How to escape the procrastination doom loop

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Procrastination has an uncanny ability of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. One minute you’re ready to go and the next you’re checking your phone or taking a walk to “get in the mood”.

Before you know it, you’ve spiralled into the Procrastination Doom Loop—where you’ve continually pushed off starting a project to the point where the thought of doing anything is overwhelming.

We’ve all been there. But with 95% of the American population saying they procrastinate and more than 26% saying they are chronic procrastinators, this is no small problem.

So why do we feel so helpless to start, even if we know it’s in our best interest?And is there a way we can break free from the procrastination doom loop when it has a grip on us?

What the procrastination doom loop looks like (and why it’s so powerful)

When most of us think about procrastination, we blame it on poor time management or caring too much about short-term returns. But increasingly, researchers are finding the root cause of procrastination is something deeper: Our mood.

As Derek Thompson writes, it’s easy to confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful (“I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it”). While the latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have the time… but I just, don’t…. feel like it.”)

When we’re truly procrastinating, we delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task. And, we assume our mood will change in the near future. For example, “If I take a nap now, I’ll be able to focus later.” Or “If I check social media first then I’ll feel ready to do some work after.”

But, we’re notoriously bad at knowing what our future selves will want or how we’ll feel. And so instead, we’re pushed into a cycle of bad moods and procrastination.

  • We put off starting work because “we don’t feel like it”
  • Which causes us to feel guilty and stressed
  • This anxiety means we’re not in a good mood to start working
  • So we delay again

And on and on and on.

It’s devastating. But, you can break the procrastination doom loop cycle.

It starts by understanding and being aware of your mood. And then intervening before you get sucked into its vortex of delay.

Step 1: Have someone else set deadlines for you

In general, the easiest tool we have for breaking out of procrastination are deadlines. We seem to be better at pushing our mood aside and getting things done when we know it has to be done.

But unfortunately, not all deadlines are as effective.

In a famous study, behavioral economist Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages, with rewards for the errors they found and a $1 penalty for every day they were late.

Group 1 had weekly deadlines. Group 2 was only given one deadline for all three passages. While Group 3 got to choose their own deadlines.

At the end of the experiment, Group 2 had performed the worst, while Group 1—the one with regular, external deadlines—performed best.

“People strategically try to curb procrastination by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded. Yet the research showed that deadlines you set on yourself are rarely as effective as external ones.

When you’re feeling stuck in a doom loop, ask someone else to set deadlines for you. Whether that’s a boss, colleague, or even a friend. The more you can force yourself to say  “mood isn’t an option, I just need to get on with it” the better you’ll be at breaking the cycle.

RescueTime Alerts are a great way to remind yourself of what you should be working on, or if you’re spending too much time on distracting tasks. 

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