The Problem with Procrastination

There’s a popular confusion that exists around the phenomena of procrastination.

First of all, people who study the challenge it poses often fail to account for the fact that procrastination is a psychological object. As such, according to Kurt Danziger, the history of the word’s usage must be studied as well as the term itself, because meanings change over time.

Unlike physical objects (like a broken arm), there are a wide range of interpretations flying around but little guidance about defining the phenomena while it’s actually taking place. In other words, it’s far too easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are not procrastinating when you are, and vice versa.

Here’s an example of an interesting study which asked:

Do you overcome procrastination by breaking projects into pieces and rewarding yourself for completing a piece?

In the results paper published several months later, the authors report:

The professionals in the right tail with the highest productivity scores were particularly adept at overcoming procrastination, getting to the final product, and focusing on daily accomplishments. Low ratings on these three habits were typically reported by professionals with the lowest productivity scores.

Notice that the reported result lacks enough specificity to be useful. In fact, there may be some circular reasoning: describe yourself as overcoming procrastination and the survey rewards you with a high productivity score…which means that you are adept at overcoming procrastination.

Also, you have no idea what definition of procrastination the surveyors meant the subjects to use, or the one they actually used.

Finally, if you hope to become less of a procrastinator you can take a guess – the cure has been defined in the question as “breaking projects into pieces and rewarding yourself for completing a piece.”

But is that the only cure?

It’s a bit like asking: “Do you take aspirin when you get a cold?” If you answer negatively, then the conclusion a weak survey would draw is that you get a lot of colds. The possibility of other cures and of being completely free from colds don’t enter into the equation.

This may seem like splitting hairs but once you see psychological objects for what they really are, you  are able to see them everywhere, and are forced to question findings like these. Kurt Danziger ended up challenging a great deal of social science research based on statistical techniques used for the physical sciences. He was not a favorite son in the academy.

While we are fortunately free from numbers in the example I have cited, we must still use his logic, especially if we are serious about making real improvements. Ultimately, we need to translate all improvements into actions otherwise they may as well be flights of fancy.



Recent Research and the Zeigarnik Effect

Recently, the link between overwhelm and the Zeigarnik Effect (explained in my book) has become more apparent. There are tantalizing signs of its importance in recent research, which I plan to highlight as it emerges.

There are few writers or researchers who are connecting these dots, due in part to the way the studies are being conducted – for the benefit of academic research, rather than everyday application.

How to Escape the Zeigarnik Effect

Have you ever found yourself unable to fall asleep during a trying time at work? Or distracted in the middle of a conversation or meeting by thoughts about other stuff you still need to do?

If so, you may be a victim of the Zeigarnik Effect. Its exotic name comes from the Russian researcher who discovered it in the 1920’s while observing the behavior of waiters in a restaurant. Their ability to recall pending orders, but not the ones they had just delivered, caught her attention.

The disparity relates to the effect which bears her last name. It’s the nagging feeling you get once you mentally create a “time demand”: an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. Your subconscious, which stores each one for later retrieval, does more than sit back and wait for you to act. Instead, it begins to ping your conscious mind with a stream of reminders.

If this were to take place on rare occasions, it would be a cute phenomenon. However, if you are someone who is ambitious, you may find the reminders increasing until you start to experience a sense of overwhelm. After all, her research states that the way to get rid of the Zeigarnik Effect is to complete the task. For busy people, it’s impossible – they create hundreds. Like everyone else, they can only finish one at a time.

So, is there an escape? Fortunately, there is, according to recent research conducted at Baylor University.

Dr. Michael Scullin and his team compared two bedtime behaviors in laboratory experiments. Before falling asleep, one group of subjects wrote their to-do list for the next few days. The other recorded the tasks they accomplished during that day. The result? This small change in technique helped the first group fall asleep faster by over 9 minutes. Why did this happen?

To understand the underlying reason, we must visit the University of Florida. Drs. Roy Baumeister and Ed Masicapmo added to Zeigarnik’s research, showing that the effect disappears when a person has a trusted system in place to manage time demands. This makes intuitive sense. There’s no need for your subconscious mind to interfere if it believes that all your tasks are being properly managed.

How does this apply to falling asleep faster? Well, offloading your tasks to a written to-do list is one way to assure your subconscious that you are on top of all your commitments. In other words, it trusts a piece of paper more than your ability to remember. Satisfied, it leaves you alone, allowing you to doze off.

But what if you possess a high IQ, genius-level memory? Can’t that be used? The answer is short but elegant – “Sure… if you happen to be a kid.” While I doubt that any readers of this column are under 12 years old, we should understand why they are an exception. The fact is, they only have a few time demands to recall. Plus, they have teachers, parents, friends, and siblings reminding them what to do.

It’s only later, when they get older, that problems occur. But they aren’t caused by age which is not a factor until their retirement years. Instead, long before then, the challenge is to find a method to cope with the relentless swell in time demands our generation faces.

What else can be used beside paper? Digital devices also work. In addition, some people offload their tasks to other folks, like their children. “Remind me to pick up your cake tomorrow, Junior.”

