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Procrastinate Better

Ask yourself, is all that wasted time really rewarding? And other tips from Charles Duhigg, who wrote the book on productivity.

Why is it that the more work I have to do, the more the Internet beckons me into its endless maw of distraction? Oh Lord, I will say, appealing both to myself and to whatever blog-God might be listening, I have an hour to finish this article.

But first, isn’t this Tasty video fascinating? I’ve never thought about making buffalo-fried cheese nuggets before, but now that I’ve watched a pair of disembodied hands prepare them so expertly, I should definitely head over to Amazon and Prime me some buffalo sauce.

This is how I found myself, exhausted after leaving work at 8 p.m. one day recently, flopping onto my bed, still in my pencil skirt, and clicking open a horrific, traffic-mongering slideshow linked from the bottom of an article I was reading. It was about Stars Without Makeup or What Child Stars Look Like Now or some other rancid meat for my hungry lizard brain.

Reader, I clicked through every slide. Then I dropped my phone, shocked at what I had become. This is not what a feminist looks like. This is not what a go-getter, or frankly, a decent human looks like. There’s got to be a better way. 

So I called Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times who has also written two best-sellers. The most recent one—Smarter, Faster, Better— is about “the secrets of being productive in life and business,” which is precisely what I hoped to learn.

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.

Here’s the thing about checking Facebook—it’s super easy to check Facebook, it scratches that novelty urge really, really well, right? Because it’s an endless stream of things that are kind of interesting to you. But if you ask most people, “Do you actually enjoy checking Facebook? Tell me how much you enjoy or don’t enjoy checking Facebook.”

You’ll find a bunch of people will say “yeah, it seemed like a good idea to procrastinate for 10 minutes, but it didn’t really entertain me. Everything I saw was kind of boring.”

So, training ourselves to be aware of how much that reward is actually rewarding is actually super powerful in changing our behavior. Because often in that split second, when we decide to go check Facebook, it’s because we’re assuming that the reward is going to be rewarding.

But if we draw our attention enough to the fact that it’s not rewarding, [that] getting up and taking a walk around the office or getting an apple instead of checking Facebook makes you feel much more refreshed, then people will start taking a walk or getting an apple. Sometimes it’s just a matter of literally saying to someone “Okay, you procrastinated three times today. I want you to rate on a scale of one to 10 how much you enjoyed each procrastination.” And sometimes that’s it all it takes for them to figure out which procrastinations are refreshing, and which are a waste of time that they don’t get anything from. 

Khazan: Tell us about the importance of control and the “why” factor  in avoiding procrastination.

Duhigg: That comes from self-motivation. What we know is that it’s much easier to generate self-motivation when you feel in control, when you can find a choice that you’re making, as opposed to simply following orders. Additionally, if we can link what we’re doing right now to some deeper aspiration, or deeper values, deeper ambition—then it’s also easier to generate motivation.

There’s this one professor that I talked to, this guy’s a research oncologist, he’s an M.D.-Ph.D., and he hates grading students’ papers. It’s just the most boring thing he’s ever done. And so when he is sitting down to grade students’ papers, he goes through this mantra, which is that “if I grade students’ papers, the university can collect tuition dollars. If the university can collect tuition dollars, they can pay for my research. And if they pay for my research, I get to do what I love. If I get to do what I love, I can save people’s lives. By grading students’ papers, I get to save people’s lives.”

Which is, on the face of it, a little ridiculous, right? It’s also ridiculous that an M.D., Ph.D. has to have a mantra that he repeats to himself in order to grade students’ papers, and yet he does this every time because it’s very easy to forget why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. It’s very easy to lose track of why this thing in front of us is important. But if you can come up with some way of reminding yourself, of making that real and tangible, then it’s much, much easier to generate the motivation you need. It’s much easier to push through that urge to procrastinate.

Khazan: If you’re going to procrastinate, are there better and worse ways to do it? Are there some things that are better for you, cognitively, if you do want to take a break?

Duhigg: So this is what we know about that question: There is no magic formula that applies to all people. What we do know is that often people are fairly bad at picking up on what is refreshing and rejuvenating, and so they tend to misevaluate what they should do as a break.

