Why we procrastinate on the things that are most important to us?


How often does another day pass by with you not doing the things you wanted to do? How often do you get distracted by all the noise around you which prevents you from doing the things that really matter? If that feels you, keep reading.

In a recent research study by William Pounds from MIT, managers in organisations were asked what were the most important issues they were facing in their companies. Then, they were asked to report their activities in the previous week. Turns out NO managers reported ANY actions which could be directly associated with the most important problems they described. Or said differently, what we to do everyday is often different than what we wanted to have done at the end of that day.

That begs the question: What’s holding us back? What is so tempting about short term distractions and what is to terrifying about focusing on our long-term goals and the things that really matter to us?

Turns our there’s 5 fundamental reasons: FOMO, perfect conditions delusion, fear of being interrupted, inability to put a time frame on our goals, and  invisible measurability . Let’s delve into each of them:

The first explanation is that we live under a permanent FOMO (fear of missing out), a desire to stay continuously connected with what others are doing. Whether we realise it or not, we’re seductively drawn to the mystery of what might be happening on the outside world. The world is moving forward and you don’t want to be left behind. So you constantly check Twitter, Instagram photos, online browsing, Facebook notifications, emails, etc. That’s the way we’re designed. It makes us feel we are on top of “it”. It gives us something to talk about when we socialise with our colleagues, our neighbours, our friends. But the reality is far different. It gives us a false sense of accomplishment that helps diverting our attention from the things that matter. Research shows the people that that have been a week without internet only miss it the first day, after which they feel more liberated and revitalised. Something to think about!

The second explanation is that we are always looking for the perfect conditions before we start. So we try to focus on getting all other outstanding small tasks out of the way. Its as if we want to remove all the excuses and all the noise around. What we fail to realise is that the noise won’t go away .. it’s always there and typically grows as days and weeks go by. A simple email leads to a chain of emails that last forever (when a simple 5 minute old fashioned call would do it), a Facebook browsing leads to an 1 hour watching Youtube amusing videos, a website leads to another website, a quick TV browsing leads to 90 minutes watching a football match .. and so forth. Before you know the day is gone, the week is gone, the year is gone.

The third explanation is that many of us avoid focusing on the things that really matter to us because we fear being interrupted. Research shows that we’re interrupted 4 times on average per hour and that when we are interrupted .. it takes an average of 15 minutes to get us back to where we were before. Now imagine you know upfront you’ll be interrupted 4 times an hour .. how are you supposed to get anything done? As a result, your brain is subconsciously wired to prioritise smaller tasks, those that give you small bursts of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Metaphorically speaking, imagine you need to make a decision whether to jump to a cold swimming pool .. knowing that someone will suddenly interrupt you (with a whats’up message, email coming in, unexpected phone call, ..), after which you need to get out of the pool, dedicate time to whatever’s distracting you .. and then get back into the cold water again. So the thought of suffering multiple times to get into the cold water .. prevents us from even starting the activities that really matter. The result is that life passes by, you wake up at 45 or 50 and realise you didn’t live up to your potential because you were far too easily distracted by the ease, seductiveness and immediate gratification of the temptations that come our way.

The fourth reason is that to-do lists are far less effective than calendars. If you want to get something done, make sure you put it in the calendar with a specific deadline  and ideally tell your group of friends as well – as this will exert a positive peer & reputational pressure on you. Research shows that you’re much more likely to do something if you have to say WHEN you’ll do it, rather than if you simply say “I have to do at some point”. Said differently, it’s not real until you put a time frame on it.

The fifth reason is that it’s hard to see (and measure) results when you focus on a big goal or priority, especially if your goal is ambitious enough. It might take months or even years to start seeing the fruits of your hard labour. But humans (and the way we designed societies) are not really designed for long term gratification. We need immediate results now, not next year. No one’s willing to put it the invisible effort for the greater outcome. CEO’s need to show rising stock prices and increasing quarterly profits .. not that they are creating a better company in 5-10 years. Hence they resort to short term gimmicks of stock buy-backs that boost immediate results at the expense of tomorrow. Politicians is another example. Their priority is to get re-elected next year, not to undertake structural reforms that typically take 10-20 years to see visible results. Our eating habits is another example. We may want to eat more healthy and have a better body (in the long term) but if you’re hungry .. the appeal of a pizza pepperoni now weights much more heavily on our decision making than our long term goal. The emotions associated with short term payouts are more real and weight much more heavily on us than the real long term goals we may have established in the past.

Conclusion: 

There are deep seeded reasons why we procrastinate on the things that are more important to us. We designed a world full of distractions and it’s hard to escape. Think when was the last time you were able to read a book for 1 hour straight? We’re bombarded with short term distractions that give us small bursts of satisfaction and help us going to bed with a clear conscious. The far more important goals are much harder to measure and the rewards are too far out in the future. This inevitably leads to a life you have little control over, one where another day passes by and you haven’t moved closer to where you want to be. The actionable points below:

1) Get past the fear of missing out because the reality is that you’re not really missing out on much. 2) Perfect conditions will never exist. The smaller tasks will always be there pulling you away from your top priorities. 3) Isolate yourself for one or two hours a day. Make sure there’s no internet, no colleagues, no skype, mute email notifications, whatsup, etc. 4) Put it on your calendar with a clear deadline and share it within your inner-circle. 5) Learn to forgo immediate results and be willing to go “invisible” for a few months or years.

More on Twitter @ricardo_afonso_

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