In young adulthood I never worried about forming good habits. Now in my decidedly “mature” years, I collect information on how to develop better habits, since I too often find myself doing one thing when I had intended to do something else.
And that led me to wonder about my precise intentions – was I wanting to replace old habits with better ones? Seeking a remedy for my tendency to procrastinate about doing what I claim is a priority for me? Hoping to develop better self-discipline?
Turns out the three are intertwined. Procrastination is a habit of postponing that which we believe we should be doing. Self-discipline is the habit of actually doing what we have decreed we should do, whether we want to or not. People for whom self-discipline is a stronger habit than procrastination find the time and space to get obligations done without a lot of agonizing about it.
In my twenties and thirties, the term “self-discipline’ was repugnant to me. I put my time into doing what felt was right and interesting. Doing the same things over and over was unacceptable. So was anything tedious. I chose jobs such as community organizer or program developer where I had a constantly changing landscape and could start lots of new activities.
Then I entered academia where the requirement to publish threw me completely off my game.
Publishing is a solitary and long-long-long-range activity. I had to conceptualize what I wanted to write, research my idea, record the sources. That part was fun. Then came the agony of writing the first sh*tty draft… edit and re-edit for my colleagues’ feedback (which inevitably hurt my feelings)… edit again and again and again until the go-ahead to submit to a journal… wait several months for the journal to accept, reject, or ask for a revision. Until finally the article was accepted. Then wait for few months – or years – for the article to come out in print. This process is ripe for procrastination.
While I could more or less get away with procrastinating as a child, it had the potential to devastate my career as an untenured professor. There were a zillion more interesting things to do than to edit and re-edit a manuscript. Yet I was required to publish to keep my job.
Why can’t I “just do it”?
And that’s when I began to formulate The Question: If I declare I want to do something, and I know it’s the right thing for me to do, why can’t I just do it? Why can’t I just go ahead and do the thing that I claim I want to do?
Turns out the answer is not as straightforward as I had hoped. Confession: writing this article on habits and self-discipline has been over a year in the planning. I have dozens of articles and books on habits, self-discipline, willpower, the neuropsychology of habits, self-sabotage, procrastination, getting things done, work execution. I think you get the point. I have researched this topic thoroughly. Yet every time I sat down to write about what I was learning, I discovered a new area. It amuses me that I spent a year procrastinating about writing about procrastination.
Spoiler alert: I cracked the code – for me, that is. I have a better handle on why I procrastinate and what to do about it. Whether what I learned will work for you is up to you.
Now that I better understand what derailed me again and again, I have the difficult challenge of changing a decades-long habitual way of thinking. It requires embracing, rather than repelling, the notion of self-discipline. It feels like turning around a submarine underwater.
Before I jump too far ahead, let’s have some background.
Why do people procrastinate?
Procrastination is a form of self-sabotage. Let’s take my publishing saga in my early years. I wanted to produce meaningful papers that would contribute to the world. Social work academia was my chosen career. Yet for the first two years, I could not keep a focus on going through the rigors of writing, editing, getting feedback, and revising – again and again. What I claimed I wanted to do, I simply was not doing. I was doing lots of good other stuff, but not the one thing that defined success in my job. Fortunately, I slogged through it, which is how I finally made it to full Professor and now Professor Emerita.
Similarly, for the last year, I have wanted to write this blog post about habit change, self-discipline, and procrastination. I planned the post to have fewer than the five pages. Yet, I kept gathering more information and putting off actually sitting down to write it. Only now, wanting this to be the first blog post of 2023, did I force myself to sit down and write it.
What’s behind this form of self-sabotage? For many of us, procrastination is a lifelong habit, cultivated during childhood or even infancy where we learned we were not quite good enough. After that it was an easy step to set ourselves up for the same reinforcing self put down.
People procrastinate for multiple reasons. All of these are forms of task avoidance:
fear of not doing the job perfectly
having difficulty paying attention to the details
rejecting the feeling of being controlled
disliking change or venturing into the unknown
preferring to work under pressure
taking on too much
seeking out more and more information before making a decision
In the process, we may deceive ourselves that we are actually being productive. And indeed, this year has not been wasted for me. I accomplished a lot that makes me happy. And all this time, this blog post hung like a weight around my neck, while I studiously and creatively avoided releasing the weight by sitting down to write.
Creative avoidance is different, and this is something that people do as an art form. Creative avoidance is subconsciously creating things for yourself to do so that you can do those things as a means of feeling productive, but really it’s a giant scheme for avoiding doing the things you know you should be doing even when you don’t feel like doing it. – Rory Vaden
Even while being creatively avoidant, being productive in areas other than writing this blog, my too-familiar feeling of dread and self-doubt began to increase. I vaguely recognized them as the voice of self-criticism:
There’s a number of reasons why we procrastinate. The number one reason, according to psychologists, why we procrastinate is because of self-criticism. – Rory Vaden1
I have now held two podcasts with Peter Michaelson, the depth psychologist, listening to his wisdom about the functions of our inner critic and inner passivity. The inner critic tells us how wrong and how inadequate we are, that we are not good enough. Inner passivity accepts the words of the inner critic, believes them, and gives up. Inner passivity is the voice of resistance. As I was beginning to recognize, procrastination provides great fuel for both.
