How to Be a Productive Procrastinator
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And whether you're surfing videos on YouTube or listening to this program when you should be making headway on that booming finance report, many of us have become quite adapt at rationalizing our doddling. It's a wonder anything ever gets done. Today, the latest on procrastination, if that's not a contradiction in terms.
Expert Timothy Pychyl joins us to talk about the inner mechanics of lollygagging and he'll bringing us up to speed on research. We'll also hear from a self-professed structured procrastinator who claims procrastination is his best friend. So tell us, is procrastination a positive or negative force in your life? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also weigh in on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later, to Chicago for closing arguments in the R. Kelly trial, but first, procrastination, and let's go right to the phones. Mark is calling, Mark from Portland, Oregon.
MARK (Caller): Hi Neal, thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
MARK: I was thinking about this as I heard it announced earlier. I thought, the worst procrastinators in the world are probably the ones that resolve the problem at best, and that's artists.
MARK: Well, we're constantly thinking of doing new work, a new masterpiece. And I can say, I call into Talk of the Nation many times. I had the honor of talking to Simon (unintelligible) about a year and a half ago...
CONAN: Oh, I remember that, yes.
MARK: About the power of art. But I think as people see our works of art, and I guess I produced a few masterpieces, I don't want to refer to that myself but his relate to science, doing sketches of the eyepiece of a telescope as featured in the NASA web sites quite often. I think = it's interesting that people see these.
They're impressed by them, they expect you to do another one. They want to keep being entertained by artists so we're constantly pressed to produce new work. And that's tough. I mean, you're working against your own sense of ideas, I think.
CONAN: But it's other people's expectations that, in a sense, weigh you down.
MARK: It is. And it can pressure you to the point where you want to try to outdo your last work so you're kind of pressured to think of doing something better the next time. So you tend to procrastinate. You don't want to release something until you feel it's really great, and it's kind of a - there's an oxymoron taking place there, I think, between expectations of performance and trying to produce at the same time. So you find yourself kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.
CONAN: And then you call the radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARK: Hopefully someone's going to offer something as a resolution. But you know, artists are known - all artists are really known to be performing artists, who are kind of entertainers, in a way, I think, in the public eye.
CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some answers for you, Mark.
MARK: All right.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, and good luck on your next masterwork.
MARK: All right, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Timothy Pychyl is with us. He is an associate professor and graduate chair of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, in Canada. He writes the blog, "Don't Delay," for psychologytoday.com and joins us today from the studios of the CBC in Ottawa. And it's interesting, Tim - first of all, thanks very much for being with us.
Dr. TIMOTHY PYCHYL (Graduate Chair, Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada; Procrastination Expert): It's my pleasure.
CONAN: But nevertheless, what we were just hearing about from Mark, the artist, in terms of - well, you know, other people expect a lot from me. I've got to make sure, until it's perfect. Well, that goes to some of the research you've just been doing.
Dr. PYCHYL: Absolutely. In fact, one of the most recent papers published has been about perfectionism. There have been a few over the years, but you know, perfectionism comes in a couple of different flavors. Broadly speaking, you can think about adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. So adaptive perfectionists have positive strivings. They're doing things because they're interested. They want to do them well.
What I heard in Mark's thoughts is that he has concerns over mistakes, there is a lot of doubt over action, whether he can be better than he was the next time, and that's certainly related to procrastination, so I understand his feelings that it's easier to put it off than to try to live up to everyone's expectations.
But the other thing with Mark is that, you know, he's being too hard on himself in some ways because producing art isn't always just the moment when you have the brush on the canvas, for example. The production of a creative piece, there's a lot of thought that has to go into it, and if we try to say that anything but brush to canvas is procrastination, then we're undermining what it is to be creative. And so I think we have to watch that we don't call every delay or every sort of inaction, procrastination.
CONAN: Yet, you also go on and cite some other research that suggests, in fact, we find all sorts of reasons to suggest to ourselves that we do need to delay, in fact, and some of them are quite bad for us, like getting drunk.
