Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Three

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven

I’m not an expert in beating procrastination, just an expert in suffering from it. So here’s the part where my insight becomes even less applicable to all of you. And remember that what we’re dealing with here, as discussed in parts one and two, is breaking down an entire culturally-coded mindset towards work and creativity. So it’s not going to be easy. It takes a lifetime to rewire your brain. But what I’m doing is starting to make a difference, for me.

The answer, unfortunately, is time management and scheduling. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that. But the trick is doing it well. One of the reasons we hate schedules is because almost always, the things we schedule are the boring things. If your schedule has nothing on it but TIME FOR ICECREAM, you might learn to like scheduling. That reminds me: in 18 minutes, I have to eat ice-cream.

There’s an old stunt they like to do in time-management classes. They take a jar, and fill it with golfballs until they can’t get any more in. And the jar is full! But then they add ballbearings and they go into all the space between the golfballs, until you can’t get any more ball bearings in. Jar is full! Then you add sand, and once again, you can add a lot to the jar, even though it was already full. And for the final demonstration, they show that if you put the sand in first, there’s barely room for any ballbearings, and no golfballs after that. The metaphor is banally obvious: look after the pounds and the pennies will look after themselves, as it were. It is not unuseful advice: you can, in fact, take your eyes off the little things if you keep the big things in line. The gigantic problem with this visualisation is they forget the important part, which is figuring out which things in your life are golf balls, and which are sand.

And most people get it backwards. Because we’re taught to.

Think about it: if you put “play Civ 5” down as a golfball, you sound shallow. Silly. Childish. No, those golfballs have to be big and important. Jobs. Security. A future. Or “fulfilling”: love, family, spiritual meaning, connections, saving the rainforest. And for some people, that might work. You might put those things in as your golf balls and somehow, you just naturally fill in everything else without thinking. But a lot of us aren’t like that at all.

Like I said last time: as human beings, we need and deserve leisure time and rest. We depend on it. Without it, we wither and die and can’t do anything else. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to make it the biggest golf-ball of all.

So you schedule it. You put it in first. Also important: a good night’s sleep. That goes in there. And also, you can even schedule procrastinating activities, those non-engaged activities that are just fun to do while your brain is asleep. Stuffing around on the internet. Checking email. Watching TV. Lying in bed thinking about Spiderman. Eating ice-cream. Licking ice-cream off interesting body parts. These are the things that go on your daily schedule. And probably nothing else, at least to start with. Because everything else is the sand. It’ll get done. It’ll happen. But only if you have the strength to tackle it.

And what you find is two-fold: one, you really work harder at the sand when you know you have to stop and think about Spiderman in ten minutes. The motivation is built in, and the excitement drives you on. You forget about achievement and output because you don’t have time to think about them. You have ice-cream coming up. You have to move or you’ll miss it. Second, if you schedule your ice-cream, boy, do you enjoy it more. Because it’s guilt free. Right there, on your timetable: half an hour to eat ice-cream. You don’t have to worry about what you should be doing, because you’re DOING what you should be doing. In fact, you may engage so much with the activity, you may even want to do it less.

Think about it: most of the time you stop playing a game because you’re no longer engaged, or because it’s time to do something else. What if you couldn’t stop, because you’d scheduled 2 hours to play and you had to fill those hours? You might actually get bored. You might distract yourself. Do a bit of sand-stuff, so you can fill out those two hours. You might even be less keen to rush back to the game for the next two hours because you remember the drudgery at the end. You might stall a bit in your writing, go over time, just so you don’t have to do quite so much Civilization. Like sand, the writing slips between the cracks, filling in those precious little seconds. And it gets done. Because you’re not fighting against what you do and don’t deserve any more.

I have two minutes left, so I’ll finish there. Like I said, it might not work for you. But it’s really not as crazy as it sounds. Figure out what is important to you to DO, not to have accomplished, without judging or shame, and give leisure its deserved role. Then schedule that and only that. Then let the sand be sand. And see what happens.

