We chatted about how (and whether) to avoid procrastination. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Olga Khazan: Do productive people procrastinate?
Charles Duhigg: It depends on how you define procrastination, but everybody procrastinates. I guarantee you if you poll people and say, “Do you ever procrastinate?” every single person is going to say, “Yes, at times, I definitely procrastinate.”
I think what’s different is, do you feel like you can control your procrastination or that it’s overwhelming? Is it something that you’re sort of powerless to work against?
And do you procrastinate on things that actually end up being really useful? I know that Ira Glass does this, and I do it, and a couple of other people do it: We have a list of our procrastination tasks because sometimes you need to do something different, your brain’s a little bit tired, you need to give it 10 or 15 minutes to recharge. So do you spend that surfing Facebook and playing Angry Birds? Or do you spend that booking tickets, which is something you’ve got to get done? I find it nice and relaxing, so I use that as my procrastination thing. Is that procrastination? It’s certainly procrastination from the memo I’m trying to write, or the story I’m working on, but it’s something I’ve gotta do anyway.
Khazan: So what you do is essentially have a list of things you have to get done and you use that as your procrastination mechanism?
Duhigg: There are certain things I have to do that I actually enjoy. For whatever reason, I really like booking travel reservations, I don’t actually know why, but I just find it deeply satisfying. And so what I do is I have a list of all the trips coming up that I need to book myself, and when it’s time for a procrastination break, I go do one of those.
It’s like a nice break, it’s kind of thoughtless, it’s just comparing a bunch of numbers, and like thinking about a trip coming up that I’m kind of excited for. Yeah, it works for me.
Khazan: Is there a way that you avoid going to Facebook, or a sports site or whatever your hobby is? How do you control that impulse?
Duhigg: Well, first of all, I do have a list of things to do besides look on Facebook. That’s important because in that split second, when you’ve decided to take a break, it shouldn’t be something where you have to take a break and make a decision. Making a decision isn’t the definition of taking a break.
Deciding ahead of time, this is essentially known as an implementation intention. That you essentially use your decision-making muscle when it’s fresh and new, and come up with a list of things you’re gonna do, decisions you’re gonna make, automatically fulfill, when you know you’re gonna be tired. And, by definition, when you procrastinate you’re kind of tired. That’s part of it.
The other thing that I do, there’s a technique called Simplified Habit Reversal Therapy. A big part of Simplified Habit Reversal Therapy is becoming aware of the cues in your life that are causing you to do things you’d rather not do, and then really asking yourself, “What’s the reward that’s driving that?” Forcing yourself to figure out if the reward is satisfying.