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, I mean, when we want to rationalize, we want to avoid things. You know, that's avoidance in approach and avoidance we recognize at some level that we're doing that, and so we want to move ourselves away from that. So it's one of the many coping strategies we have of self-medication, to try to dull those senses. But it's not the most common.
We've certainly published on that, in terms of - we do see students, for example, who use more substances, whether it be alcohol or others, to try to put out of their mind that, hey, they're not doing the work they're supposed to do.
I didn't hear that in what Mark had to say. I really heard this notion of perfectionism that you picked up on. And also just a notion that, you know, we're only as good as our last performance, and when we put that kind of pressure on ourselves, we're no longer striving for success. We're trying to avoid failure. And that's interesting the way he frames it, so a lot of it has to do with his attributions.
I think if he thinks a little bit more about how lucky he is to be in a position to not only have produced what people consider masterpieces but to be able to continue in his art, he might try to let go of the attributions of, oh, my next one might not be as good, as opposed to, wow, isn't that great, I have an opportunity to do this again.
CONAN: Let's get Angie on the line. Angie's with us from Belmont in California.
ANGIE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Angie.
ANGIE: I'm actually procrastinating right now. I'm writing my PhD dissertation and it's coming along nicely but I had to call you instead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: How much more left to work on it?
ANGIE: Yes, I tend to be one of those people who - I have to clean my house top to bottom before I can focus on my work, and it can't be something, for me personally, like I couldn't paint my toenails right now but I could definitely clean my house or, you know, make sure all my plants are watered for the zillionth time.
CONAN: Yeah. Mine was making sure the books were in the correct alphabetical order.
ANGIE: And you know, I'm actually originally from Oregon, and so maybe, just like Mark, so maybe there's a bunch of procrastinators in Oregon.
CONAN: Well, I know that the standard piece of advice for people involved in a big task like a dissertation is to break it down into a number of smaller tasks, but it sounds like you're already halfway through it, at least, Angie.
ANGIE: Oh, yeah. It's coming along, but the thing is, too, I can't be far away from my computer. Like I couldn't procrastinate and actually leave my house.
CONAN: I see.
ANGIE: Because if some spark of genius came up then I want to be right there to document it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Have you heard the words "lap top"?
ANGIE: I have a laptop!
Dr. PYCHYL: Or notepad. But I think that's interesting that you picked up on this notion of defining the task, breaking it down, because as I listen, I don't really hear - I hear this talk about thesis or dissertation, but when my students talk about writing a dissertation, they say, oh, I'm working on my thesis, I think. You're not doing very much probably.
But if you say, I'm struggling with the fourth paragraph in my methods section or the transition from the results to the discussion, then I know you're thinking.
So I think the way we phrase our tasks is very much part of what it means to break something down. And the other thing is that, yeah, it is tempting to see these other tasks as pressing, but we have to recognize that that's just a flag that we are about to put off something that's rather important to us. You know, your house could get very, very dirty and someone else could clean it, but no one, no one else can write this dissertation but you.
So it really will behoove you to catch yourself at the moment you think, yeah, I'm just going to wash those dishes, it will only take a minute, and say, oh, here I go again. I'm just going to keep the seat of my pants right here for a while, and what you'll find is a lot of the almost unconscious anxiety you're having is going to dissipate when you start to make progress on that goal.
CONNA: And do you think Angie would do well to forgive herself for procrastinations in the past?
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, it's interesting you'd say that. Certainly, the most recent paper we've got out for review is about forgiveness. And in fact, it plays in women's favor. We found a gender difference here, that women who self-forgive, who forgive themselves for procrastinating, are more likely to procrastinate less in the same task the next time. And the rationale there is that when you don't forgive, there's a lot of negative emotions associated with that, so you want to avoid it. But if you forgive yourself and then you get a second chance. So absolutely, self-forgiveness, particularly for women, seems to make a difference.
ANGIE: Thank you. I forgive myself.
Dr. PYCHYL: Get back to work.
ANGIE: Thank you. OK. Goodbye.
CONAN: So long, Angie. Keep listening. Let's see if we can get - this is Bibi(ph). Bibi is with us from Tucson, in Arizona.
BIBI (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking the call.
