As business management growth consultants and business coaches one of the many benefits we can provide is accountability and the reduction in procrastination. Some individuals will be able to read this and then self-help in the growth of their business, others will need a little support to improve their accountability and achieving their success.
We’ve all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don’t care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot – and still end up doing something else. I, used to also be one of those people, and it took time, effort and knowledge to break the habit.
So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we’re approaching work?
There are some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate – and how to overcome this tendency.
To Do, Or Not To Do
It all starts with what appears a simple choice between working now on a given project and doing anything else: working on a different project, doing something fun or doing nothing at all.
The decision to work on something is driven by how much we value accomplishing the project in that moment – what psychologists call its subjective value. Procrastination, in psychological terms, is what happens when the value of doing something else outweighs the value of working now.
This way of thinking suggests a simple trick to defeat procrastination: find a way to boost the subjective value of working now, relative to the value of other things. You could increase the value of the project, decrease the value of the distraction, or some combination of the two. There are numerous simple strategies and tactics to achieve this.
For example, instead of cleaning my house, I would focus on why auditing a businesses internal processes is personally important to me, and how it benefits my life. Or I could reflect on how unpleasant cleaning can actually be, difficult if you actually enjoy cleaning.
On paper (metaphorically speaking) It’s simple advice, but adhering to this strategy can be quite difficult, mainly because there are so many forces that diminish the value of working in the present.
The Distant Deadline
People are not entirely rational in the way they value things. For example, a dollar bill is worth exactly the same today as it is a week from now, but its subjective value – roughly how good it would feel to own a dollar – depends on other factors besides its face value, such as when we receive it.
The tendency for people to devalue money and other goods based on time is called delay discounting. For example, one study showed that, on average, receiving $100 three months from now is worth the same to people as receiving $83 right now. People would rather lose $17 than wait a few months to get a larger reward. A powerful piece of information when it comes to business growth strategies.
Other factors also influence subjective value, such as how much money someone has recently gained or lost. The key point is that there is not a perfect match between objective value and subjective value.
Delay discounting is a factor in procrastination because the completion of the project happens in the future. Getting something done is a delayed reward, so its value in the present is reduced: the further away the deadline is, the less attractive it seems to work on the project right now. One way to increase the value of completing a task is to make the finish line seem closer. For example breaking projects down into milestones to give the reward of completing something now, breaking up the deadlines.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the tendency to procrastinate closely follows economic models of delay discounting. Furthermore, people who characterize themselves as procrastinators show an exaggerated effect. They discount the value of getting something done ahead of time even more than other people.
No Work is ‘Effortless’
Not only can completing a project be devalued because it happens in the future, but working on a project can also be unattractive due to the simple fact that work takes effort.
New research supports the idea that mental effort is intrinsically costly; for this reason, people generally choose to work on an easier task rather than a harder task. Furthermore, there are greater subjective costs for work that feels harder (though these costs can be offset by experience with the task at hand).
This leads to the interesting prediction that people would procrastinate more the harder they expect the work to be. That’s because the more effort a task requires, the more someone stands to gain by putting the same amount of effort into something else (a phenomenon economists call opportunity costs). Opportunity costs make working on something that seems hard feels like a loss.
Sure enough, a group of studies shows that people procrastinate more on unpleasant tasks. These results suggest that reducing the pain of working on a project, for example by breaking it down into more familiar and manageable pieces, would be an effective way to reduce procrastination.
Your Work, Your Identity
When we write that procrastination is a side effect of the way we value things, it frames task completion as a product of motivation, rather than ability.
In other words, you can be really good at something, whether it’s cooking a gourmet meal or writing a story, but if you don’t possess the motivation, or sense of importance, to complete the task, it’ll likely be put off.
It was for this reason that the writer Robert Hanks, in an essay for the London Review of Books, described procrastination as “a failure of appetites.”
The source of this “appetite” can be a bit tricky. But one could argue that, like our (real) appetite for food, it’s something that’s closely intertwined with our daily lives, our culture and our sense of who we are.
A powerful way is to connect the project to your self-concept. The theory is that projects seen as important to a person’s self-concept will hold more subjective value for that person.
It’s for this reason that procrastination seems to stem from a failure to “identify sufficiently with your future self” – in other words, the self for whom the goal is most relevant.
Because people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, goals connected closely to one’s sense of self or identity take on much more value.
Connecting the project to more immediate sources of value, such as life goals or core values, can fill the deficit in subjective value that underlies procrastination.
Do you need support in reducing your procrastination levels?
Reach out for a free 30 mins session to see how we can support you and the growth of your business.
September 14th, 2020