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You can't "solve" procrastination
It’s often throwaway lines that have the biggest impact on people, because they give you an opportunity to find a pithy expression of something you’ve thought about a lot.
You can't solve procrastination any more than you can solve cooking. Procrastination is different for every task, the same way that mastery is different for every dish.
I do remember this conversation and if pushed vaguely remember saying this, but because the point I was making was just an expression of a general philosophy of procrastination, and work in general, it didn’t really occur to me until Cedric remarked on it later that this was especially notable.
Cedric and Tom asked me to write an elaboration on it, so naturally I’ve been putting it off for a few days.
Anyway, here goes nothing: Why is procrastination like cooking?
Maintenance vs problem solving
First off, I think Cedric’s summary of my analogy misses something important, which is what “solving” could look like.
I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that I’ve “solved” cooking. I don’t mean I’m the world’s best cook - far from it - but I can pretty reliably cook something perfectly reasonable for myself more or less whenever I want it. I’m good at the basics, I improvise well, and I’ve got a repertoire of good dishes and approaches that work well for me.
This can easily be thrown out of balance if I’m cooking somewhere I’m not used to, or run out of some key ingredients, or cooking for someone with dietary requirements that I’m not used to or are that are incompatible with my style of cooking. So I’ve only “solved” it for a specific subset of cooking, which is the thing that Cedric is pointing to.
But, more crucially, even when everything aligns right for my approach to cooking, I still haven’t solved cooking, because I still have to actually cook.
Sure, I could pay someone else to cook for me by getting take out, in much the same way that I could solve procrastination by paying someone else to do the thing, but fundamentally cooking is not a problem to be solved, it is a response to some underlying need (our frail mortal bodies need food to sustain them, and also food is delicious).
It’s often worth thinking of work as divided into two broad categories: problems, which are things you can solve, and maintenance, which is just a sort of endless cost you pay for existing in the world. Maintenance produces problems, but it isn’t itself a problem in that you cannot usually solve it.Need for food falls under the heading of maintenance, not problems, which means that the need for cooking can never actually be solved.
Similarly, procrastination is a response to an underlying set of conditions that will keep coming up. There’s always going to be more stuff to do, you’re always going to be busy, some of it you’re not going to want to do. At the boundary procrastination is indistinguishable from prioritisation: If there’s a tonne of urgent things coming in, you will put off the less urgent ones, and you won’t even obviously be wrong to do so. Now you’ve got a backlog of stuff to do once the urgency has past, and some of them you’d much rather do than others, so do the unappealing ones later… Oops, now you’re procrastinating again.
When people say they want to solve procrastination, they’re imagining some world in which they no longer exhibit procrastination behaviours. That mostly won’t happen. Instead, the best you can hope for is the equivalent of learning to cook: When a new opportunity to procrastinate comes in, you’ll be able to deal with it.
This is still a lot better than not knowing how to cook, or not knowing how to deal with procrastination, but it’s not the perfect utopia of procrastination-free life that people who are looking to solve procrastination usually hope for.
The endless variety of procrastination
The other way which procrastination is like cooking is the one that Cedric highlighted in his tweet: Every episode of procrastination is different.
As mentioned, I can cook pretty well, but only within my domain of expertise. I’ve got enough general skills that I can probably give it a go. If you ask me to bake a cake… well I’m sure I can figure it out, but it’ll probably be a pretty mediocre cake (I don’t bake much and also can’t eat wheat). If you ask me to create an elaborate traditional Spanish banquet… I’d have to do a lot of reading before I was even prepared to start. If you handed me a durian and told me to have a go at making something nice out of it, I’d throw it back at you.
Procrastination is at least as varied as types of cooking, because it depends so intimately on our internal and external environments.
Procrastination happens when you don’t want to do the thing (e.g. it doesn’t seem appealing, or it seems less important than other things you could be doing) or you want to not do the thing (e.g. it’s scary, it seems boring, you don’t feel able to do it). It’s a subconscious strategy to avoid doing something that you’d rather not do.
