Putting It On The Long Finger

Biscuits, Chocolate Bars and Ice Cream

Do we all have errands, chores, tasks, major pieces of work that we put off as long as possible? Why do we do this?

In Ireland we have a phase to describe this as putting something on the long finger. The origins of this are unknown to me (discussed here) but needless to say it’s a phrase to describe procrastination.

Procrastination is something I battle with daily, onmany scales. I have noticed that I am now at the point whereby I somewhat unknowingly categorise and prioritise the types of procrastination I practice. I decided to write this post to explore these categories, put names to them and try to decipher how/why they can effect your productivity so much.

For small tasks I find them hard to do without checking social media beforehand and sometimes during. My mind has become conditioned to needing the artificial hit of social media before agreeing to concentrate. This is what I classify as Biscuit Procrastination. One biscuit is a treat and by itself isn’t that bad, but a biscuit multiple times a day is going to start showing on your waistline. It will however take time before this happens so there is a happy recurring biscuit eating medium that you can be in without it resulting in total disaster. As easy as it is to have a biscuit however, there isn’t much outlay involved in deciding not to have a biscuit this time around. Abstaining once helps you learn to break your dependance and pretty soon you’ll be back to enjoying that biscuit every few times without feeling guilty.

The next category I find myself subscribing to are medium size tasks, which I call Chocolate Bar Procrastination. These are tasks that can be completed in a somewhat short amount of time but begin to introduce a larger amount of guilt or productivity debt as each day passes where they wait to be completed. Chocolate bar procrastination isn’t limited to work related tasks either, the simple act of taking out the bins is an easy one to put on the long finger and the more days I leave the bag pile up with more rubbish, the harder the task becomes and the bigger the impact. It’s easy to have a chocolate bar and you’ll probably get away with it once or twice, but pretty soon you start craving the security the prolonged procrastination brings.

The final category of procrastination has larger consequences, what I like to call Ice Cream Procrastination. This is putting off a large task for no valid reason other than you want to or need to have something waiting to be done, sitting on your shoulder whispering in your ear whenever you think you are free and clear. It is the procrastination that makes you buy a tub of ice cream, come home and eat the lot in one sitting, to hell with the consequences. It is the procrastination that appears when you are studying for an exam, when you would rather do absolutely anything else, cut the grass, take the dog for a walk, paint the gable end, anything. In Ireland, this happens to everyone at the age of 17/18 when studying for the Leaving Certificate examinations, the results of which determine which university course you can apply to. Pretty important in the larger scheme of things, but we seem to be hardwired to resist and procrastinate more as the stakes increase. I’m sure a lot of people would like to scoff a tub of ice cream but not many people will like the results. Even worse, eating a packet of biscuits, 4 chocolate bars and a tub of ice-cream at the same time is no good for anyone but is surprisingly easy to work up to, taken one step at a time. Throughout all three types of procrastination, recurrence is an important factor. In moderation, all are ok, but start doing them multiple times or in combination and you’re in trouble. So what can be done to battle this scourge?

Well, options include cold turkey, weening yourself off, trying to identify the root of the problem or all of the above. Looking at recent changes in circumstances may also provide guidance. For me, I started working for myself from home which had the combined effect of an increase in my time available and decrease of pressure. I’m my own boss and I’ve all the time I want to do my work. Over the course of 6 to 8 weeks I gradually let all three types of procrastination slip into my routine. Biscuit procrastination is the easiest to deal with and I’ve starting doing so by not having Twitter and Facebook open constantly. I’ve inverting the reward/effort cycle meaning I have to earn my social medium time by completing tasks. Chocolate bar procrastination is harder to crack. I find scheduling the tasks helps but I also try to have a “just f****ing do it now” mentality to each task.

As for Ice Cream procrastination, this a whole other animal. I find the willingness to let this happen is linked to one’s level of happiness, mood and overall outlook on life. As you can imagine, it’s a tough one to crack. Letting an important/large task wait not only increases it’s importance but also it’s risk/reward ratio. I’ve come to believe that this is a way of exercising control over something important, possibly even subconsciously. This may be a manifestation of a change in your life where you feel not as in control as you once were. You push the boundary by seeing how long can wait before you have to complete the task.

You want to see how many tubs of ice-cream you can eat.

In my own situation, I think I do this because I am now responsible for finding my own work since I have become self-employed. I cannot as easily plan for the long term because I don’t have the stability or security of consistent salary that comes with being an employee. As a result, it appears that I need something that I can control and receive a successful reward hit from when complete. Of course the problem is more often than not, you pass the point of an acceptable wait and risk outweighs the reward. I’m still working on tackling this one, but hopefully describing it here will help me get my head around it.

The last thing to bear in mind with procrastination is that it is also fueled by expectation. If you place too much pressure on yourself, you increase the amount of guilt or the value of the productivity debt you incur by procrastinating. Advice I have given to others which I try to follow myself is don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t expect and plan to complete 17 tasks per day when you could only ever get 10 complete. Plan for 5 and be happy and feel ahead when you complete 8.