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Managing a Procrastination Hierarchy

written by Kathryn Britton November 23, 2015

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



For the last two years, I’ve been running writers’ workshops and helping individual authors work on books. A recurring problem is that people want to be writers, but they don’t always want to do the writing. Sometimes a bit of humor helps: “Sit, write, share,” to which at least one has responded, “But I write standing up.” As I ponder the ways I’ve managed my own procrastination, I keep remembering something I observed in college: I have a procrastination hierarchy, and I can manipulate it to make myself get moving on a particular task.

What is a Procrastination Hierarchy?

Let me take you back to my college experience. Let’s say I got a reading assignment that I didn’t find particularly interesting. I still remember with a shudder needing to read many pages of Emmanuel Kant. I’d find numerous ways to avoid reading. It took a lot of effort to keep myself sitting in a chair with the book open in front of me.

That continued until I had a paper assigned. Then it became much easier to focus on Kant, because I knew the alternative was to write a paper on a topic that I wasn’t interested in for a professor who wasn’t interested in reading it. That description of the experience of writing undergraduate papers is not my own. It’s the way Howard Becker describes the experience in his wonderful book about learning to write papers in the social sciences. I could keep myself sitting with Kant because I knew that the alternative was to sit with a blank piece of paper fearing that inspiration would never strike.

Papers became easier to write when exams were scheduled. Reviewing an entire course was even less appealing than writing a short paper. Perhaps I was under the shadow of worrying about whether I’d review the right things and dreading the time crunch of the final exam.

In fact, when exams were scheduled, I even found it easier to clean house to be ready to move out at the end of the quarter. I preferred cleaning the oven and scrubbing the toilet to rereading all my notes trying to lock them in my head.

I’ve come to think of this as my procrastination hierarchy. The tasks have changed now that I’m out of college, but the hierarchy still governs how easy I find it to apply myself to a particular task.

Perhaps I have something to write, and inspiration hasn’t struck yet. If I have a speech to prepare, it becomes easier for me to face the blank piece of paper. I’d rather write than create Powerpoint slides.

Why Do I Have a Procrastination Hierarchy?

Thinking about my experiences in college makes me realize how dynamic motivation can be. My eagerness to perform any particular task varies over time. The most powerful motivation comes from wanting to do a task for its own sake, not for any external consequences. I can remember working on a task that was so fascinating that it was hard to keep myself in bed at night. A lightbulb went on when Genna Douglass wrote a piece connecting motivation to self-regulation. Doing a task for its own sake requires so much less self-regulation energy than doing it because it should be done or because someone else expects you to do it. Intrinsic motivation is like boating downstream instead of upstream. If you enjoy a task for its own sake, then the flow of water keeps you moving. It isn’t hard to stay with the task until it is done.

But nobody is lucky enough to have intrinsic motivation for every task.

So I wonder if the procrastination hierarchy works by making me more aware of what I do like about the tasks I have to perform, at least in comparison to other tasks. I may not be crazy about sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, but it is more enjoyable than getting nervous trying to imagine what a particular audience wants to hear.

How Can Awareness of a Procrastination Hierarchy Help?

So how can I use this realization to manage my own motivation?

My first thought is that people, including experts, seem to think about manipulating motivation in the context of an isolated task. Considering a task for which I need more motivation, I ask myself, “Can I make it more redolent of meaning? Can I make it into a mastery game where I have both enough competence to get it done and also an urge to get better? Can I associate it with benefiting other people or do it together with someone else? Can I get more control over the way I carry it out?” All of these involve manipulating the basic needs that fuel motivation: competence, relatedness, autonomy, and meaning, as we have learned both from self-determination theory and Daniel Pink’s popular book, Drive.

But perhaps we can expand our ability to manage motivation by thinking of our tasks in combination, considering how they rank in our minds. Perhaps we can then manipulate the procrastination hierarchy. The wife of one of my writers has observed that she can tell when he has a piece to write because he makes progress on the family “Honey, do” list. The procrastination hierarchy is clearly at work for him. But perhaps he needs to add something to the list that makes writing more rewarding in contrast.