BIBI: I wanted to ask your guest if he thinks there could be some type of psychological illness, per se, associated with procrastination. Like, is it possible that the obsession could be perfection and then the compulsion being procrastination?
CONAN: Or Bibi, is it possible you're just naturally lazy?
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIBI: Well, that's not - sort of, when I called in, I said, you know, a lot of people think of procrastinators as being lazy. But I think it's deeper than that.
Dr. PYCHYL: Yeah. I agree that it's deeper than that. And there's no doubt about that. It's not about time management but when you started your question, I was thinking, well, certainly depression is related to amotivation. And in fact, we got to make sure that when we're talking to someone, that they're not clinically depressed because that's what you need to treat. And any task delay will disappear once the depression goes away.
But then you turned to the notion of perfectionism. Well, if you consider that a psychological illness - and I'm not sure I want to call it that - I would say it's a psychological dysfunction, per se, especially if it's this socially prescribed, maladaptive perfectionism. Absolutely.
If what you're doing is trying to live up to other people's standards and that creates this inner conflict that the only way out is procrastination, then the problem, per se, is the perfectionism, and the procrastination is one of the few ways that you're trying to exert control in the world. So it's many times that irrational thoughts are at the root of our procrastination, and we have to start there.
CONAN: Have you ever met anybody, by the way, Timothy Pychyl, who is naturally lazy?
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, I don't even like the word that much. I think we like to use it against other people. It's one of these things that - it's not a kind thing to say about another person. So I'm not too sure what a lazy person is. I think that there are people who don't seem to be very connected to their goals or engaged. But, yeah, I'm not convinced I even understand the word, at times.
CONAN: Bibi, thanks very much for the call.
BIBI: Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck to you. Thanks very much. So stay with us. We're talking with Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor and graduate chair of psychology at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He's also an expert on procrastination.
If you'd like to join the conversation, the question to you today is, is procrastination a negative or a positive force in your life? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. Our phone number, if you'd like to join us, is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about procrastination. As anybody who has ever procrastinated knows, you can do that endlessly. Our guest is Tim Pychyl, who writes the blog "Don't Delay" for psychologytoday.com. And if you'd like to join us, tell us, is procrastination a positive or negative force in your life? Our number is 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Let's go to Mike. And Mike's with us from Mystic, in Connecticut.
MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
MIKE: Are you there?
CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead.
MIKE: Hi. I'm calling today because I've got a story about procrastination being a positive force in my life, for a change.
CONAN: Go ahead. That's interesting.
MIKE: I have a 2000 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, and I was up in Maine skiing this winter. And I got one of those cracks in the windshield that went all the way across and also broke a leaf spring. I've been thinking about getting that stuff fixed, you know, and it's just as simple as picking up a phone call and calling the glass place to come and put a new windshield in my truck but I just haven't gotten around to it.
And then about a week ago, I found out that Toyota is going to buy my truck back, and the condition of the truck is irrelevant to the price that they're going to give me for it. So procrastination literally paid off for me.
CONAN: There you go. Congratulations, Mike.
Dr. PYCHYL: Yeah. And that's a classic availability heuristic in social psychology. We can remember those points in time when it really does pay to procrastinate. And of course, there are times when it does. I have the same thing right now, Mike. I have a crack right across the windshield of my car. But I don't feel I'm procrastinating in getting it fixed because I've never set an intention and said, next Wednesday I'm going to get it fixed. Now once I set the intention and if I go past that date, then I'm truly procrastinating because for some reason, I thought that was the optimum time to act.
But in some ways, you have this loosely defined, someday, I should get that fixed. So I'd say that you delayed the intent - even the forming of an intention. So at that sense, delay could pay. It's certainly the thing that we look back on later. But the problem is, then we use it to rationalize very problematic procrastination. So again, I want to emphasize, we shouldn't say that all delay is procrastination. But I'm glad they're buying your truck back, Mike.
MIKE: Yeah. Well, I think when it first happened I said to myself, oh, yeah, I'll get that done. Well, I was up at Maine at the time, so you know, at first I said, well, as soon as I get back home I'll do it. And then it was next week, and then it just kind of went on a backburner.
