By Joseph J. Sanchez (Social Media Manager)
The paper was going to press. The runner showed up at the door, anxious to pick up the creative and copy.
Nothing whatsoever had been produced.
Since the money had already been laid down for the ad space – and time was very limited – one of the company’s co-owners did the first thing that popped into his head. He grabbed a blank piece of paper. He quickly scribbled down 4-6 different faces. And he jotted down the name of the business.
Boom, boom, boom! The problem was solved.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. One of those hastily scribbled faces would move on to represent the company for 38 years. It would appear on t-shirts, shopping bags and collectible pint glasses. It would become a local icon, immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up in the New England area.
This, my friends, is the rarely-told legend of Toothface, the official mascot of Newbury Comics.
Why Procrastination Isn’t Necessarily A Bad Thing
It took one man less than ten minutes to (unintentionally) produce a logo that’s 100% true to his brand’s roots.
(Of course, that may be the least of their problems right now.)
Meticulous planning can backfire. Flashes of genius can manifest in a matter of seconds. Chances are, you have encountered both of these circumstances throughout your career and everyday life.
Such last-minute genius fuels the tale behind Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater. After putting off the project for months, Wright drafted up the initial plans in just two hours – all while his client was driving in for an impromptu meeting. The structure has since been designated a National Historic Landmark and was once described as the “best all-time work of American architecture”.
Anecdotal evidence aside, science has also supported the claim that procrastination’s capable of fostering innovation. A University of Wisconsin study found that if participants were given five minutes to play computer games, they generated new business ideas that were 28 percent more creative than their peers.
Why Procrastination Isn’t Necessarily A Good Thing
It took one man over 12 months to write the blog post you’re reading right now. Week after week, the topic appeared at the top of our agency’s editorial calendar, and week after week, the final product never made it onto our website. It became a running joke in our Monday meetings. Something worthy of an awkward “white whale” metaphor.
So, if the prior section made you want to brush aside conventional wisdom and tip-toe along the edges of your deadlines, you can thank Confirmation Bias or Availability Bias for that feeling. Then you can throw that feeling in the garbage.
The truth is, the same University of Wisconsin study mentioned above also discovered that excessive procrastination is a major threat to innovation. When a third group was introduced to the study, they were given less time to complete the task at hand. Those participants were left frantically rushing, thereby settling for easy, unimaginative solutions.
Poor time management is a procrastinator’s worst enemy. (Tweet this!)
It’s how you wind up leaving your senior thesis art exhibition to the last minute, then wind up being resentful that you didn’t receive honors for years to come.
And it’s how you miss the deadlines for a major opportunity, then convince yourself that it’s no big deal, because you were never really that invested in the opportunity.
Not that any of this is based on a true story, haha!
Some of us – not mentioning any names – aren’t inherently gifted when it comes to time management. So with that in mind, here are some tips from an expert (on procrastination) that can help you improve your productivity with behavioral science.
To Beat Procrastination: Break It Down
It sounds simple, but make a damn to-do list. Write it down in a notebook or a daily calendar. Keep track of your tasks electronically in an app, or jot them all down in the Notes of your iPhone. Whatever you do, and wherever you do it, find a system that works for you and let it guide you through your daily life.
As human beings, we are obsessed with unfinished tasks. They cycle around in our brains and keep us up at night, and this pattern usually doesn’t stop until we get the job done. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Research about the phenomenon was first published in 1927 by Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik, but her findings remain relevant to this day.
“I think this is really important, that you write down all the things that you have to do,” neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin told Note To Self last year. “Clear it out of your head so that you’re not using neuro-resources with that little voice reminding you to pick up milk on the way home and to check to see if you paid the utility bill and that you have to call back Aunt Tilly because she left a voicemail and she’s going to worry and all this chatter – get it out of your head, write it down, then prioritize things.”
The key word here is “prioritize”. A simple way to do this is to take your most pressing tasks and break them down into easy, manageable chunks that you can accomplish without going insane. That way, you can make progress toward your goals, while also benefiting from the dopamine rush that occurs when you cross things off your list.
To Beat Procrastination: Break The Ice
Were you paying attention in that last section? The Zeigarnik Effect states that we’re more likely to remember unfinished tasks. You might be shocked to discover that a task can’t technically be considered “unfinished” unless somebody’s made the effort to start it. (Please hold your gasps of surprise until the end of the post.)
Often, taking the first step into a project can be the hardest part, but as soon as you’ve dipped your toes into the water like a cartoon duckling who’s learning how to swim, you’ll tap into the Zeigarnik Effect and trigger a magical “inner nag” who won’t shut up until you’ve done what you need to do.
The folks at Nike (and Shia LaBeouf) were on to something when they said “JUST DO IT”.
To Beat Procrastination: Break The Narrative
It’s been said here before, but it’s worth saying again – “When people are given a particular label, they have a tendency to live up to it.” This can be a highly effective way for brands to persuade their audience to take a particular action, and it can even be applied at home to influence your partner, child, or roommate to do what you want them to do.
More importantly? You can use this psychological tactic on yourself. Start by refusing to label yourself as a “procrastinator”. Wake up, look into the mirror, and tell yourself that you’re going to get shit done. Repeat this process until you believe the words that are coming out of your mouth (or cycling in your head, if you don’t want to sound like a crazy person talking to yourself alone in the bathroom).
At the end of the day, we can all take a lesson from Lenni Frazier, a fictional teen rapper from the 1990s PBS television series Ghostwriter. Whenever the words never, don’t, can’t, or won’t pop into your head, flip the script and prove yourself wrong.