So imagine it’s income tax season, and you just hate to get all your papers together and worry about how much you owe the government. Yes, you have to get it done by April 15 in the USA or file for an extension. But over the course of January, February, and March, can you use your aversion to income taxes to make it easier to get other important tasks done? Some people use income tax dread to drive spring cleaning. Or perhaps you have a recommendation to write, or a resume to update, or yard waste to clear away.

Perhaps what’s happening is that you get to exercise the autonomy to choose one task over another. Autonomy is, after all, an important ingredient of motivation.

Perhaps you can also help others manage their procrastination hierarchies. Imagine your child needs to work on a school project and seems to be avoiding it. Perhaps you could suggest, “I need you to pull weeds along the driveway.” Maybe then you’ll learn where school projects and weeds fit in your child’s procrastination hierarchy – and one or the other will get done.

Next time you find yourself procrastinating, look at all the items on your to-do list, not just the one that worries you. See if you can use some of your least favorite tasks to make others seem more appealing in their own right.

It works for me.
 


 

Becker, H. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing). University of Chicago Press.

Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

Pink, Daniel (2010). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Trade.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Hierarchy courtesy of Dan Zen
Bathroom Cleaner courtesy of The Infatuated
A Pyramid courtesy of Vainsang
Sit, Write, Share courtesy of alubavin

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19 comments

Angus Skinner November 23, 2015 - 1:57 pm

Interesting. I like the focus on autonomy.

In your workshops – Dear Kathryn, hello across the continents – do you find that folk find it easier to write about problems rather than successes? Is it do you think easier to write about sadness and tragedy than about joy, happiness and fulfilment?

Flourish

Angus

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John Perkins November 23, 2015 - 3:50 pm

Kathryn, great insight. The playwright Maria Irene Fornés told her students that we carry two parts, one what wants to write and one that doesn’t. The writing side has to always trick the non-writing side to get anything done.

¶ I like the term Procrastination Hierarchy (PH— or— pH!). The pH metaphor draws interesting connections. What’s intrinsic is basic to our preferences, what’s required is acidic. Back to what I do.

¶ I use something to bracket the work. Having just decluttered a lifetime of working papers I committed to one box a day. Or, if suddenly distracted, one box at a time, something decluttered out of it everyday.

¶ Next I use time. I set a timer and I might work for half an hour on a dreaded project (collecting tax records) and when the time rings, I stop for the day. This strategy needs a long lead time to accumulate enough chunks of time to do the work.

¶ A third way I arrange my motivations is doing the dreaded work “buys” me time for what I want to do. I set “prices” based on when the deadline and how many days I have to play with. I might “buy” an hour of reading that riveting memoir by first doing 30 minutes with my tax records. Or, if I really had to get cranking on the tax stuff, I would reverse the price, 1 hours with taxes buys 30 minutes with the memoir. I learned this as a undergrad, my rewards being one story in a SciFi or short story anthology. Read some great stories that way!

¶ When these start getting into gear fresh ways to do the trick occur to me. While doing the decluttering I would complete my quota with low grade energy after I’d done other tasks. One day, I said, well, no, it’s better to use my best energy because this is not about the stuff, it’s here because of my emotional connections to it. It requires my best efforts. So I reversed the staging and really cut through the pile.

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Jeremy McCarthy November 24, 2015 - 3:34 am

Great post Kathryn, and one that really struck a chord with me. I often notice how I am most productive when I am procrastinating doing something . . . it motivates to get a lot of other things done. I hadn’t thought about enhancing awareness of this phenomena and attempting to channel it in some way, but it’s a great idea.