CONAN: Yeah. It turns out you could see pretty well through that crack.
MIKE: Yeah, you know.
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, for sure.
MIKE: Every week or so somebody asked me, when are you going to get that fixed? Finally, I can say, I'm not going to.
CONAN: Mike, congratulations. Thanks.
CONAN: Joining us now is John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, co-host of the radio show "Philosophy Talk." He's a self-professed structured procrastinator, and he joins us now from the studios of Clear Channel Broadcasting in Modesto, California. Nice to have you with us today.
Professor JOHN PERRY (Philosophy, Stanford University; Radio Co-Host, "Philosophy Talk"): Well, nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And would you have described Mike as a structured procrastinator?
Professor PERRY: Well, that depends. I mean, the idea of structured procrastination is that if you're a procrastinator, that's like being left-handed - you just are, you aren't, right? If you're a procrastinator, then you've got this source of motivation: not doing the thing you're procrastinating, which is usually something you regard as sort of important and for some reason you just deep down don't want to do it.
And the question is, what are you going to do with that time? Are you going to just sit on a couch feeling bad about not doing it? Then you'll end up being both a procrastinator and very depressed. The trick is to have a lot of less important things on your list, so that by doing the less important things, you can avoid doing the thing that it's really important for you to procrastinate. And I just discovered one day - I was wondering why, since I'm such a procrastinator, I had a reputation on the university as being a guy that got a lot done.
And it occurred to me, ah! I'm really - I'm making it work for me. So that's what structured procrastination is.
CONAN: Yeah. But clearly, you don't have a problem getting over that initial hurdle of making a list.
Professor PERRY: Well, sometimes you - you know, making lists is very important. If you're really down in the dumps and lazy, then you want to have a list that says, like, get out of bed. Turn off the alarm.
CONAN: Yeah, cup of coffee.
Professor PERRY: Sharpen your pencil.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor PERRY: And then the trick is to check each one off. And you'd find out how motivating that is in the morning. Once you get two or three things checked off, you kind of - you're going for the day. But the real trick with structured procrastination is you need to have certain self-deceptive skills so that you think tasks are really important that maybe, really, in the end, aren't that important. But I have those so I'm OK.
CONAN: This is just simply a form of self-deception.
Professor PERRY: Well, yeah. It's - I mean, it's not that I recommend it. But I'm just saying, if you're a procrastinator, you may not feel so bad about yourself if you realize that this is what's happening. And you may not spend a lot of time - and a lot of people say, well, if you procrastinate, it's because you've got too much to do. You need to just have the one task in front of you and then you'll get it done. But that's - you know, that's just wrong. If you just have the one task in front of you, you'll go watch the "Simpsons" on TV or something.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor PERRY: But if you've got a whole structure of less important stuff, and then it turns out the thing at the top - like, my typical thing is, right now, I'm supposed to get my booklist for next fall in because the bookstore will allow my students to return the books and get a bigger - at a less of a discount if I get the booklist in by some completely unreasonable date.
CONAN: Arbitrary date in the future.
Professor PERRY: Yeah. So that's at the top of my list. And I definitely won't do it, and I'll get a lot of other stuff done in the meantime. And then someday I'll do it. And it'll work out just fine, and the students won't know why they're getting screwed when they return their books.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I wonder, Tim Pychyl, do you see any benefit in structured procrastination?
Dr. PYCHYL: Oh, I do. I want to say hi to John, because we've had some email contact.
Professor PERRY: Hi. Hi, Tim. Good to meet you.
Dr. PYCHYL: You too. And John, you're my favorite philosopher. I say that a lot now because he gives the best advice. And in fact, as you listen, you don't have to listen so much to the structured procrastination as the - he knows and writes that happiness is the product of the pursuit of your goals. And what he's really arguing here is that you've got to use your worst enemy, your worst habit - in this case, procrastination.
As John said, that you're left-handed, let's use it somehow. And in tennis, that might be you have a wonderful, two-handed backhand. So he's saying, use that to motivate yourself.
