The final frost of winter begins to thaw. The farmer consults weather maps, thinks about last year’s harvest, and gets to work. There’s no deliberating or procrastinating. It’s an annual process that the farmer has to complete — or nothing grows.
For most knowledge workers, the path to getting things done isn’t so straightforward. Even the most successful and talented among us have to grapple with the tendency to procrastinate. Take writers — they’re so notorious for procrastinating, it is almost part of their process. Said prolific crime writer Patricia Cornwell, “I absolutely have days when I’ll find every excuse under the sun not to sit at that desk and write. The reason is: writing is hard.”
Having just gone through the demanding process of writing my first book, I can attest: in the beginning, the urge to put it off was strong. The project as a whole seemed overwhelming. And as Cornwell rightly states, writing is no cakewalk.
Then I started to think about my family’s olive farm back in Turkey. It runs like a well-oiled machine — when it’s harvest season, everyone knows what needs to happen and in what order. There’s no room for dilly-dallying. We take it one step at a time and pretty soon, the harvest is completed.
I realized that if I took the same approach to book writing — looking at it like a system with many small steps in a larger process — then the daily tasks would be much more manageable. Several months later, my book is available for preorder. It’s all because I stopped wrestling with procrastination and instead, put a steady system in place.
If you’re stressed about procrastination, it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone. Even inaugural poet Amanda Gorman puts down the pen to scroll Instagram sometimes. But in my experience, systems thinking is the most reliable way to get (and keep) the ball rolling. Before we dive into that, I think it’s helpful to understand why we procrastinate in the first place.
Why we put it off
1. It’s personal
One person’s nightmare assignment is another’s dream project.
There’s really no telling why we dread some tasks and savor others. It’s a matter of personality. It’s also a matter of biology. The human body is a continually-shifting combination of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals that fuel our thoughts and behaviors. One day we might love diving into a spreadsheet task; the following day, the sight of the grid gives us a massive headache; an overwhelming feeling of ugh, not now.
But as social psychologist and Harvard Business Review contributor Heidi Grant rightly notes, “Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea, without consciously realizing it, that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action… I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100 percent nonsense.”
Likewise, I suggest eradicating mood from the mixture. In deciding whether to start something, we rely too heavily on how we feel. By automating — by creating systems and hitting ‘go’ no matter our mood — we can outsmart our hard-wiring and get things done regardless of our emotional status quo.
2. Fixed versus growth mindset
As British author and philosopher Alain de Botton once said, “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”
One of the biggest reasons we procrastinate is the paralyzing fear that we’re going to do a terrible job. We avoid starting a task because we’re afraid it will reveal that we’re not that smart or talented or cut out for the job. But as Megan McArdle wrote for the Atlantic (and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck agreed), embracing a growth mindset is one way to get over the imposter syndrome hurdle.
For a refresher, Dweck came up with the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets. Whereas people with a growth mindset view intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort, people with a fixed mindset view those traits as unchangeable or fixed.
So, what do growth mindsets have to do with procrastination?
If you cultivate a growth mindset, then you’ll view a challenging task as an opportunity for growth. Rather than avoid it, you’ll embrace it. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, will keep you fearing failure and, ultimately, avoiding getting started.
3. Deadlines and perceived difficulty
In addition to imposter syndrome, long deadlines can keep us from commencing a new project. Think about it: there’s a reason why some people claim they work better “under the gun.” Long deadlines leave us with wiggle room. When deadlines are tight, on the other hand, our adrenaline flows and the possibility to procrastinate doesn’t exist.
In fact, Meng Zhu, an Associate Professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, and her colleagues found that longer deadlines lead workers to think an assignment is harder than it actually is, so much so that they will commit more resources to getting the job done. It’s like spending more money to file your taxes when the deadline is far ahead.
Their findings, writes Zhu, build on the concept of Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
That’s why Zhu recommends that when deadlines are distant, managers shift people’s attention away from the deadline and toward the final outcomes of everyday tasks. Zhu’s research confirms my own theory that system thinking is the best way to manage procrastination.
Think in terms of systems
As I explain in my book, thinking in systems is one of the three core principles of an automation-first mindset. Once you start seeing everything as a system — from emails to invoicing to personal routines — procrastination becomes a non-issue. You implement the system and run on autopilot.
To sum up, systems thinking is a concept from Donella H. Meadow’s book “Thinking in Systems.” In order to understand (and improve) the system, you have to understand each part, and how the parts connect. Then, you have to find the causes and effects in your system — that way, you can use them to your advantage and refine. You can get more of what you want out of the system, and less of what you don’t need.
It’s like a bathtub: you turn on the faucet, you get more water — cause and effect.
Let’s say you’re training for a marathon. You decide you need to rev up your endurance. Take a look at your entire running routine: from your dinner the night before and how much sleep you clocked to your pre-run breakfast and how many miles you hit on the treadmill. Once you understand each step and how it impacts the system, you can tweak: go to bed earlier, eat a lighter breakfast, skip the post-run coffee. You get the picture.
Rather than worrying about whether you’ll finish the marathon (imposter syndrome), or deliberating over whether to get started, you put the system in place and take the personal out of the equation.
And the best part of all? When you notice the results.
Success doesn’t require extraordinary willpower. Procrastination is unavoidable. It happens to the best and brightest of us.
But instead of worrying about procrastination or trying to hack your way around it, break down any task into a series of steps and put a system in place. Focus on automation, not motivation. It may take some practice at first, but eventually, you’ll see: the more systems we establish, the less we can procrastinate.