Good luck.


Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Two

For the most part, we as a society are learning that to abjure the stick. If you know anything about dog training, you know that punishment training – negative reinforcement – is not used any more. Not because it’s cruel, although it is, but because it rarely works, and if it does, it works far less efficiently. And it’s true of all animals: we respond better to rewards than we do to punishment, of an order magnitude more.

But we still use the carrot, and getting rid of it is a lot harder. Partly because it does have it uses. It’s very important for young children, for example, and for animals, because simple minds have trouble with cause and effect. This is why babies love peek-a-boo: they have no idea, when you go away, that you’re going to come back. Learning that kind of cause and effect is part of growing up. That to get the drink to your mouth you have to concentrate on holding the cup. That to be able to find your coat you need to put it on the right coat-hook. That thinking and working in advance leads to good things in the future.  We’re a primitive species and we like experiencing pleasure. When we eat the spoils of the hunt we get a lot of dopamine released so our body knows this is good for us. When we have to go out and hunt, our bodies are under attack and working hard, and so we don’t get the dopamine release, otherwise we’d get addicted to hunting and either work ourselves to death or get eaten by the lions. So we learn: hunt first, eat later.

The problem comes when we apply the carrot idea to everything we do. Beyond the simple and beyond the child. As we grow older, and our work and our play and our minds become more complex, the model ceases to apply, and breaks down. Think about it: when did you really first notice you were procrastinating? For most of us, it was high school. Not because of high school (although that plays a part) but because we were going through puberty and becoming fully rounded people, and the old ways stopped working. And for a lot of us, what happened next depended a lot on how we handled that problem, or avoided it.

There is a lot of emphasis on the carrot, so you may not believe me it’s so bad. Here then are some reasons why it’s so bad at what it does, and destructive to good habits.

1. It turns the “work” into a bad thing.

Go back to the metaphor itself: the carrot is there to make the donkey walk forward, pulling the wagon or the cog-wheel. The donkey does not want to do that. It is a terrible chore. Importantly, it is not what the donkey would naturally be doing. That’s important because of some of what the donkey would naturally be doing would still not be “dopamine stuff”. The donkey would naturally work, it would go around finding the best grass it could and use its muscles to tear it out, and so on. What the donkey is doing is WORSE than working. Every time you use this metaphor, even if you don’t voice it, subconciously you’ve decided that the work that needs to be done is pulling a terrible heavy load, in a way that is unnatural, that is outside what you consider good for you. Even if it was already an unpleasant task, it becomes worse, and happy tasks become drudges. We’ll come back to this mischaracterisation of the process later.

2. It makes the work suffer by comparison.

To get the carrot, we must do the work. Therefore, the carrot has to be better than the work. Now we’ve put two things in front of us, two ideas. If you’ve ever seen a cop show, you know about good cop bad cop. This is fundamental human psychology: if you present a person with a bad thing X and a less bad thing Y, they feel drawn to Y, even if Y is not necessarily in their interest. We are built on comparison. So if you put up two ideas – write my RPG or play Civ 2, say – you can’t help compare them. And since you were clever enough to think of an excellent fun reward, because you really want to motivate yourself, your carrot will be a wonderful thing. Once again, the result is you make the work task look worse than it actually is. You’ve mischaracterised it as a burden, a chore, and as something you don’t want. You ache now for your carrot more than you ever would if you could choose it freely. And that sense of constrained desired is yet another emotion that drains your strength, and makes you weaker, and less able to do anything at all.