So if you make a list, a bunch of things to do, and you start checking them off, well, we know from some recent research by Ken Sheldon that - University of Missouri - that when we have progress on a goal, we have higher well being. And when we have higher well being, we're more likely to do the next thing on our list. And so I think John's advice is well taken.
I think that where John and I have had some disagreement is that he's the kind of guy that always has something useful, or at least marginally useful, on his list. And unfortunately, there are some people who will go after the "Simpsons." I know we're going to get people saying, what's wrong with the "Simpsons"? Nothing. But you know what I mean, they have a list in front of them, and they say, well, I'm not going to do any of these things. And then they sit and surf the channels. But absolutely. I really like what John has to say, and I like the advice he gives to his students, as well.
CONAN: It's probably - it's too much "Simpsons" if you're reciting the words along with them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, yes.
Professor PERRY: There's a - I kind of think there's people over on the left that don't procrastinate. I've got friends like that. They kind of make me nervous to be around but they're very admirable people. And then there's people over on the other side that are really clinically depressed and reading my funny, little articles isn't going to do anything for them.
But I'm convinced by the thousands of emails I've gotten that, you know, because I was just writing something funny that I kind of described how I work. I found out from my son that Robert Benchley, by the way, wrote something very similar 40 years ago. But that was before the Internet, so it doesn't count.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor PERRY: But yeah, there's just - there's just lots of people who - I had a woman write me and she said, you know, my brother has been after me for being a procrastinator for as long as I can remember. And for the first time in my life, after reading your article on structured procrastination, I feel like a worthwhile human being. By the way, I'm 75 years old. I thought, wow! There's a lot of people that share this particular psychological make-up. So that's what it's all about.
CONAN: Let's get Lynn(ph) on the line, and Lynn's calling us from Kansas City.
LYNN (Caller): Hi. I have some creative procrastination techniques. One is to let things pile up until they're aged and just don't matter anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYNN: Invitations, notices of a dance and so forth. If you let them pile up, you can just dump them.
CONAN: Yeah, the invitation to the Bush inaugural doesn't matter anymore.
LYNN: That's right. And the second one is a similar one, which is if I let things pile up enough, there'll be somebody there who'll need the information badly enough that they're willing to help me. I often wait to do paperwork till my sister comes to visit because she's very good at dispatching it. So I tend to feel guilty because the cut pile gets really big, but I know that whenever she comes I'm going to get rid of it. So it's actually healthy for me to wait because I get it done faster, and I get it done with assistance.
Professor PERRY: Well, there is this phenomenon that's connected with perfectionism that you were discussing before. You kind of have an inappropriate perfectionism. A lot of people are perfectionists who don't know it because they've never done anything remotely perfect.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor PERRY: But that's really a side issue right now. So you - no, you get a request from someone to write a review of a book or something for a publisher. And you know, your brain says, I'm going to write the best one of those that's ever been written. I'm going to write one so good that when the publisher reads this, she's just, you know, she's just speechless. And that's silly but for some of us, you do that all the time. And then procrastination is a way of waiting for the last minute and giving yourself permission to do a fairly crappy job. And you know, it works well.
Mr. PYCHYL: Yeah, and it also protects your sense of self.
LYNN: You're saying it lets you permission to not do something.
Professor PERRY: Yeah.
LYNN: To say, oh, I've waited too long, so I'm not going to do that. I'm an artist and I should have entered that show but I waited too long. But you know, the reason I waited too long to enter the show is because I have too much to do and I really shouldn't have entered the show.
Professor PERRY: Yeah. But it probably is self-protection. You didn't enter the show because you might have...
CONAN: And I wanted to ask Tim Pychyl to follow up a little bit on that. We give ourselves permission to do a bad job.
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, it's important sometimes because that gets you started and then you don't end up doing a bad job at all. But when you set yourself up to this level of perfectionist, you're going to self-handicap to make sure that you don't put it out on the line. Because I don't want to - Joe Ferrari(ph) tells us that all the time. Sorry, I interrupted you, go ahead.
CONAN: Go ahead.
LYNN: Susan said, I'm not going to do this because I've been procrastinating about it. The reason I'm not doing it is I know I wouldn't do a good job, so that gives me permission to resign.
