do enjoy writing these posts. I enjoy writing. I like learning new things. I like sharing what I have learned. (Well, after teaching for three decades, that’s not a big surprise.)

In most cases, you can’t do much about the delay of a task’s reward, so the suggested focus is on the other three components: Increase your expectancy of success; Make the task’s value more pleasant and rewarding; Decrease your impulsiveness.

Are those in our control? The research says they are things you can control.

Optimism breeds optimism. Steel references “Success Spirals” where you give yourself a series of meaningful, challenging but achievable goals. Then, you achieve them and set yourself up for further success which keeps your confidence high.

That was something that was suggested to me in another book because I am a constant “To Do” list maker. Rather than having 10 things on the list and then getting depressed at having accomplished only one at the end of the week, put a header on that list for the one thing you need to really do. Make that thing something that is short-term achievable. Losing 25 pounds is not short-term. Getting out three times in the next week is doable. Keep track of the things that you DO complete on that list. Recognize accomplishments.

Now, you can get silly with those objectives. I’m sure if your To Do list includes items like: take a shower, eat lunch, and watch 2 hours of TV today, that you will succeed. I’m not sure that will offer further motivation.

Unfortunately, pessimism breeds pessimism as much as optimism breeds optimism. You have to avoid the P word, but that’s tough.

I am not a fan of the concept you find in many self-help books of using “creative visualization.” That is the idea of practicing regular and vivid imagining  of what you want to achieve. See that new career, award, finished project.  Steel’s website seems to agree with me and notes some research that shows this method can actually drain your motivation – unless you add an additional step of “mental contrasting.”  I haven’t tried this idea, but it means that after you visualize that goal, you next mentally contrast that with where you are now. It’s a reality check, I suppose.

For me, impulsiveness is the biggest factor in my procrastination. In this age of Attention-Deficit and a plethora of distractions, implulsiveness eats up my life. Starting to write this blog post instead of grading papers or cleaning the garage or visiting my sister or working on a manuscript that has a real deadline is the example of the moment.

I like Steel’s literary allusion to good old Ulysses. He did not get past those beautiful and deadly singing Sirens because he had great willpower. He knew he was weak. He had himself tied to his ship’s mast so there were no other options. This is known as “precommitment” and is a suggested way to handle impulsiveness.

Go somewhere that has no TV, no Internet, fewer actual distractions, put in ear plugs.  Make failure to complete the task hurt. Punish yourself – no Internet for a day, no TV, a forced monetary donation to a cause you don’t support.

At one time, I would have consoled myself by saying that the reason why I procrastinate is that I am a perfectionist. Turns out that’s a myth (see this video). In fact, you shouldn’t try to be perfect. Don’t even try to completely eliminate procrastination. Steel says that “Overregulation will make you unhappy. You’ll have to find a balance.”

I can now check this post off my Sunday list.