To Beat Procrastination: Take A Break
Burnout is 100% real, and chances are, you are not immune to exhaustion. Even the most productive people have to put off minor tasks from time to time. That doesn’t mean that they’re any less efficient. Most likely, it signals that they’re overloaded with work and need to put a few hours aside for themselves.
A lack of productivity doesn’t mean you’re broken. It might just mean that you need a break. (Tweet this!)
The goal of your break should be to recharge your batteries, and depending on your interests and personality type, the activity you select may vary.
Studies have indicated the mental benefits of a walk in nature or putting aside time for meditation. You might, however, get more out of eating lunch with a coworker, taking a few vacation days, or take 10-15 minutes to listen to music before tackling a substantial task.
Science has a lot to say about this topic, but it’s up to you to determine what’s going to activate and energize your brain. It could be doing a crossword puzzle, or heck, it could be watching a bad TV movie about aliens who travel in cereal boxes to save the world. The choice is up to you, my friend.
To Beat Procrastination: Break Away
The 1999 Destiny’s Child single “Bug a Boo” told the tale of a young Beyoncé breaking away from technology to avoid an unwanted suitor who just won’t take the hint that she’s just not that into him.
When it comes to heightening your focus and completing an intense task, any distractions from your phone, email, or social media should be considered your own professional “Bug A Boo”. If that doesn’t make sense, allow behavioral economist Dan Ariely to explain without resorting to a metaphor that involves LaTavia Roberson.
“It should be painfully clear to everyone that we need to be worried about the interruptions economy,” Ariely wrote for WIRED. “What value do interruptions provide, under what conditions, and what are their costs? A little ping may seem innocuous, but there is cumulating evidence that the cost of an interruption is higher than we realise, and of course given the sheer number of interruptions, their combined effect can very quickly become substantial.”
Ariely isn’t joking about the evidence. One study found that it takes workers 15 to 23 minutes to bounce back from a distraction, and another discovered that a phone’s push notifications are just as distracting as phone calls – even if you ignore them.
If extensive concentration is required to get a job done, it’s best to unplug from technology. Silence your phone and place it in another room. Close all social media tabs on your computer. Warn your coworkers that you’ll be in the “zone” for a few hours, and you won’t be responding to emails. Whatever it takes, make it a point to eliminate technological distractions as an obstacle.
To Beat Procrastination: Break The News
According to research by the “godfather of influence” himself, Dr. Robert Cialdini, people have a tendency to follow through after they’ve written down or publicly stated what they’re going to do. This is known as the Consistency Principle. (We’ve used this principle to drive action in campaigns for Nationwide, CREDO Mobile, and The Boston Globe.)
The basic gist is that we all possess a desire to look consistent through our words, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds, and we experience a certain level of dissonance when we don’t live up to others’ expectations.
This is why we’re more likely to stick to a plan when we have an “accountability buddy“. It’s also why you feel like a doofus when you make a huge announcement on Facebook and don’t wind up delivering the goods – even though, in most cases, half of your friends will have forgotten you made the promise.
That said? You can take advantage of your need to avoid looking like an inconsistent doofus by sharing your goals with friends, family, or colleagues… Because you could find the strength within yourself to tackle your to-do list, but sometimes, it’s more effective to let the fear of disappointing others serve as your major source of motivation and inspiration!
(Insert uncomfortable laughter here.)
To Beat Procrastination: Break The Barriers
In the Broadway adaptation of 9 to 5, country music legend and delightful human being Dolly Parton offered up the following wisdom – “Something that you know is dammin’ up the flow. Tear the damn dam down. Let me explain it. If you don’t take the reigns, it’s going to stay the same. Nothing’s gonna change if you don’t change it.”
Although Dolly isn’t a noted behavioral economist, her advice ties back to what’s referred to as a Scarcity Mindset. When we’re lacking in time, money, collaboration, food, companionship, or any other vital resource, it can have a profound effect on our decision-making process.
Scarcity can do wonders for marketers, since it triggers our “fear of missing out“. Yet, nothing can be gained from a lack of these resources in the workplace.
“Recent behavioral science research illustrates how scarcity creates a mind-set in which individuals unconsciously focus on urgent, unmet needs, letting other considerations slide,” a Deloitte University Press piece recently stated. “Scarcity can be a hidden distractor that constantly pulls cognition away from other important but less urgent needs.”
So, listen to what Dolly has to say! If you’re feeling hungry, go out and grab lunch. If you’re in need of companionship, make plans to meet someone for coffee, tea, or a couple of beers. And if money’s a big issue, talk to your supervisor about getting a raise or develop a (legal) side hustle to make a few extra bucks. Your brain will thank you for your efforts.
And Now For The Exciting Conclusion…
Congratulations! You made it to the end of this post, and you’ve now been cured of your propensity toward procrastination. Or at the very least, you now have seven remarkably simple, science-backed strategies to make your life a little easier.
- BREAK IT DOWN: Make a damn to-do list and check things off.
- BREAK THE ICE: Get started on your big project. Just do it.
- BREAK THE NARRATIVE: Stop labeling yourself as a “procrastinator”
- BREAK (TAKE ONE NOW): Find a way to recharge your batteries.
- BREAK AWAY: Eliminate technological distractions.
- BREAK THE NEWS: Tell the world what you’re going to do.
- BREAK THE BARRIERS: Tackle obstacles that drain mental energy.
In conclusion, you just read over 2,000 words that were summed up in 70 words and a wonky hand-drawn infographic. One could say that you should reassess your priorities and consider doing something more productive with your time, but hey, that’s coming from a guy who took over 12 months to write a blog post about procrastination.
In order to do so, please follow Wilde Agency on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’re not saying that his job depends on your social media engagement, but we’re also not going to deny it! Thanks for reading.
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