But the only approach which succeeds in the long term isn’t a single technique or tool but a mindset of continuous improvement, plus specific knowledge of how humans use such tools. Start by getting committed to implementing ongoing upgrades. Then, understand that your choices need to follow a pattern.

While researching the latest edition of my book I found that improvements happen in serial fashion, but they all start with an attempt to use mental reminders. When that technique fails, we graduate to better skills one step at a time, following this sequence.

Level 1 – Memory

Level 2 – Paper Lists of Tasks

Level 3 – Simple Digital Apps

Level 4 – Complex Task Management Apps

Level 5 – Digital Calendars of all Tasks

Level 6 – Administrative Assistants / Autoscheduling Programs

As you look over this list, identify your current level. With this knowledge, you can prepare yourself for the next upgrade – the one that will help you stay abreast of your dreams and aspirations.

However, be aware: the Zeigarnik Effect shows up at any level. It’s a fantastic warning mechanism which lets you know when a change is overdue. Unlike your friends, colleagues and even your conscious mind, it can’t be fooled. It will do its job, preventing you from falling asleep quickly until you wake up to its incessant, nagging call for greater personal productivity.

Sleep and the Zeigarnik Effect

An interesting result: writing your time demands down before going to bed at night cuts down the time it takes to fall asleep. Furthermore, the longer the list the better.

As you may know, the Zeigarnik Effect has to do with that nagging feeling which occurs after you create a time demand. Our subconscious pings our conscious mind with reminders when it believes we might forget them. This leads to feelings of overwhelm.

We have known for some time from studies by Masicampo and Blaumeister that these unwanted nagging reminders go away when time demands are well managed. However, this research shows that making a to-do list before bedtime shortens the time it takes to fall asleep.

By contrast, writing down a list of completed actions has the opposite effect i.e. it takes longer.

I’m in the process of pushing out the paperback version of the second edition of Perfect Time-Based productivity and had to stop what I was doing when I came across this article. I found the original academic paper, read it and slipped in a new paragraph.

If you ever have trouble falling asleep, this one is for you.

Is Time Management Really “Real”, Or Is It Just a Misnomer?

Two years ago I embarked on a journey to answer: “Can time be managed?” and “Is time management truly possible?” Up until then, I had only complained. After all, claims that the phrase “time management is a misnomer” could be heard everywhere. While I habitually echoed the cliché, which sounds plausible when repeated, I felt uneasy… I couldn’t find a shred of proof.

Now, I do have findings to share based on studies of fields as diverse as anthropology and physics.

Discovery 1 — Time can be managed, but only in marginal ways

Chasing down a meme like “time cannot be managed” is tough work. Someone who is trying to justify the statement should do more than sling around clichés. He/she must track down every single definition of the word “time” in order to make sure it cannot be “managed.” It also means testing different meanings of the word “manage” to ensure that all reasonable descriptions are accounted for.

On my journey, I learned that “time” can be thought of in two ways. Either it’s taken to be “physically real” or it’s seen as a “psychological object.”

In the former interpretation, human beings have apparently made a mistake based on our studies of young children and un-contacted tribes. We have confused “Clock and Calendar Time (CCT)” with “event sequences.” CCT, which was invented around the end of the first millennium, is a skill which must be taught, usually to children. The same applies to tribes who simply don’t use the concept.

How do they survive?

They use “event sequences” made up of chains of “before-and-after” descriptions. They acknowledge the permanence of these sequences and describe the past in terms of its relationship to key events, such as the birth of a child.

“Event sequences” cannot be managed in any way. They just are.

However, CCT is constantly being “managed” if we accept a weak definition of the verb “manage”. Instead of equating it with interpretations linked to “control” or “dominate”, we can take it to mean “manipulate, influence, shape, engineer, steer.” When we adapt this particular meaning we discover that there are ways to “manage CCT.”

For example, in the modern world, we have accepted the need to add leap seconds. In the Ethiopian, Chinese, Baha’i, and Islamic calendars a leap year is added to prevent synchronization problems at different intervals.

So, there are ways for societies to “manage” “time”. Unfortunately, an individual can only do so if he/she has the power to set up his/her own calendar, perhaps by living on a desert island. In the rest of the world, we are constrained in our management of CCT by each other.

When we flip over to the alternate definition of time as a “psychological object” we see that a similar limitation applies.

If time is nothing more than a creation of the mind (according to physicists like Albert Einstein) we should expect it to be manageable. After all, products of your imagination should be quite malleable.

In fact, there is historical evidence that it used to be. The invention of time zones went through several stages where cities like Detroit saw dramatic clock changes as the definition matured.

Today, however, there is no such freedom. Theoretically, problems like the Millennial Bug or Y2K Problem should have been fixable by simply setting back our clocks by, say, 99 years. While it would have worked in centuries past, in 1999 it was an unworkable idea which would have led to far greater problems. This particular psychological object has become so rooted in human affairs that we cannot escape its grasp. Only our friends in un-contacted tribes are exempt.

In the future, we may come up with ways to manage time as a psychological object — it’s entirely possible. But once again, it’s a severely limited possibility.