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Judy Krings November 24, 2015 - 8:58 am

Great article and the comments hit home for me, too. As i real feeling type, I TELL myself how good I will feel and how proud I will be when the dastardly tasks are done. I am with Jeremy in my awareness that doing other tasks helps me get focused to get other tasks done. I don’t like wasting time on decision-making, so I DO some task almost to prime me to keep on going. Also, I try to do the tougher stuff in the morning, as it is my best thinking on the hard stuff time. John, I enjoyed your list immensely. Wonderful ideas.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Kathryn Britton November 24, 2015 - 12:30 pm

Angus,

Interesting question. Maybe over Thanksgiving, I’ll look through the collection of writing pieces that have been submitted and see what I find. However, I have a lot of people in my workshops who are training in applied positive psychology, so it’s not at all a representative sample.

Kathryn

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Kathryn Britton November 24, 2015 - 1:37 pm

John, I enjoyed reading about the writing part needing to trick the non-writing part into getting the job done. That about sums up what I’ve observed.

As for decluttering, that comes so low on my procrastination hierarchy that it drives other things upward. If I hadn’t had the experience of going through my mother’s things this summer — and thanking her many times for several rounds of decluttering — I’d probably never get to it. Maybe I need to dig into the relatedness aspects of motivation and think of my own children. I also need to acknowledge that I have lots of memories attached to things, which makes it hard for me to dispose of them. I only just threw out the jacket I bought with my first paycheck in high school. It was, needless to say, threadbare.

I used the timer approach when I was in college writing papers. I had a particular carrel in the library where I’d plop myself down. No moving from the chair until an hour had passed. Writing was more appealing that sitting and looking at the stacks.

I’ll remember your idea of switching around from low-energy times to high-energy times. This is an application of Think of it as an experiment. With respect to decluttering, what I’m doing isn’t working. So I need to think about your approaches — and review those described by Judy Krings — if I want to up my decluttering game.

Thank you for your ideas. Kathryn

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Kathryn Britton November 24, 2015 - 2:10 pm

Judy,
I particularly like your comment about doing something as opposed to spending time decision making.

It does remind me, though, of my husband’s mantra: Work on the highest priority task ready to run. The corollary is that if you don’t know the highest priority task, then the highest priority is to figure out what’s highest priority.

I find that hard to live by, however.

Kathryn

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Kathryn Britton November 24, 2015 - 2:15 pm

Jeremy,

I hope we hear back from you about what happens when you try channeling procrastination.

Kathryn

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Judy Krings November 24, 2015 - 4:22 pm

Hi, again, Kathryn. I do like your husband’s idea re: the highest priority challenge. And sometimes I ask myself, “What do I NEED to do?” Then, “What do I choose to do that will garner me the greatest reward, satisfaction, meaning, and/or fulfillment. It takes a PAUSE for me some days. Big thanks.

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Homaira November 25, 2015 - 5:59 am

Really helpful Kathryn! And so important for those of us who work as entrepreneurs or in creative fields. Its sometimes hard getting the juices to flow when leaving it for another day won’t be the end of the world…

To get actively working on my book I’ll remind myself that I have the option of conveying my message through speaking opportunities. I know the dread of public speaking will get me to write for sure! Thanks for the tip!

And yes, I’ll surely use the weeding suggestion on my kids. Especially helpful these days with exams coming up!

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John Perkins November 25, 2015 - 12:42 pm

@Kathryn, typically decluttering falls very low on my lists as well. Maybe this just isn’t your time to declutter, so let it be.

What got us going was an office remodel where everything got shoved around, crowding out our parking space for several months as we had to clear everything out for a new floor & paint job. We replaced all the furniture and sold or gave away the old ones.

I’m a writer/consultant, and my files are my memory and body of work. I truly don’t want to have to recreate anything that I’ve spent hours and creativity crafting the first time around. It’s also my source of my portfolio for getting new work. So I set out some rules.

First rule was only one copy, the best one, stays. I started a portfolio 3-ring binder and put that copy in a clear sheet protector. That got rid of all the extras which had been dumped in project folders and forgotten.

Of course, older versions of something I later improved upon could go.

Articles which I could find something similar with an internet search—gone.

Etc.

