“Solving The Procrastination Puzzle” by Timothy Pychyl (Book Summary)
Solving The Procrastination Puzzle by Timothy Pychyl is a super short book with lots of actionable advice on how to overcome procrastination.
Pychyl is a psychology professor and one of the world’s leading experts on procrastination. He’s been researching about it for 20+ years and distills his favorite ideas into this little book.
Due to its short and easy-to-read nature, this book is really procrastinator-friendly.
Who Is Solving The Procrastination Puzzle For?
- Anyone struggling with procrastination
- Anyone who can’t get themselves to follow through with their plans
- Anyone interested in actionable advice to stop unnecessary delay in their life
1. What Is Procrastination? And What Is So Puzzling About It?
“Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him- or herself. Procrastination is a needless voluntary delay.”
“Procrastination, in contrast to other forms of delay, is that voluntary and quite deliberate turning away from an intended action even when we know we could act on our intention right now. There is nothing preventing us from acting in a timely manner except our own reluctance to act.
This is the puzzling aspect of procrastination. Why are we reluctant to act? Why is it we become our own worst enemy? We undermine our goal pursuit needlessly. Why? How can we solve this procrastination puzzle? To understand the procrastination puzzle—that voluntary but needless delay in our lives that undermines our goal pursuit—we need to understand this reluctance to act when it is in our best interest to act. We also need to have strategies to overcome this reluctance.”
Procrastination is the voluntary delay of an action we intend to do. This is the puzzling part: We delay actions that we want to do.
We want to study for that upcoming exam. We want to exercise regularly. We want to see the doctor before it’s possibly too late. We want to do the dishes before they pile up. But for whatever reason, we feel a reluctance to do the very things we know we want and should be doing. If we can’t overcome the reluctance, that’s called an act of procrastination.
The book is all about helping us better understand procrastination and offering us tools to overcome it.
2. Procrastination Is a Form of Willpower Failure
“As the work of Roy Baumeister and Diane Tice (Florida State University) has clearly shown, procrastination is a form of self-regulation failure. We fail to regulate our behavior to achieve our own goals. We make an intention to act, but we do not use the self-control necessary to act when intended.”
“There are many types of self-regulation problems, including gambling, overeating, reckless spending, and drinking too much. Procrastination is best understood as a problem like these – a problem with self-regulation.”
Procrastination is a form of self-regulation, self-control, willpower – call it whatever you want – failure. You want to do something, but you lack the necessary willpower to follow through.
The way I understand willpower and procrastination is as follows: When you feel resistance to a task, you need a certain amount of willpower to get it done anyway. The higher the resistance you feel towards a task, the more willpower is necessary.
This idea means two things:
- Procrastinators experience higher resistance to certain tasks than others
- Procrastinators have less self-control than others
Most likely, both of these are true. For whatever reason (e.g., fear of failure), procrastinators suffer from higher-than-normal resistance to certain tasks. In addition, they suffer from lower-than-normal willpower.
Together, this combination results in the endless delaying of tasks that the procrastinator should and wants to be doing.
3. The Most Important Thing We Need to Know About Procrastination
“Why do we fail to self-regulate? Although there are many factors that contribute to this, the most important thing to understand is that we ‘give in to feel good.’ That is, we want to feel good now and we will do whatever it takes for immediate mood repair, usually at the expense of long-term goals.”
“The key issue is that for chronic procrastinators, short-term mood repair takes precedence. Chronic procrastinators want to eliminate the negative mood or emotions now, so they give in to feel good. They give in to the impulse to put off the task until another time. Now, now not faced with the task, they feel better.”
As we’ve established before, procrastinators feel strong resistance when facing certain tasks. This resistance usually manifests in the form of negative emotions. We may feel bored, angry, frustrated, anxious, depressed, or guilty when contemplating certain tasks.
Since these negative emotions feel uncomfortable, we have a natural urge to run away from them and give in to feeling good. In other words, we procrastinate on dreaded tasks by doing something that feels better instead. Short-term mood repair takes precedence over long-term goals.
Whenever you put off a dreaded task, you feel a relief from the negative emotions associated with that task.
Unfortunately, this is very rewarding in the moment. And, as you may have learned in a basic psychology course, behaviors that get rewarded get repeated. Procrastination is deeply rewarding in the short-term. And so every act of needless delay is reinforcing the habit of delaying again in the future.
4. It’s All About Emotions
“First and foremost, we need to recognize that this task makes us feel awful and what we are trying to do is to run away from these feelings. Of course, this takes a certain amount of emotional intelligence. This type of intelligence is not related to the size of your vocabulary or the ability to do arithmetic. Emotional intelligence is the ability to effectively identify and utilize emotions to guide behavior. Recent research has shown that lower emotional intelligence is related to more procrastination, but the good news is that we can increase our emotional intelligence. We can learn to more effectively perceive, understand, and regulate our emotions. This is very important in terms of more effective self-control.”