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, I mean, that's a decision, then, too. But I mean, the thing that was interesting, as I listened to you, is that you have a lot things going on in there. And some of it I'd call procrastination, some of it's really strategic delay. You delay and enlist the help of others.
Dr. PYCHYL: I mean, that's the example with your sister. So, you know, again, I think we have to be careful about what we consider, well, this is my strategy to get it done, as opposed to this is truly just procrastination.
Dr. PYCHYL: And I think that we have to differentiate amongst them or else we get confused.
CONAN: Thanks, Lynn.
LYNN: Thank you.
CONAN: OK. Go ahead, John Perry.
Professor PERRY: These days it's often a strategy for getting some sense of how important the task is to the person for whom you're doing it, particularly with email. You agree, you know, I think I'm procrastinating by not answering my email, but actually, it's sort of a strategy because the important stuff they'll email you right back. And a lot of stuff they never do and it couldn't have been too important.
CONAN: Let's get Tysa(ph) on the line, Tysa with us from Reno, in Nevada.
TYSA (Caller): Hi there. I just wanted to say procrastination has been part of my life forever. I - my motto in life is I always get it done. And I do. But I wait until the very last minute. And I found that - I believe it's because I actually do a better job at the last minute. I'm just wondering, you think it might be a mind trick, that I'm...
CONAN: Working best under pressure. Tim Pychyl, boy, that's a familiar refrain, I think.
Dr. PYCHYL: It is. And actually, we're just finishing up a thesis here at Carleton on that. And we found, really, no evidence of the arousal procrastinator.
Professor PERRY: Oh, really.
Dr. PYCHYL: Yeah. We've looked at the personality variables of extroversion and sensation seeking and also something known as reducing and augmenting, that reducers reduce pain and augmenters augment pain. And these are classic arousal-based personality differences. And we don't find any relationship between those individual characteristics and the actual procrastination. We do see a small relation with those characteristics and the excuse that I work better under pressure.
And again, as a professor, we see lots of students who, because they've only ever worked under pressure, they think it's the only way they can work. And so it is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that way because you've never taken the time to do it another way.
CONAN: You figure those people go on into journalism?
Dr. PYCHYL: I hope so. Because that's their lives.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Tysa, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And we're talking with John Perry at Stanford University and also with Tim Pychyl of Carleton University in Ottawa. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
Email question from Gail in Manhattan, Kansas. "What's the difference between structured procrastination and prioritizing?"
Professor PERRY: Well, the difference between structured procrastination and prioritizing may be that structured procrastination is prioritizing as done by a procrastinator. But for...
CONAN: In reverse.
Professor PERRY: Yeah. But to be really successful you have to have certain self-deceptive skills. That is, you have to be able to convince yourself to put at the top of your list - that is, put it at the place where you're probably not going to work on it something that can grab you as very important, but ultimately, isn't all that important. Most procrastinators have good self-deceptive skills, I find. But maybe Timothy has done some real empirical work and that's not so.
Dr. Pychyl: No, I think that's the case. But I think, really, what you've got there is two things that fuel motivation. One is avoidance and one is approach. And so you're taking that avoidance motivation that the procrastinator has in spades and using it to fuel other behaviors.
So I think it's - that what's the difference there is that, you know, someone who is an approach-oriented person would prioritize and say, this is my number one task and I'm going to do it. But by self-deceiving a bit, you put your number one task up there that's important but doesn't really have a deadline, but you're trying to avoid - well, now I've got all the motivation in the world to do the other task. So I think that that's why it's such a good strategy for someone who's approached the world as always avoiding.
CONAN: My procrastination technique at the moment is that online banking is fun!
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's go to Ian, and Ian's with us from San Francisco.
IAN (Caller): Hi! I am a professional pianist, and I just graduated from the Conservatory of Music here. I'm wondering if you all see a connection between procrastination - I'm talking about artists and musicians in the practicing process - if you see a connection between that and the insecurities associated with performance anxiety on stage.
CONAN: Tim Pychyl, any work on that that you know of?