This means that there are two basic strategies for solving it:
Force yourself to do something you’d rather not do.
Figure out why you’d rather not do it and change that.
People tend to default to the first approach, especially if they think procrastination is simple. This is in fact the default outcome a lot of the time: If you procrastinate on something until it’s urgent, then the urgency tends to create enough panic to overcome your reluctance to do the thing.
Should you force yourself to work?
The strategy of forcing yourself is often a perfectly reasonable approach (although many things end up too aversive for it, or incompatible with the mindset of being forced into it), but it runs into several problems even when it works.
The first major one is that if you use it too much you’re going to be constantly forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do, and that tends to make you unhappy. Unhappiness is, allegedly, bad.
The second major one is that it often falls apart. Procrastination is primarily an unconscious strategy, and your unconscious is annoyingly smart and sneaky. If you find a way to force yourself into doing the thing, that often works until you come up with a new unconscious strategy for avoiding it. e.g. if you adopt a great new productivity strategy and that stops you procrastinating, great, but at some point you might find that using that strategy has become aversive…
The third major problem is that this rarely looks like avoiding procrastination - it’s more like managing it or compensating for it. Waiting for everything to become urgent is, as mentioned, one of these strategies, and it’s certainly not avoiding procrastination.
It also just rarely looks like thriving to me. Maybe this is just personal prejudice, but when I see someone repeatedly forcing themselves to do things that some part of them doesn’t want, I don’t really anticipate a happy future for them.
Don’t get me wrong, I think some amount of forcing yourself to do things that you’d rather not is actually good for you, but I think it should be used sparingly. The best possible version of it is when you do it once, go “Oh, that wasn’t so bad actually” and never need to do it again for that particular class of task. The worst possible version of it is when you have to do the same task over and over again and it feels like pulling teeth every time you do it. Everything else is in between, but risks moving in the direction of the bad kind of forcing yourself the longer you keep it up.
I’m not sure how forcing yourself to do things fits into the cooking analogy to be honest. You could maybe argue that it’s the equivalent of ordering takeaway, but that’s probably getting a little strained.
Different flavours of motivation
Cedric’s original conception of procrastination, which he linked to in his twitter thread, is the procrastination equation:
Where these are defined as:
Motivation — the opposite of procrastination
Value — how much you enjoy doing the task, and how much you’ll enjoy the reward from completing the task.
Expectancy — how much you expect to succeed at doing the task, and how much you expect to acquire the reward.
Impulsiveness — how likely you are to be distracted given your environment or your history (personality, energy levels, genetics, whatever), and how good you are at staying focused.
Delay — the further away the tasks’ reward or completion, the lower the motivation
This equation seems useful to people, although I’ve not tried it myself, but I think it’s basically entirely fake. None of these things are unitary and reducing them to single numbers basically erases everything you need to do to deal with them well.
But, most importantly, it doesn’t understand motivation. “Motivation is the opposite of procrastination” is probably the worst slogan for understanding this problem I’ve ever heard. If I were running a competition for ways to actively mislead people about how to engage with the problem with procrastination, I would award this one a gold medal with a bonus commendation for outstanding work. Motivation is not the opposite of procrastination, motivation is the very heart and soul of procrastination.
If you are procrastinating, that is very strong evidence that you are highly motivated. The problem is that you are motivated in two different directions: You are motivated to do the thing, and you are motivated to not do the thing, and currently the second one is winning.
How do you know this? Well, if you were motivated to do the thing and you weren’t motivated not to do the thing, you would be doing the thing rather than procrastinating. If you were motivated not to do the thing and you weren’t motivated to do the thing, you also wouldn’t be procrastinating because you wouldn’t be planning to do the thing at all.