At the core of our problem with procrastination are negative emotions.
The tasks we put off are the ones that induce negative feelings in us – tasks that make us feel anxious, bored, frustrated, angry, or whatever. In addition, we are most likely to procrastinate when we are already in a bad mood. Even if a task might not be very aversive, we’re still likely to procrastinate on it when we’re feeling bad.
If we’re serious about overcoming procrastination, we need to learn to more effectively perceive, understand, and regulate our emotions. This is basically what my book on procrastination is all about.
5. Whether You Feel Like It Or Not
“Let go of the misconception that our motivational state must match the task at hand. In fact, social psychologists have demonstrated that attitudes follow behaviors more than (or at least as much as) behaviors follow attitudes. When you start to act on your intention as intended, you will see your attitude and motivation change.”
Two things here:
First, our motivational state doesn’t need to match the task at hand. We can get something done whether we feel like it or not. Let’s face it: there will be many tasks in our lives that we won’t feel like doing. So what? We don’t need to be in the mood to do the taxes, clean the house, or study for important exams. We can just get it over with whether we feel like it or not.
In fact, this ability to do what needs to get done whether you feel like it or not lies at the core of beating procrastination. The better you get at this, the less you’ll struggle with procrastination. It’s the type of emotional intelligence we were talking about earlier.
David K Reynolds has an inspiring quote on this: “The mature human being goes about doing what needs to be done regardless of whether that person feels great or terrible. Knowing that you are the kind of person with that kind of self-control brings all the satisfaction and confidence you will ever need. Even on days when the satisfaction and confidence just aren’t there, you can get the job done anyway.”
Second, attitudes follow behaviors more than behaviors follow attitudes. In other words, mood follows action. When you act a certain way, your mood will shift accordingly.
When you get started on a dreaded task, your mood will tend to improve. When you get a workout in in spite of feeling unmotivated, you’ll find yourself getting motivated. As you change your actions, so your mood will change.
6. Focus On Getting Started
“Once we start a task, it is rarely as bad as we think. Our research shows us that getting started changes our perceptions of a task. It can also change our perception of ourselves in important ways.”
“Notice we are not using the famous Nike slogan of ‘Just do it!’ It’s about just getting started. The ‘doing it’ will take care of itself once we get going. If we think about ‘just doing it,’ we risk getting overwhelmed with all there is to do. If we just take a first step, that is much easier.”
I have written an entire article on the importance of just getting started. In short, the mere act of getting started can make all the difference in overcoming procrastination.
For starters, it immediately relieves the negative emotions associated with the task. Perceptions of yourself and the task change: you realize you can get this done and the task isn’t nearly as bad as you thought.
Getting started helps you make that all-important step from non-doing to doing – an object in motion stays in motion. Most importantly, getting started leads to upward spirals of making progress, feeling better about yourself, boosting self-efficacy beliefs, growing more self-confidence, making even more progress, feeling even better, and so on.
Find a way to get started and good things will start happening. One of Pychyl’s major strategies for getting started? Implementation intentions…
7. Create Some Implementation Intentions
“It is not as effective to make ourselves a ‘to do’ list of goal intentions as it is to decide how, when, and where we are going to accomplish each of the tasks we need to get done. There is an accumulating body of research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues that demonstrates the efficacy of implementation intentions for initiating behaviors, including following through on the intentions to take vitamins, participating in regular physical activity after surgery, and acting on environmentally minded intentions such as purchasing organically grown foods. In short, implementation intentions are a powerful tool to move from a goal intention to an action.”
“An implementation intention helps you get started. It is your predecision so that you do not get caught up in thinking, choosing, deciding. You have already made the decision. Now is the time to act.”
Recall that procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended action. We have an intention, but we fail to put it into action. Now read that last line of the first passage from above: implementation intentions are a powerful tool to move from a goal intention to an action.
Implementation intentions are the very thing that help us make the bridge between intention and action. They are the very thing that helps us move from non-doing to doing. They are what helps us get started.
What are implementation intentions? They are if-then plans that predetermine how you will act in a specific future situation. They look like this:
The “if” part sets a stimulus for action. The “then” part describes the desired action.
We are trying to predetermine our future behavior. We are deciding now how we will act in the future. In other words, we are trying to delegate the control of the initiation of a behavior to a specific situation without requiring conscious decision.
If an implementation intention works, then we’ll automatically find ourselves doing the right thing.
Here are some practical examples:
- If it’s Sunday after breakfast, then I’ll start studying for my exams.