Dr. PYCHYL: There's no data that way. And that's an interesting way you took that question. I was anticipating something different, but no, there's no data that I could speak to that way. The closest is a paper that was recently published about the flow experience, that Csikszentmihalyi defined, is that artists and musicians, in particular, get so deeply absorbed in what they're doing that time sort of escapes them and they're really in the moment. And certainly, procrastination and flow experiences are each at opposite ends of the scale, it seems. So that's what the only other thing that even begins to speak to that. So I don't know about this avoidance or anxiety of performing.
IAN: Well, what interested me was the sort of insecurities that you associated with procrastinating a creative process. I was wondering if they connect with the insecurities that we performers associate on stage with performance anxiety.
Dr. PYCHYL: Well, threat of evaluation is certainly highly related to procrastination. So to the extent that you see that performance as - you know, as we heard with Mark, you know, that it might not be my next masterpiece, as opposed to, isn't it wonderful? I get a chance to perform again. And those are just two different ways of looking at something.
And I think it makes all the difference in terms of the emotional response you have to that opportunity and then whether or not, you know, it's going to be related to other ways you act in life, which would include procrastination.
CONAN: And when you get the performance anxiety, Ian, how does it manifest itself? Does it prevent you from going on stage?
IAN: Well, it more affects you on stage. You know, you'll have a case of the nerves where your physical function that you've been training so long, for example, with the piano, they tend to shut down. And then you're not able to do what you've been preparing yourself to do in the heat of the moment.
CONAN: So your muscle memory all goes, and you're sitting up there wondering, what do I do now? And if you have to think about it, boy, you're in trouble?
IAN: Yeah, exactly.
CONAN: All right. Ian, don't think about it!
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IAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.
Dr. PYCHYL: There's a blog up on Psychology Today written by a guy named Jesse Bering. He's in Queen's University, Belfast. And he wrote recently about the topic of transparency, when people get up to give public speeches. So I encourage your last caller to take a look at Jesse's blog because it talks about that stage fright and how we can get over it.
CONAN: Can you guys stay with us a couple of minutes?
Professor PERRY: Absolutely.
CONAN: OK. We're going to take a few more questions about - well, procrastination. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Email is email@example.com. We'll also go to Chicago and talk about closing arguments today at the R. Kelly trial. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're wrapping up our conversation on procrastination with Tim Pychyl, associate professor and graduate chair of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. He also writes the blog "Don't Delay" for Psychology Today at psychologytoday.com.
And also with us, John Perry, professor of philosophy at Stanford University and co-host of the radio show, "Philosophy Talk," and self-professed structured procrastinator. And I wanted to read you this email we got from Eric.
"I believe it's valuable to have at least one particularly onerous task to which one is procrastinating, so when you're on a plane and the wings start to shake and wobble, you can console yourself on your imminent demise with the knowledge that at least you didn't waste your time cleaning out the basement."
Dr. PYCHYL: Absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor PERRY: A deep and profound fellow, that Eric. `
CONAN: He's come up with something that goes to the heart of the human experience.
Let's see if we can go to Leslie, Leslie's with us from Overland Park in Kansas.
LESLIE: Yes, hello! Hi, thanks for taking my call. I wanted to mention a = I guess kind of a support group that I'm on that helps me and the women on it deal with procrastination. And we keep each other accountable for things that we like to get done. It's based on the web site, flylady.net. And we have email pop-ups that pop up on particular days, things like, I don't want a Wednesday, where you list something you've really been putting off. Or Friday Five, where you list five things that you would really like to accomplish that day. And we have found that it really helps us a lot.
CONAN: Tim Pychyl, do you think a support group could be helpful?
Dr. PYCHYL: Absolutely. There's two strategies in there that are so important. One was structure, you're starting to structure what you're going to do. But the other one was making your goals public. It's hard to be self-deceiving when other people know what you're doing.
It's just excellent. And I think that most of us find that that kind of social support keeps us accountable, and we can't play those games in our heads anymore. And when we do, we have someone to gently nudge us along and help us say, oh, yeah, that is my intention, that is my goal. And we get back on track.