Once I realized my inner critic and inner passivity were doing a number on me, I decided to analyze the activities I chose instead of writing the blog. Where did my time go? For one thing, I enjoy doing puzzles. And inexplicably, as I got harder on myself about not writing about self-discipline, willpower, and procrastination, I found myself doing more and more puzzles, particularly at night. Last week I spent about 12 hours solving puzzles – Wordle, Word Sudoku, Tiles, crossword puzzles. One puzzle after another. Couldn’t put them down. In 12 hours, I could have had this blog post written. What was up with that?
The rewards of putting things off
I decided to lay out what I was getting from each activity.
Immediacy of satisfaction
Puzzle: Immediate satisfaction: buzz every couple of minutes. Fun to do. Sense of completion when puzzle is solved.
Blog post: Some satisfaction in writing but dissipated by what’s left to be done.
Value of long-term task completion
Puzzle: When I think of my life values, completing puzzles is not on the list. Yet this is where I’m putting my time.
Blog post: Strong. I’m always highly satisfied when a post is completed and published. Even a first draft is a relief.
Ease of working on task
Puzzle: Easy – reach for the phone.
Blog post: Tedious. Requires starting computer, assembling docs, organizing materials.
Environmental distractors or enhancers
Puzzle: Environment doesn’t matter.
Blog post: Must be sitting at my computer. Requires some scheduling and planning to get started.
Puzzle: Working on puzzles gets me just enough sense of completion that it demotivates my working on the blog post.
Blog post: As long as the blog post is in progress, I get very little sense of satisfaction from working on it. I get satisfaction from learning about the subject matter (habit formation, procrastination, etc.). The writing is almost painful.
Bottom line: Looking back at my list, I’m struck by how much the immediacy of a task compels me. I decide to do a quick puzzle because it’s there and it’s quick. Working on a blog – over a period of time – just doesn’t give me the same sense of satisfaction, even though I really do want to say what I want to say in the blog.
In his best-selling book, Mastery, Robert Greene explains why:
The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become diffused. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. Faced with the slenderest amount of time to reach the end, the mind rises to the level you require…. You don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated. Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations to push you along.2
And so it is with me. I definitely work better under deadlines. The feeling I had endless time to complete this blog post was a major impediment to my actually doing it. I can always wait until tomorrow or the weekend, I would tell myself, hardly noticing I had done so.
When is self-discipline an easier choice than procrastination?
The question is, how to turn the tables and make self-discipline the preferred choice. To do this, I referred back to the Logical Levels model.
The model is helpful in showing us all the elements that must be present and in alignment for us to produce lasting change – a change that sticks. In other words, for me to complete the habits blog in a timely fashion, it must fit my overall purpose, identity, values, and competencies. I must engage in the behavior and be supported by my environment in doing so.
Here is my analysis of how writing the “habits blog” fit with the different elements in the model.
Purpose: Does writing this blog post fit with my overall purpose at this stage of my life?
Definitely yes, although procrastination has been an issue for me all my life. The purpose is meaningful and helpful to an invisible audience that is strong but feels far away.
Identity: Does writing this blog post fit with my identity?
Definitely yes. In fact this speaks to who I am as an author, a researcher, and a human being.
Values: How consistent is this blog post with my values?
Very consistent. This may be part of the problem. Procrastination is contrary to my values since I am so strongly committed to my purpose. My inner critic is telling me that I’m not acting consistent with my values.
Competencies: Do I have the skills to write this blog post?
Definitely yes. I can easily find pertinent articles. My editor will help shape what I’ve written into a more digestible format.
Behavior: Am I actually writing the blog post? Am I doing the deed?
I am now, but I haven’t been for the last year that I’ve been promising to get it done.
Does my environment support the easy writing of the post on habits?
I have access to great resources – the UH library is prime among them. However, my setup for actual writing is not optimal.
Does my environment provide visible rewards for completing the post on habits?
Actually, it does not. (And I’m astonished that I’m saying this.) Completing the first draft just leads to the grind of re-editing between Carole – my editor – and me. Not until it’s posted do I get a sense of satisfaction, and that’s usually internal. Very few people comment on these blog posts. When we do get positive comments, they are worth their weight in gold.
Do I have people offering support in my doing so?
Yes, Carole keeps reminding me, and I know that my ambivalence is holding her up. I can hold myself up but not another person
These results are consistent with what I learned when comparing completing a puzzle vs writing the blog. Again, I’m struck with how important is a sense of completion and easy access to the tools.3 In hindsight, this is a no-brainer, but not until I completed both these analyses did it become clear to me. Somehow, I thought I could overcome those obstacles just because I wanted to. And when I didn’t, I blamed my strength of will rather than critically examining what factors I needed for success.