While there are ways to resolve the misnomer by finding ways to “manage” “time” they are extremely minor, living only on the margins. They have little impact on our daily lives.

Discovery 2 — We still want “time management”

However, these truths don’t stop us from trying to improve our time-based productivity. After all, the phrase “time management” was invented in order to express an improvement we, as humans, have been trying to effect ever since the dawn of our existence.

It’s a response to real errors we see taking place every day: late arrivals, forgotten tasks, email overload, multi-tasking, stress, overweight, etc. These are examples of real, human problems which don’t have easy solutions. In lieu of concrete descriptors, we refer to the default problem as one of “time management.” And we want a fix.

In response, history shows that we have assembled a variety of schools of thought. Each of them gives a different meaning to the phrase that far surpasses the literal meaning of “time” or “management.” Now, the phrase “time management” can be taken to mean just about anything, including:

– A set of processes to follow.

– A specific end-result to be achieved.

– The secret of a person’s success.

– The reason for almost any identified failure.

This short list shows that we have granted the phrase a life of its own which has evolved over time. According to criteria set by researchers Geoff Bingham and Kurt Danziger, “time management” also qualifies as a psychological object.

As such, we need to be careful when using the phrase, because they indicate that people engage in what linguists call “language-games.” Over time, a number of different ones have evolved, even as they all sharing a common moniker.

If you observe conversations on the internet you can find well-meaning people belonging to different “language-games” trying to sort out common time management problems. The results are sometimes tragic, at other times comical. Unfortunately, when we can’t see the language-games at play these miscues are inevitable.

Take for example the time scarcity created by Type A individuals. To some, this is a problem to be eradicated.

For Type A’s, it’s a natural outgrowth of their ambitions. They have accepted that being alive means having more commitments than time will allow, forcing them to develop lifelong skills at setting priorities. Just imagine a coaching session between a professional organizer who believes scarcity is bad and a Type A client. Without a shared language-game, they end up in trouble.

Therefore, it’s critical that we account for existing language-games whenever the phrase “time management” is uttered. It’s the only way to appreciate the underlying context(s) being discussed.

Discovery 3 — There are much better ways to solve real problems than “time management”

Here’s a linguistic jujitsu trick we need to learn.

When someone mentions the phrase “time management” we need to determine not only which language-game they are playing, but also which specific problem they are trying to solve.

The fact is, most discussions in this realm surround intractable but practical symptoms of issues a person is trying to fix. The challenge is that, with a limited vocabulary, they only know to utter “time management.”

The recommended martial arts technique is simple. Set aside the issue of “time management”, while helping the other person to apply the best solution to the problem at hand. This calls for top-quality diagnostic skills.

Of course, the best way to empower others is not to diagnose their issues for them, but to teach them how to do so themselves. Once they become skillful, terms like “time management” fall away and more precise terms enter the picture. They accelerate their progress toward the answers they are looking for.

This inquiry into the existence of time management has helped me understand the confusion that slows people’s progress towards their goals. People must be able to get past the tangled question of time management’s existence/ definition in a single, short step. It’s a bypass that’s often necessary if practical solutions to real problems are to be found and implemented.

Click here to download Can Time Be Managed? An inquiry into the foundations of time-based productivity”. Follow me on Twitter — @fwade

Can Time Be Managed? A Deep Dive

can-time-be-managedIn my work here at 2Time Labs, some of the questions I have dismissed with short answers are core to the work we do: Can Time Be Managed? Does Time Management Exist? Is the Phrase “Time Management” a Misnomer?

These are more than esoteric issues.

Each year, thousands of research pages are issued on this topic. Remarkably, few bother to define the term and only one or two dare question the very existence of the phenomenon of time management.

Up until now, no-one has labored through the literature to answer it.

This special, free report may be a one-of-a-kind – the first attempt to tackle the question from multiple angles, using the lens of a variety of disciplines. Philosophy, psychology, physics, linguistics, business management… they have all been explored in this journey.

Join me as I explore all corners of knowledge pertaining to this topic to arrive at answers all may not agree with, but does reflect the view of an unlikely band of theorists whose views have never been assembled beside each other.

Download your complimentary copy below.

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Discover the science of time management [Research]

Here’s a new way to discover the research data behind time management – especially the stuff that’s most recent. Simply follow my hashtag “#scienceoftimemanagement” on Twitter. (Sometimes it shows up without the hashtag – just “scienceoftimemanagement.”)

It’s simple. I have two Twitter accounts – @2TimeLabs and @fwade. The first one sticks to the scientific findings I have discovered in academic papers that have been rigorously peer-reviewed. These studies typically involve hundreds of people and build (one step at a time) on the foundation of prior studies. They are very different from bloggers who wake up in the morning with good ideas and turn them into SEO-optimized, Top 10 posts before lunch-time!

The second one, @fwade, is may daily account that send out all manner of content related to time management. It picks up the best feeds from around the internet and RT’s them, while adding on the best content I can find on a daily basis. You won’t find me tweeting about my non-existent cats, or the reasons why Trump shouldn’t be elected President. It all about one topic – time-based productivity and all its variations.

Enjoy them both by visiting their pages and I’ll see you over there.