LESLIE: Yeah. We also meet personally sometimes for coffee and things like that, and you know, we talk about other things, too. So it's really nice.
CONAN: What happens, Leslie, if you don't do the task that you're supposed to do and that people remind you about? I mean, do they come over and whack your kneecaps?
LESLIE: Oh, no, no, no. You might - we're not too strict about it. But you might get an email saying, hey, how did you do on your list?
LESLIE: So you feel like someone else cares, you know. I found that it does help. And we also remind each other sometimes to use a timer, which is one thing that this woman Flylady says. You can do anything for 15 minutes. If you set a timer, it kind of puts you in a race against the clock, and it's sometimes actually kind of fun because you can wash a lot of pans in 15 minutes. You know, one of those things that we tend to put off, so...
Dr. PYCHYL: Yeah.
LESLIE: It helps us deal with clutter and to stop our procrastination habits a little bit. So I've really enjoyed the list.
CONAN: Leslie, good luck. Thanks very much for the call.
LESLIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go now to Marie. And Marie has been very patient with us on the line from Mount Kisco in New York.
MARIE: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
MARIE: Good. I've suffered my whole life from what I call clean slate syndrome, which is that there's so many tasks hanging over your head that you just can't start any single one of them because they all have to end up perfect and you know you can't do it. I barely, barely graduated from prep school, only because of my teacher's pity did I make it out. And went off and enlisted in the army to learn a little bit of discipline.
And I don't know if it was that or just, you know, eventual maturity, that taught me, number one, just, you know, lie to myself, set my goals a little lower. Say, I'm only going to read two pages because two pages is better than none. And I end up reading all 40 pages.
And number two, you know, when there's a plaintiff(ph) behind me, I found enormous value in sort of just ignoring the task that you're doing and recognizing that it's going to be over eventually. It's amazingly helpful!
Dr. PYCHYL: I loved both those strategies because once you prime the pump and get going, as you said, you say, I'm going to read two pages, which is a reasonable goal, one you could deal with. And then you find you read 40 because you started. Yeah, I think those strategies make a lot of sense, and I think it's right that you - it's hard to tell whether you kind of just grew up or you got rid of some of those irrational thoughts.
MARIE: And reading those two pages lets you forgive yourself because then you congratulate yourself when you finish the 40.
Dr. PYCHYL: Absolutely.
MARIE: And as you forgive yourself more, you're more and more able to start pat.
CONAN: And John Perry, the lowered expectations, is that something that you find valuable?
Professor PERRY: Oh, absolutely. And also the timers, that's a great idea. I once had a bunch of alarm clocks so that I used one to wake up and then one went off about 40 minutes that says, go in your study and get to work, and so forth and so on. But it was leading to divorce so I had to abandon that strategy.
But the whole idea of getting feedback, public feedback, even if it's from an alarm clock that says, come on, get going, and a to-do list that break things down. You read two pages and if then you have time read a third page. For the procrastinator, these are all great pieces of self-manipulation, which is the secret.
CONAN: Marie, thanks very much for the call.
MARIE: Well, thank you to all you procrastinators. I feel loved.
Professor PRERRY: You are.
CONAN: It was just that the idea earlier, not Marie but the caller just before her had the procrastinators' club who would meet from time to time. And I think there have been a million comic strips about, what time does the procrastinators' club meet? It's one of those conundrums I don't think we'll ever answer.
Professor. PERRY: Yeah. They haven't decided yet but they intend to decide when they are going to meet anytime soon.
CONAN: John Perry, thanks for much for being with us today.
Professor PERRY: It was great to be here and great to meet Timothy, my favorite psychologist.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: John Perry, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, co-host of the radio show, "Philosophy Talk." He's a self-professed structural procrastinator and with us from the studios of Clear Channel Broadcasting in Modesto, California. And our thanks, as well, to Tim Pychyl. Appreciate your time today, Tim.
Dr. PYCHYL: My pleasure.
CONAN: Associate professor and graduate chair of psychology at Carlton University in Ottawa. And you can read his blog, "Don't Delay," at psychologytoday.com. And when we come back, we'll go to the R. Kelly trial.