Sometimes “motivated to do the thing” is complicated of course. There are many things that I am motivated to do in the sense that there will be consequences for my not doing them, but that I have absolutely zero interest in doing. This is sometimes hard to summon up the energy for doing, but it’s not actually difficult, just hard unless there’s some strong countervailing motivation.
Often though it’s relatively simple. I think all of the times my procrastination has been worst have been times where in fact I really genuinely did want to do the thing and yet somehow I… wasn’t.
The procrastination equation bundles this under “impulsiveness” - how likely you are to be distracted - but I think this is again fake. The thing that causes you to procrastinate is rarely some intrinsic distractibility, it’s how much you’re trying to distract yourselfbecause you don’t want to do the thing.
Why might you be distracting yourself?
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of reasons I’ve found myself avoiding a task for:
The task is mildly unpleasant and causes me to confront the fact that I’m not actually very good at it and don’t know how to do it to a high enough standard to satisfy me (e.g. cleaning my room)
The task feels onerous because ugh as soon as I’ve done it it’ll just get undone (e.g. doing the dishes)
The task feels onerous because why is it my job to do this surely someone else should be doing this? (e.g. cleaning up a shared space, writing a really really basic explainer post that I feel surely someone else must have been able to write)
The task feels scary because if I do it wrong I’ll get in so much trouble (e.g. doing my taxes)
The task feels scary because what if I try my best and the result still isn’t very good? (e.g. writing fiction)
The task feels scary because what if I try my best and it’s really good and I have to deal with the consequences of success (e.g. releasing a new open source project, finishing writing an academic paper)
I’m enjoying thinking about the problem and if I do the thing then I’ll no longer be able to think about the problem because the cool idea I’ve got will either not work (in which case it’s no longer cool) or it will work (in which case it’s now just a boring tool). (e.g. doing some research)
I’m having decision paralysis as to which of the 10 mutually incompatible things I’m highly motivated to do I should actually do (e.g. life, everything)
Almost none of these motivations are obvious until you actually dig into the underlying structure of the procrastination and ask what’s up with it (see Labelling Feelings 101), and all of them require different approaches to handle.
Some of them just dissolve when you notice them (e.g. the “But this is an interesting idea that I want to keep thinking about!” one dissolved in a cloud of sheepishness more or less as soon as I noticed it), some of them once you’ve noticed them you can just basically acknowledge them and go “OK yes, that sucks, but how do you feel about doing it anyway?” at which point you can grit your teeth and do the thing (especially if you leave yourself a way out), some of them you can solve by getting good at the thing, some of them you can solve by fixing the anxiety trigger, and some of them you can solve by changing your strategy.
Also some of them you probably can’t solve yet, or any time soon, because they’re currently too hard. Sorry.
But this brings us back to the cooking analogy: Regardless of whether you can solve them or not, they require different solutions, and being good at one class of solution doesn’t necessarily make you good at the others. If you try to solve a skill issue by telling yourself that everything is going to be fine and burying the anxiety, you’re going to mess up exactly like you were afraid you would, and it’ll be worse the next time. Each of these motivations is a different “ingredient” in your procrastination, and requires handling in its own way.
So how do you get good at this?
Ugh beats me. I don’t understand procrastination this well because I’m good at avoiding it, but I’m afraid this is probably a life-complete problem which in the limit basically comes down to “solve all your emotional issues”.
I think, ultimately, you get good at it the same way most people get good at cooking: You just do it. Every time you need to cook, you get slightly better at it - most of the time you’ll be practicing familiar dishes, sometimes you’ll learn new tricks but mostly you’ll be refining existing skills, and every now and then you’ll come across a genuinely novel challenge, and if you genuinely face it instead of avoiding it, your skills will grow, whether you succeed or not.
Though sometimes you can dissolve it by making it go away. e.g. paying someone else to do it, getting rid of the thing that needs maintaining, putting up with the mess, etc.
That’s not to say that distractions don’t matter, distractions absolutely do matter, but when you’re trying to do the thing and being interrupted every five minutes by your environment we don’t call that procrastination.