3. It is dangerous to our self-esteem.

We are creatures of hope. The way we deal with pain and suffering it to rely on a great and fundamental truth: pain and suffering do not last forever. We are suffering now, we will be happy later. But somewhere along the way, our pattern-loving minds turned this into a cause and effect. We think I will be happy later BECAUSE I am suffering now. Or worse, in order to be happy later, I MUST SUFFER FIRST. I’m using poetic language, but the carrot teaches us this same thing: in order for me to have happiness, leisure, entertainment, relaxation, dopamine releases, time to myself, etc, I must first do this thing which is drudgery, unimportant, unvalued, unshiny, this thing I have cast as a terrible chore, that makes my time belong to something else, some higher code that I have somehow set outside what I actually want, or require lots of reminders as to why it is important (constantly waving that carrot in my face). We start using words like DESERVE and EARN and SHOULD and ALLOWED. I am not ALLOWED to play Civilization until I have EARNED it.

We are human beings. We are born with the right and the need to be happy, to relax and have leisure time. We deserve these things unconditionally. We need them to survive and be our true selves. We need them to be strong. We need them to make the world better. And anything that tells us differently is bad for us, for our mental health, and our sense of self and for the goals and outcomes we want to reach.

There are standards in life, both external and internal, and they are useful and worthy. But the moment we use them to punish ourselves or diminish ourselves, they become dangerous, twisted and hurtful, and they can make us achieve less, not more.  We’ll come back to this, too.

4. It fetishizes the outcome over the process.

We’re outcome-oriented, as a culture. Part of that is capitalism: a process is hard to sell, a product is easy to sell. A finished product is easier to move around, to conceptualise, to admire. Artists in particular are at the mercy of the outcome. It is laudable for a nurse, say, to spend her life doing nursing, but if you spent your life playing music but never recorded a song, people will label you a failure who could never finish anything. Completed projects go on the resume, time served does not.

To some extent, this is fair: what makes art art is that it can be shared, and a process is hard to share. And what can cripple art is not sharing it and getting so involved in a process that we never allow our ideas to be given to others. Finishing IS important, is more important for artists. But if we forget the process, or worse, demonize it (via the mischaracterisations mentioned in 1 and 2), we kill our art, and we kill ourselves.

Studies have shown that there are five basic returns people get from jobs, five values. They are: financial return, being important (either social status or having a large effect), being the boss and making decisions, working in an enjoyable environment for you socially, and doing something where the work itself is engaging and fun. The important thing is not everyone cares about these things equally. And the carrot theory is basically all about the first two: that the work you do will lead to a return later. But if we’re creative types, we don’t usually care much about money or status, but we really care about being engaged and having fun. So our motivation theory is ass-backwards.

Think about it: we’re encouraged to write novels, publish games, to make art. Even if you remove commercial success, critical acclaim or the audience applause – which we almost never do – we are told that the point of being an artist is to create an outcome. And everything becomes about that. That’s the carrot. To finish the novel. To publish the game. And everything before it is the cog-wheel. We do the cogwheel to get the carrot.

But what does that do? That demonizes the process and champions the outcome. It tells us that finishing something – ie not writing – is fundamentally better than working on something – ie writing. So every single day when you get up and think “well, I still don’t have a novel done, so I better do some writing”, you’ve sent yourself that message, loud and clear. That writing is bad, and not writing is good. That writing is suffering, and only if you suffer enough, you get your reward – because you certainly don’t deserve one now. You’re not worthy of that.

Is it any wonder, then, that you don’t want to write?

To paraphrase an old saying, a lot of people want to have written a novel, rather than want to write a novel. Because then they get to say, hey, that’s my novel, that’s proof of my success. Part of that is human nature (and healthy). Part of that is the nature of art. And a lot of it is because we fetishize the outcome, and demonize the process. And every time we do that, we make it harder and harder to do the process. We make the process into a chore and we turn ourselves into failures. And the only way to escape those horrible feelings is to feed the procrastination monster instead.

And he’s a nasty thing, but it’s our own behavior – our constant focus on the carrot – that made him strong to begin with.