What finally motivated me to complete this blog post?
And then came a surprising new learning. Earlier I gave a spoiler alert that I had cracked the code of what to do about my procrastination. I found the answer in an article about Mahatma Gandhi.4 The premise is that if people knew for sure that choosing a short-term temptation over a larger later reward would result in disastrous consequences, people would choose the long-term reward. The problem is, the larger, later reward is far off in the future, so the easy temptation appears as the most viable option for many.
Gandhi was not susceptible to the easy temptation because he formed “unbreakable resolutions.” “Just this once” was not a viable excuse for him. Instead, he regarded it as breaking a sacred vow, far more serious than not fulfilling an easy promise. For Gandhi, keeping one’s vows was a way to strengthen the will, creating a broader application beyond the immediate concern. As he wrote:
Every person [should train themselves] to keep such vows; one can strengthen one’s power of will by doing so and fit oneself for greater tasks. We should, therefore, never doubt the necessity of vows for the purpose of self-purification and self-realization.
In other words, once we form an unbreakable resolution and then let ourselves off the hook, we subliminally weaken our will and come to not believe in our own self-promises. We stop trusting ourselves.
The article cited a study in which students were asked three questions: To what extent do you:
keep your promises to yourself even if later on you don’t feel like doing what you had promised yourself to do?
keep your promises to yourself even when other people are unaware of your promises and only you know about them?
use the act of making a promise to yourself to accomplish certain tasks?
Turns out that the students’ answers to these three questions were better predictors of academic procrastination than were standard measures of procrastination.
At this point in reading the article, I had to put the whole thing down. My answers to all three questions were “not often.” NOT OFTEN? I SELDOM KEEP PROMISES TO MYSELF??? Was that really true? Well, not really. I wouldn’t have achieved what I have if it were completely true. But for more things than I care to admit, this is true. If I make the promise to someone else, I will bend over backwards to keep that promise or to let them know I can’t.
But unless there’s an external deadline or pressure, simply telling myself I will do something is not sufficient. My promises to myself are not worth that much unless there are really high stakes.
In writing this blog, for example, probably dozens of times I told myself I would get to it “this weekend” or maybe “next week” and then not do it, while the weight around my neck just felt a bit heavier. It was too far away (in my mind) and too much trouble to organize all that material I had gathered.
Gandhi offered four conditions for forming an unbreakable promise:
Recognize your limitations. Don’t commit to more than you can do.
Start small. Since one of the goals of unbreakable resolutions is to strengthen one’s will, start off by taking easy and simple vows and then expand to more difficult ones.
Allow for exceptions. It’s fine to make a vow based on some contingency (e.g. Gandhi vowed to “spin” cotton every day except when he was sick). It’s okay to even abandon a vow if it turns out to be ill-advised for some reason. To not abuse exceptions, it’s important to be ruthlessly honest with oneself whenever we decide the situation calls for an exception.
If we inadvertently break a vow, impose a self-penalty as atonement. In so doing, we reinforce that we value our vows to ourselves. Again, the process is intended to strengthen the will as well as accomplish what we seek to accomplish.
How might I accomplish an action I really want to do but keep putting off?
The first step is to distinguish this desired action from my everyday “nice to do” actions. Put this in its own category of an “unbreakable resolution.” Declare that completion of this action will help strengthen my will and set me up for better accomplishments in the future.
Next, check the logical levels diagram to see if all the elements are in alignment with what I want to do. If not, seek to make adaptations so that my purpose, values, environment, etc., all support the desirable action (e.g., writing a special blog post). Make the necessary adjustments called for by the analysis. This is an easy step to skip, at my peril. It requires analysis and planning. The act of doing this analysis in and of itself sets the action apart from the dozens of things I do each day. It reminds me that I am doing this extra work because I am about to make an unbreakable resolution.
Write it down – what I intend to do and by when. Record the results of the logical levels analysis and how I will handle contingencies. Include the foreseeable conditions under which I will be released from the resolution and a penalty if I don’t fulfill the resolution.
Share the resolution with someone else. Get support and accountability.
I know at least two people whose self-discipline amazes me. I wondered how they get done what they want to get done. I don’t ever hear them complain about what they have to do. Instead, they say what they are going to do, and the next time I talk with them, it’s done.
Now I understand. They respect the pledges they make to themselves. I asked one of them the secret of his success in getting things done. He said he doesn’t waste time with weighing options. He simply decides whatever it is and moves on. His motto is “Decide now.”
When I think of the time I have wasted weighing options and dilly-dallying instead of doing what I declare I want to do, it gives me the shudders.
I now have a plan and a New Year’s Resolution: I will keep unbreakable resolutions I make to myself for myself.
Questions to ask yourself
Does any of this sound familiar? Where do you get stuck?
Which of the solutions Jean is planning would you consider for yourself?
Conscious Change skills covered in this post
Learn from resistance
Commit to personal change
Set direction, not fixed outcomes
Cultivate radical patience through the time lag of change
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