In her book Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace, author and American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg addresses some of the basic obstacles to well-being at work. In the chapter on concentration, she tackles the common problem of procrastination, a term she defines as “willingly deferring something although you expect the delay to make you worse off.” Salzberg adds that the word procrastination comes from the Greek akrasia, which means doing something against our own better judgment. She writes, “When we procrastinate, we act against our own self-interests, satisfying the desire for immediate gratification by sacrificing our own longer term goals and well-being.”
Salzberg describes five cognitive errors that we make when we procrastinate. The list of errors was developed by social psychologist and procrastination researcher Joseph Ferrari.
1) We overestimate the amount of time left to complete the task: “This doesn’t need to be done until Friday, so I don’t need to work on it today, I have tons of time.” When we use this justification for putting off a task, we’re ignoring the other tasks that also need to be completed between now and the deadline.
Cure: Remind yourself that the task isn’t the only thing you need to get done between now and Friday, and that now is a good time to work on it.
2) We underestimate the amount of time needed to complete the task: “This will only take an hour and I have until 4pm to submit it, so I don’t need to work on it this morning.” When we use this rationale, we may be miscalculating the amount of time the task will require.
Cure: Remind yourself that it might take only an hour–but it could take longer, so why risk it? Now is a good time to work on it.
3) We overestimate how motivated we’re likely to feel the next day: “I’ll work on this first thing tomorrow morning.” When we make this decision, we assume that we’ll wake up tomorrow raring to go.
Cure: Ask yourself if it’s really likely you’ll be more motivated tomorrow. Historically, has this been true?
4) We believe that succeeding at a task requires ‘feeling like’ doing it: “I won’t be able to get anything done right now, cause I just don’t feel like working on this.” When we use this justification for procrastinating, we assume that we can’t work on something unless we feel motivated.
Cure: First, see cure #3. Second, remind yourself that succeeding at a task doesn’t require feeling like doing it. Think of all the times you’ve successfully done the dishes or taken out the garbage without feeling like it.
5) We believe that working on a task while not in the mood is suboptimal: “I can’t work on this right now, I’m just not in right mood for it” or “It’s not a good time right now, I do my best work in the morning.” This one is particularly common for writing tasks like term papers, work reports, and blog posts.
Cure: First, see cure #4. Second, remember that the longer you wait, the less optimal your mood is likely to be. You’re unlikely to become more relaxed and more inspired as the deadline draws nearer!
All of us fall prey to these common errors when we procrastinate; sometimes, simply being able to see the error is helpful. Try out these cures and see what happens!