In Part 3, we’ll actually talk about how to solve some of these problems. There are other options.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

Procrastination is a big thing. We often joke about it, but it can do a lot of damage to our life if we let it, or we worry about it too much. And it can certainly eat away at our reserves – our time AND our energy – to do things like writing and designing, things we often put last on our list, but also feel most pressured to do, as we are constantly told THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT. There is a lot of advice out there on dealing with procrastination, and a lot of it is bullshit. Or rather, a lot of it is just what worked for one guy or a few people. But procrastination and the issues that make it up are a big, big thing, and it is wired into fundamental aspects of how we approach ourselves and everything we do in life. Which means there are multiple ways to attack it, and everyone has to do what works for them and their mind. What’s more, we’re all on our own journey to untangle ourselves, and you don’t only need to have the right idea for your brain, but the right idea AT THE RIGHT TIME. So my advice might be useless to you. I’m sharing it anyway, because only by getting lots of ideas can we all find the best way for us to untangle things.

I’m certainly not an expert on breaking procrastination, but I am an expert on procrastinating. It’s something that’s played an enormous part of my life, in many different arenas. Indeed, it is fairly true to say that my particular mental disorder, depression/anxiety, is an extremely heightened form of procrastination. You become so afraid of certain thoughts, emotions, feelings and situations you lock your body into a perpetual state of numbness (or panic, in the case of anxiety) to avoid those things. I’ve been on a long journey to work some of these things out, so in that context, my advice has some experience.

The first point to deal with is this: how we think about procrastination is typically very wrong.

Let’s imagine for this discussion that there are three activities. There’s W, the work we don’t want to do. Like say writing your RPG. There’s P, the procrastinating activity. Maybe it’s surfing the internet. Then there’s F, the fun activity, like maybe playing Civilization 5. To pick entirely random examples that certainly don’t reflect my life at all. Now, a lot of the time, people don’t have P and F as separate activities. Sometimes they are the same activity done in different ways or experienced in different ways – for example, when you can’t really enjoy yourself when you go out for a drink because in the back of your mind you feel you should be studying. Or you don’t get really into playing X-box because you’re just looking for a low-level distraction to keep your mind busy. This still might not be you, but go with me here.

Generally, our thinking about procrastination is this: I keep doing distracting thing P because I don’t want to do hard, painful, difficult thing W.

This is false.

Most of the time, what is stopping us from doing W has little to do with W at all. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety curve is a big deal, especially with big, hard to grasp projects (go read up about the curve, it is also part of this subject). But what keeps us doing P is less about fear of W and more about our shame and guilt at doing P. And the more P we do, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel, the less we are able to act.

This is pretty obvious when you think about it.  When our body is injured, it stops doing things. It wants to fall over and lie still because then it can concentrate on getting better. Likewise, when we feel upset, we don’t want to go out and do things, we want to crawl into a foetal ball, hide in our room and eat candy. Our mind is just like our body: when it feels hurt, it devotes all its resources to healing itself, and devotes no resources to going out and doing things.

So the more you do the P activity, the more your brain feels attacked by feelings of guilt and shame, and thus the weaker you become. Your body now has no strength to do W, or to do F, or to do P even. You become less and less engaged with F and P, so the bad feelings work stronger and do more damage, so you become weaker and weaker. We wait for motivation to strike, but it now has an enormous uphill battle, because unhappy people are difficult to motivate. Sometimes impossible.

I’m going to say that again because it’s very important: the worse you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself, or be motivated by others.

It’s important because so much of our mindset and culture are wrapped up in a very different idea of motivating. We believe in the carrot and the stick. And the carrot and the stick are all about suffering and being unhappy, or at best, fearing more unhappiness. We must do the hard task W, lest we feel pain from the stick, or so we can deserve the carrot. This point of view is burned into us at a primal level, and we accept it instinctively.

But everything we know about the human mind and human motivation tells us it is not only a poor model, it is a model inherently destructive to our health and our happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the carrot and the stick are not entirely without merit, in very specific situations, at very specific times. It teaches us about cause and effect when we are children. But now we see through a glass darkly, and if we keep trying to walk as a child, we make everything worse.

That’s a big idea and I’m already at 1000 words, so there’s more in part 2.