I’m a serial procrastinator.
If I have a job to do or a responsibility, I will delay it till the last possible moment, and then get around to doing it only when my ass is on fire. This is generally true for most areas of my life, and has a wide variety of reasons – I have defaulted on my telephone and electricity bills more times than I can count because I am too lazy to open the payment portal, I have put off having difficult conversations with friends and family because I am not too fond of confrontations, and I have also postponed important work assignments till the night before the due date. “Not taking any action until and unless absolutely necessary” was my life’s motto for quite some time, especially because I never had any problems with working under pressure.
Of late, however, I have become more of an optimization freak, and have been seeking to improve the extent to which I utilize time. And although the ability to delay gratification has been associated with greater academic and professional success (Ref), trying to delay things too much eventually leads to stress and exhaustion. A little bit of introspection (and a whole lot of delayed charges on my phone bills), led me to the one reason why I was procrastinating so much – Motivation, or lack thereof.
But what is motivation, really? As far as I can understand it, motivation is the drive or push to execute certain actions, in anticipation of some sort of future gratification. In other words, it is the destination that inspires you to undertake a certain journey.
An explanation for the way we think and the structure of our value system can be found in our formative years. The brain has an interesting action – reward functionality: you set a target for yourself, and when you reach it, your brain rewards you with a sense of achievement. While this feeling may be triggered by external stimuli (appreciation from a friend or a loved one, applause from an audience full of strangers), the gratification comes from the way you feel about yourself. In other words, we feel good if we achieve the tasks we had set out for ourselves.
In my search for this elusive bird called motivation, I have come across several life hacks and techniques, but there are two that have stuck with me the most
- The two (or five) minute principle: Whenever you are putting off a responsibility or an action for tomorrow, just think about how much time it will take you to complete it. If the answer is less than five minutes, go ahead and do it anyway.
- The do something principle (all credit goes to Mark Manson, ref here): Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.
Both of these approaches work on a simple but powerful psychological fact. Our desire to do (or not do) something starts off with an intention, but bringing our ideas to fruition requires motivation – which, as mentioned above, fuels our struggle in order to achieve an end result. Absence of motivation, therefore, leads to inaction.
The interesting thing about this process, is that it is not linear. In fact, it is something like this
It is possible to “jump start” some sort of motivation through an action. This is something that puts a lot of power in your hands, because unlike motivation (which is a feeling), action is something that can be controlled and done at will. This, to a certain extent, echoes the age old Gita philosophy – instead of worrying about results (and hence searching for motivation through an end goal) concentrate on your actions.
I have been using this principle for a while now, and I must say that this has done wonders for my productivity. From the most mundane chores to more important tasks, once you start doing something, the action itself motivates you to move forward. In fact, I had been meaning to write for the last few days, but I simply could not find the mental space to do so. However, once I wrote the first few lines for the draft version of this article (which I promptly deleted 5 minutes later), the rest of the post just seemed to flow through, allowing me to finish writing within 30 minutes. Once I was done I realized that I had the material within me all along, and of course used some choice words for myself for not writing this sooner.