Breaking Procrastination: Part I, Just Jump

It’s the night before the major essay is due. Justin* is furiously typing 2,000 words, having started work only a few hours earlier. Not typically a self-caffeinator, Justin has just consumed a large potent coffee. Big mistake. Now he’s wired and confused. He’ll end up getting his assignment in on time, but as usual his grades will be woeful.

Procrastination nation

This was the story of my undergraduate degree.

No matter what I promised myself at the start of semester, I’d find myself racing to submit a shoddy scrawl for each and every assessment. Many people I talk to about university have had/are having similar experiences. Instead of starting work a little earlier they choose poor grades and a violent fight or flight experience. Why do we do this to ourselves?

This is (part of) the story of how I broke procrastination.

Procrastination is prioritising short-term gain over long-term pain. Working on assignments is usually a less preferable task. Screen time, fridge checking, and watching grass grow are, relatively speaking, more preferable tasks. There will always be a procrastinative pull from less preferable tasks to more preferable tasks.

Polar Pool Plunge

Every transition between tasks costs time and is painful.

Picture yourself on the edge of a freezing pool. You know you have to jump in, but you insist on delaying and distracting. While distracting yourself, you are secretly terrorised by the thought of the cold water ahead.

Imagine that after a significant delay, you make the plunge. However, after 1-2 minutes, you rush out of the water and stand by the edge of the pool again, trying to build the willpower to jump anew.

This is your mind on procrastination.

Want something done? Ask a busy person

Fast forward to my postgraduate studies and the picture was far different. By this stage I had a job, wife (also with a busy job and studying), a baby, a mortgage. My available time, I would estimate, was about 10% of that which I had as an undergrad to complete my work. Surely, all these demonic demands would cause my grades to have suffered.

But the opposite was true. My assignments were always polished, submitted on time and without rush. And my grades were quite good.

Part of my success was due to time pressure. There was just no time left to waste. If you want something done, ask a busy man. I ceased transitioning between more and less preferable tasks (jumping in and out of the pool), and just stuck to work. I had no choice; I didn’t have enough time to do otherwise.

Transition Torture

It’s not always easy or advisable to make yourself exceedingly busy in order to cope with assignments or work projects. As I’ve written elsewhere, the cult of work and achievement is making us mentally unwell. It is, however, possible to avoid Transition Torture.

Firstly, just jump:

The first few minutes hurt. Then your body adjusts, and you enjoy the water.

Schedule a good block of time and commit to starting work as early as possible during that time. Set up all your work the day before. Run through an imagery exercise where you see yourself starting as early as possible. Then at the scheduled time – jump in. Like the swimmer who jumps in quickly, you will save yourself the angst of agonising on the edge.

Next, no getting in and out of the pool. Cut transition times. Sit down and work for set blocks of time. Know and understand your procrastination techniques: Phone checking, bathroom breaks, fridge checking don’t need to happen any more than once per hour.

The longer block of time you spend working, the fewer time-wasting transition you experience. You are jumping into the pool, staying in, and acclimatising to the water. And it’s not so bad! You’re avoiding the pain of each plunge.


* No names or key details changed

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