Mark Forster’s link to Jim Perry’s article, “Structured Procrastination,” got me thinking. Jim suggested that we procrastinate doing tasks that are more important by completing tasks that are less important. He had a point. I often find myself doing just about everything but what I should be doing. But I disagree that it’s primarily the importance of a task that gets my procrastination process flowing.
We all know that the size, difficulty, or unpleasantness of a task can prompt procrastination. Mark’s book, Do It Tomorrow, offers wonderful suggestions for coping with this kind of task resistance. But I believe there is another factor at play: obligation. That is the gist of what I wanted to say. Please don’t feel obligated to read further.
Examples of Obligation-Based Procrastination
When I was in sixth grade, I took piano lessons. Each week, I would meet with my piano teacher and tried to fake my way through the assigned pieces that I had not practiced. I hated that I had to play certain songs for a certain period of time, even though I enjoyed the piano. Finally, I convinced my mom to let me quit. From that day on, I sat and played piano for about an hour a day.
As a psychologist, I have seen couples’ sex lives demonstrate the same principle. A physical relationship can become nonexistent because of the obligation one partner feels to participate. The “treatment” I used was to forbid both partners from initiating intimacy for a couple weeks. The result was that the obligated partner was all over her spouse in no time.
As a homeschooling teacher, I have seen this principle at work in my children. The boys loved their computer science assignments and would do several lessons in one sitting. That is, until I assigned them a lesson a week to check off in their notebooks. Suddenly, nothing could get them on the computer. Hm. Maybe I need to assign a daily video game?
I propose that the more obligated we feel to complete a task, the more likely we are to procrastinate doing it. Significant rewards or punishments can override the power of the obligation-procrastination connection. No matter how obligated or put out you felt, you would probably not procrastinate going to pick up a check for your million-dollar lotto winnings. Likewise, the threat of missing the plane and not catching another one keeps people from extreme procrastination when it comes to leaving for the airport. Well, some people.
Without realizing it, people who use obligation (read guilt) to motivate in relationships often get the opposite of what they were hoping for. The mother who makes her son feel obligated to call gets fewer calls. The blogger who complains about lack of comments gets fewer comments. The wife who pouts about lack of romance gets none.
Why Obligation Produces Procrastination
I have long been enamored with the four-personality-type model described by Florence Littauer in Personality Plus. I believe personality explains much of why we eschew obligation. Powerful Cholerics desire control. Obligations feel like loss of control to this personality type. This explains why my Choleric husband refused procrastinated writing his agenda on our family calendar. Obligations are particularly conducive to procrastination for this personality type.
Popular Sanguines just wanna have fun. Obligations are automatically not fun. If someone is requiring you to do something (even if it’s you), it must be something to be avoided. Although the Choleric is likely to refuse an obligation-laden task, Sanguines are likely to do it at the very last minute for fear that you won’t like them if they don’t.
Peaceful Phlegmatics just want to feel valued in a life that is easy and peaceful. Obligations that create conflict will be avoided. This personality will often do obligatory-tasks if they’re quick and easy. But effort-laden tasks coupled with an I’m-superior-to-you attitude is sure to invite procrastination.
Perfect Melancholies are least likely to be affected by obligation-related procrastination. The Melancholy, by his nature, feels obligated to perform tasks perfectly. This attitude does not keep him from doing the work. In fact, he rarely procrastinates as procrastination is an imperfect work habit.
How to Be Free From Obligation-Based Procrastination
So how can we manage the obligation-procrastination cycle, especially given that many obligations emanate from others?
First, remove obligations if possible. I was paid for doing premarital counseling at my church for many years. The paycheck made me feel obligated. As a result, I put off many tasks related to this position. I asked that I be made a volunteer instead. With the obligation removed, I was much more productive in this role. Perhaps you simply don’t have to do what you are avoiding doing.
Second, reassign obligations. Some obligation is perceived when no one else is taking on what we view as a necessary responsibility. Tasks like cooking, cleaning, and other chores can create obligation-inspired procrastination if one feels the work has been left to you. Your family members or office-mates may not seem to care if you complete these tasks, but if you care and aren’t getting any help, procrastination can kick in. The solution is to discuss your dilemma without placing blame or obligation on those who may be very willing to help.
Third, work ahead. (Notice that I don’t feel obligated to continue with the re- words.) The closer and closer a deadline looms, the more obligated we feel. That is why we engage in seemingly nonsensical behaviors like watching TV when we have a major paper or project due the next day. If we follow the time-honored advice of beginning early on projects, we feel no obligation. In fact, we feel superior for being so far ahead on our work by choice. If you have a project deadline coming up soon (tomorrow) that you’re going to procrastinate on anyway, go ahead and start working on a project that isn’t due for months! You know you’ll stay up late, imbibing tons of caffeine, and get your obligatory work done anyway. (Yes, that is a little reverse psychology.)
Fourth, refuse to accept obligations unless absolutely necessary. Committing to specific dates or expectations for a project may get you procrastinating. Instead, be a noncommittal volunteer whenever possible. I love writing, but give me a deadline with a picky editor and you can be sure that I’ll be doing a lot of web surfing rather than
writing. The reason I am writing this article today is because I have absolutely no obligations associated with it. I can write it whenever, however I would like to. An easy way to refuse self-imposed obligations is not to add a task to your to-do list. The task may then become a “want to” rather than a “have to.” This would only be effective for tasks that you won’t forget. This lack of obligation may explain the popularity of the Getting Things Done
philosophy. Tasks are collected and sorted into contexts (at phone, at computer, at office, etc.), but there is no commitment to do tasks without deadlines today. You can choose what you want to work on (for the most part) guilt-free.
Fifth, rethink obligations. When we’ve used the first four approaches and we’re still faced with an obligatory, procrastination-producing task (or the threat of being fired), we can change how we think about it. For example, FLYLady calls weekly cleaning the “home blessing.” The language we use in our heads and in our spoken words has a huge impact on how motivated we are to complete certain tasks. Consider your emotional reaction to the
words “responsibility” and “privilege.” Which of these two types of tasks would you be most likely to complete? So many of our “responsibilities” (like grocery shopping, caring for children, home maintenance) are what millions of destitute people would consider privileges. Adopting a grateful perspective can help us get the job done today.
I hope these suggestions will free you from procrastination. But please don’t feel obligated to put any of them into practice. If you’d like to comment on them, feel free to do so whenever you like. I’m off to do something else I don’t have to do.