- If I come home from work, then I’ll cook a healthy dinner.
- If it’s lunch break, then I’ll go to the gym.
- If I’m unmotivated to do the taxes, then I’ll do them anyway.
Implementation intentions are a surprisingly powerful tool, not only in beating procrastination but in helping us achieve many other goal-related behaviors. I’ve written a complete article on it here and an article solely focused on using if-then plans to overcome procrastination here.
8. To Stay Connected to Your Goals, Disconnect From The Internet!!
“In this paper, published more than a decade ago (long before social-networking tools became popular), our participants reported that 47 percent of their time online was spent procrastinating. I think this is a conservative estimate.”
“To stay really connected to our goal pursuit, we need to disconnect from potential distractions like social-networking tools. This means that we should not have Facebook, Twitter, email, or whatever your favorite suite of tools is running in the background on your computer or smartphone while you are working. Shut them off.”
How many times an hour do you give in to distractions? How many times do you check email, hop on social media, have a quick look at the news, or unlock your smartphone?
We may not be aware of it, but this constant check-in behavior, task switching, multitasking, and getting distracted is killing our productivity.
If you’re serious about getting a grasp on procrastination and getting meaningful things done, you need to find a way to handle distractions. Block certain websites and apps on your phone. Don’t check email more than twice a day. Give yourself blocks of time without internet. Whatever you do, shut off those distractions.
(To learn more about technology and its detrimental effects on procrastination, check out this article.)
9. Know Your Mind’s Excuses
“When our actions and beliefs or even two beliefs are in conflict, they are dissonant. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is uncomfortable. We want to alleviate this negative state. When we intend to act, when we have a goal toward which we have made an intention to act, and we do not act (voluntarily and quite irrationally choosing to delay action despite knowing this may affect us negatively), we experience dissonance. This dissonance is one of the costs of procrastination.”
So, procrastination creates cognitive dissonance: you should or want to be doing something but you aren’t doing it.
Cognitive dissonance feels uncomfortable, so you need to find ways to alleviate this discomfort. In other words, you need to find excuses to give in to feeling good. Following are some of the most common excuses – these are the ways in which we respond to dissonance:
- Distraction. We simply divert our attention away from dissonant cognitions and avoid the negative emotional state caused by the dissonance.
- Forgetting. We forget what we have to do, either actively (e.g., suppressing dissonant cognitions) or passively (e.g., for unimportant tasks).
- Trivialization. This involves downplaying the importance of what you have to do.
- Self-affirmation. We focus on our core values and personality traits to reassert our sense of self in spite of dissonance.
- Denial of responsibility. We distance ourselves as a causal agent in the dissonance.
- Adding consonant cognitions. “This isn’t procrastination. I really need more information before getting started.”
- Making downward counterfactuals. “It could have been worse.”
- Changing behavior. This would mean to stop procrastinating and take effective action. Unfortunately, not what we usually do.
Knowing these rationalizations can be surprisingly helpful in overcoming procrastination. Instead of believing every excuse your mind is coming up with, you can now spot them as what they are: ways to alleviate dissonance and feel better.
In addition, you can use your most common excuses as triggers for action. For example, “If I tell myself that it’s not so important, then I’ll just get started on some aspect of the task.”
10. Expect Setbacks and Respond With Self-Forgiveness
“We all face setbacks, disappointing moments, and frustrations with our apparent lack of progress. Your attitude toward these setbacks and yourself will be extremely important to your continued progress. Be kind but firm with yourself, and be willing to forgive yourself when you do not live up to your own expectations.
One of our recent studies was about this issue of self-forgiveness and procrastination. It has important implications for each of us as we take the self-change journey. What we found was that self-forgiveness for procrastination was related to less procrastination in the future.”
This is so important. Overcoming procrastination isn’t going to be a journey of one win to the next. More likely, it’s going to be a constant struggle with the occasional win and lots and lots of setbacks.
If you give up, criticize yourself, or get all sad and depressed every time you’re experiencing a setback, you won’t get very far.
You need to expect setbacks and then you need to respond in a self-compassionate and self-forgiving way. That’s how you’ll achieve the biggest and fastest progress possible. It’s self-compassion, not self-criticism that leads to success and happiness.
If you enjoyed this summary or want to learn more about procrastination, you'll probably enjoy the following books.
- The Procrastination Equation by Dr. Piers Steel. This is another well-known and science-based book on procrastination.
- The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. Probably the most famous book on procrastination. Offers a lot of counter-intuitive strategies
- Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. A super short and concise guide to beating procrastination and getting things done. If you need a kick in the pants, this is it!
- Stop Procrastinating by yours truly. As you may know, I’ve written a book about overcoming procrastination myself. You can grab it on Amazon Kindle here.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.
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