Part of that is just training yourself to pay attention—like, writing down a score afterwards—like, “I just took 10 minutes to procrastinate. Was it a two or a seven?” Doing that forces you to pay closer attention.

The truth of the matter is, we want to stop making decisions when we’re procrastinating. The whole reason we’re procrastinating is we’re avoiding engaging in something that’s cognitive work. And so, as a result, we tend to also stop evaluating whether it’s refreshing or not. So if people create a habit of just asking themselves, “Was that a good break or not?,” then they’ll get much better at choosing good breaks.

Khazan: I know some people like to, say, work for 50 minutes, break for 10 minutes. Do you have a preferred breakdown like that?

Duhigg: I don’t, but there’s the Pomodoro method, which a lot of people find very effective. Personally I don’t, but not because I don’t think it’s a good idea. I just haven’t particularly needed it, and also there’s enough stuff going on in my life. At this point I have this full calendar. So if I’m working on something, there’s gonna be a phone call or a meeting I’ve gotta go to, and that tends to break things up for me.

But if I feel the urge to take that break, I give in to the urge. It’s very important to me to indulge that urge. You can try and muscle your brain around, but you shouldn’t fight your brain. And training your brain means coming up with these habits that make it easier to get your work done. If I’m braindead and typing and retyping a sentence for 15 minutes, it’s probably more productive to take a break and go book plane tickets, because when I come back to that sentence, I’m gonna get it done really quick.

Khazan: With the societal drive to be more productive, do you ever feel like… should we be concerned that creativity or joy takes a hit? I read in your LifeHacker advice piece that you said you psyched yourself up for these debate tournaments in high school by saying “you have to win, or else you’re worthless.” Do you recommend a harsh technique like that for most people?

Duhigg: I don’t think creativity and productivity are in tension with each other. I actually think the most creative people tend to be creative on demand, like they have a real productivity schedule of creativity, and that actually makes them more creative. It’s not a coincidence that the most creative artists are people who had a lot of output, and they often had that output on a schedule.

Take This American Life and Ira Glass. Ira Glass is incredibly creative. The guy has a radio show he has to put out every week, and if you ask Ira why he’s so creative, he’ll say it’s because has a radio show that he has to put out every week.

So it’s not that creativity and productivity are in tension with each other, they’re often complements to each other. The same thing is true of joyfulness. I think we’ve all experienced that thing where your busiest semester in college is also one of your happiest semesters. It’s not accurate to say these things are mutually exclusive.

What I will say is this about that thing I wrote for LifeHacker:

a) I wrote that a couple years ago before I did much of my reporting for Smarter, Faster, Better.

b) For someone who is 16 years old, does learning how to motivate themselves by bullying themselves, is that a useful skill to develop? It’s not a terrible skill, frankly. There’s a lot about life where achieving real happiness is about pushing yourself to achieve things that are hard, or daunting, or out of reach. And learning that you can get yourself to do things that you didn’t think you could do is actually deeply satisfying and deeply joyful.

Now, it’s a terrible way to go through life for a 28-year-old or a 32-year-old. But there’s this infatuation with this word “happiness”; most people don’t want to be happy, they want to be fulfilled, right? Doing the work you love, that doesn’t necessarily make you happy, it doesn’t necessarily make you joyful, it makes you fulfilled. And if we just want to be happy, all of us would just quit our jobs, and work on a beach, and just hang out. The reason why most of us have chosen not to do that is because we don’t just want to be happy. We don’t just want to be joyful. If you wanna be joyful, then fall in love with a new person every six months—you’re gonna be super joyful. But most of us end up getting married, and we don’t get married because we’re joyful waking up to the same person every day. We get married because we’re fulfilled building a relationship and a life with another person.

Being satisfied, being fulfilled, feeling like we’re doing things that are meaningful and important? That’s what actually makes people genuinely happy. That’s what real productivity is. And that doesn’t come from just trying to  do easy things, that comes from learning how to do hard things, and how to overcome them.

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