I have known for a long time that I suffer from a common malady. No matter how much I want to accomplish, whatever lofty ideals I may have, how many projects I may want to do, this condition rears its ugly head all too often. And I know the treatment too; after all, I am a doctor, right? But I keep putting it off. Because the problem is that there is no pill that I can take for it. I can’t reach into my medicine cabinet for the treatment. Acupuncture does not help. Homeopathic remedies do not have a cure for it. But I have the cure within me if only I would pay attention to it.
And I see that far too many people also suffer from it. I see it all around me. However, even though the symptoms are easy, they are difficult to spot, because the cause is insidious, and we don’t recognize it while we are doing it. Yet, I also see others who have overcome it.
So, what condition is this? What symptoms does it have? How do you diagnose it? What is the treatment for it?
It is a disease called “procrastination.”
Let me start with its symptoms. Let’s say that I have to write this blog. e I created this goal for myself that I would write it every week. But then I “remembered” that I am a busy physician, so I gave myself an out. I will “try” to write it every week, because I am such a “busy” guy. After all, I am a neurologist with a busy practice, I run a headache center, I am on call for acute stroke at a busy hospital, and blah, blah, blah. All that may be true, but are these the reasons that are causing me to procrastinate?
Well, let’s see. I sit in front of my computer to write, but then I get a phone call. I answer the phone (of course I “have to” answer every phone, lest it be important….after all, it could be from the hospital). But many times it is not the hospital. And then I get a text from a friend and I get distracted. He sends me a joke and of course I have to respond. He tells me of a new game he found on his iphone and tells me about it. So of course I have to download it too.
And then I tell myself, “Ok, just one more game and then I will get back to my blog.” So I start playing the game “2048.” Of course, one game turns into “one more game.” Then it’s time for dinner. And I promise myself, I will get back to the blog after dinner. And of course I have to watch a little TV while eating.
I know you are not supposed to watch TV while eating. But I justify it because I am such a busy guy after all, and don’t want to waste much time. So I “multi-task.” But this episode of Person of Interest is so absorbing. And then while flipping through my DVR, I see The Lord of the Rings. Oh, I so love this movie. So I tell myself, I will just watch a little bit. It doesn’t matter that I have already seen it, oh I don’t know, maybe a dozen times that I can remember. Gandalf is such a cool wizard…isn’t he? And that Aragorn, son of Arathorn….such awesome fighting skills. And Legolas! There hasn’t been an elf on this earth with his marksmanship with his bow…sliding down the big elephant-like creature’s tusk as if it was a water slide in Disneyland. You know, maybe I should go take some lessons in archery. It will be sop cool to be able to see those arrows fly to the target. I’ll just take a moment and google any archery schools nearby….I know I don’t have time but…it would be so cool to learn archery, don’t you think?……Oh wait, I have to get to my blog, darn it.
And what do you know….it is already 11PM. Really? And then I get a “code brain” call. Sigh. I promise I’ll get to it tomorrow for sure.
The problem is that there is no penalty for not doing things when you are your own boss. Remember when you were in school and had to write papers or study for an exam? Somehow the distractions were not that important when the deadline was “tomorrow,” or the exam was “tomorrow.”
What are these distractions? And why do we fall prey to them so easily? These are the enemy of achievement. If you want to achieve anything, you have to get over these distractions. But why are these distractions so powerful that they can subvert the best of intentions? It is because of Instant Gratification.
Our culture is the culture of instant gratification. We want things to be done NOW. Watching TV gives instant satisfaction. Checking email for the umpteenth time in one hour gives instant satisfaction. It doesn’t matter that all I do is delete junk mail. Writing a blog is more work. Focusing on any worthwhile activity does not necessarily provide instant awards. Someone aptly called this the monkey of instant gratification. It is so quick on its feet, it takes you so quickly and so smoothly into its own slippery world, that you don’t realize it until you are stuck waist-deep into it. And then you wonder where all the time went and why you didn’t accomplish anything.
Whenever you want to do something worthwhile, this monkey is right there to subvert your best of intentions. And its not that you cannot control it. When the pressure is high, a deadline is looming, or the consequences are dire, you forget all about instant gratification. But it usually only happens when there is some type of fear or dread involved, or when the task requires full concentration and attention. When you are panicking, you are not thinking about surfing the net, or answering your emails.
When I am preparing for a lecture that I have to give the next day, I am not worrying about whether Gollum is going to double-cross Frodo Baggins (everyone knows he is going to do it, he is just biding his time). I am concerned about not making a fool of myself while I am talking about the 3 deadly mistakes people make about stress. I am concerned about giving value-packed information.
But wouldn’t it be good if we could have the same focus and attention to accomplish worthy tasks daily without having to worry about the monkey? To have single-minded focus on any worthwhile task, without having to deal with distractions? The answer is not complicated, but requires some forethought before you attempt any task that needs to be accomplished. Effective planning is critical.
So, how many of you procrastinate? The first thing you need to do is to critically examine your daily activities. How much time are you spending on worthwhile tasks and how much on instant gratification activities? The first key to any change is awareness.
I have a simple exercise for you, although I know that most of you will not do it, even though you will think it is worthy, because you will procrastinate. For the next week, examine how much time you spend doing worthwhile activities and how much on distractions.
Tell the monkey to go climb a tree. Better yet, tie him to the trunk and do this task. Drop me a line and tell me how many minutes you spend on average on distractions, and what plans you have to deal with them.
Until next time