For everyone, I’m on a thread in the Barbara Sher (Wishcraft) forum site that supports one another on making steps everyday towards our goals. Find it here:
http://boards.barbarasher.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=26015&sid=2693180bfe15089a0616b8b405a5763d

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Shannon Polly November 29, 2015 - 7:44 pm

Kathryn,

I have been hearing this article rattle around in your head for a while now and I’m so delighted to see it in print! I have been finding this to be particularly true around things that I never thought were possible. There are days when my toddlers are throwing tantrums that I would actually RATHER do the dishes.

I will play around with this.

I like the idea in Profit From the Positive where if you leave part of a task to be finished for the next day you are highly motivated to do it. (Unfortunately that usually makes me talk in my sleep since I’m still processing.)

Also, Michelle McQuaid’s reward idea where she had to read 10 minutes (her goal) before she could check her email (her reward) in the morning.

I find I work best with others. Can I send you my latest PPT deck for a talk? =)

Thanks again,
Shannon

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Kavisha Patel December 15, 2015 - 11:11 pm

Kathryn,

I can relate to “Procrastination Hierarchy” as I am a college student who finds herself constantly procrastinating. I tend to do tasks that I prioritize over the ones I don’t very often. I find it interesting how you say that this method can be used as motivation. I find myself doing this often and I didn’t even realize that I was using it as motivation to complete some tasks that I was putting off.

Thank you!

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Colleen December 16, 2015 - 4:05 pm

Kathryn,

This was a very interesting read! I’m glad others are just as motivated to clean their bathrooms and organize their clutter as soon as a deadline for something else approaches – it’s good to know I’m not alone! It was great to read about this idea of a procrastination hierarchy and how it can be helpful in a certain way.

Thanks for posting such a relevant piece,
Colleen

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Stefano Sarge December 17, 2015 - 12:52 am

Kathryn,
I totally understand doing “everything under the sun” before I have to try and make myself get to some other task that needs to be done. Although, I do like your take on procrastination. Usually when I procrastinate, I do something else that is productive, but I always feel worse or still upset that I keep pushing off a task. After reading your article, next time I feel the need to procrastinate, I won’t feel so bad and do other tasks that I need to get done in the meant time. This way, all of my tasks will get done and the ones I procrastinated on will get done as well, but presumably last. Do you have any recommendations or techniques to minimize or control procrastination?

Thank you!

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James Baek December 17, 2015 - 11:27 pm

Procrastination is almost inevitable for me when it comes to me and schoolwork. Being in college and being stuffed in a sea of school work can just make you not want to do any work. It was really interesting that how you discussed prioritizing tasks over others can become a motivation and how we can use procrastination as almost as a push to get work done.

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Diane at Kaleidoscope Healing Arts February 3, 2016 - 12:57 am

Really interesting piece. Similar principles apply to pain management. The act of directing energy and attention towards an experience in the body that is relatively more positive (thus differentiating), is a way to mobilize energy and help the body move out of fight-flight-freeze into greater regulation.

Reading this makes me really interested in the physiology of motivation as it relates to feelings of overwhelm. In the past, it helped me to understand that procrastination is a form of “flight” that actually contributes to anxiety. So, as tasks get checked off the list, energy that was locked up in a kind of feedback loop of avoidance/anxiety while things were being put off becomes available for other things. The ability to recognize this and more importantly, to feel these internal shifts can help with intrinsic motivation. My morning “to do” lists now include things as simple as eating breakfast and brushing my teeth because of the motivation boosts that small successes provide.

You mentioned that Genna Douglass wrote a piece connecting motivation to self-regulation. Could you please provide a reference for this?

Thank you.

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Kathryn Britton February 5, 2016 - 11:59 am

Diane,

The piece I mentioned by Genna Douglass has not been published, but when I asked her about it, she said she made many of the same points here: Finding Links between Vitality and Authenticity.
Kathryn

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Kathryn Britton February 5, 2016 - 12:10 pm

Diane,
Interesting point about pain management. I do sometimes direct my attention to the foot (or knee or arm…) that is not hurting to try to distract myself from the experience of pain in the other. Never thought of that as dampening the fight or flight.

You’ve made me curious about the physiology of motivation. I’ll do some looking.

Kathryn

Reply

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