Breaking Procrastination: Part II, Thinking Fast and Slow

Read Part I of this article for an intro. In the first part I explained how procrastination means prioritising short-term gain over long-term pain. This part looks at a method I developed for breaking procrastination of assignments and reports.


System 1 and System 2

Creating and editing are utterly distinct processes, which use completely different systems.

Daniel Kahneman is one of only two psychologists to win the Nobel Prize. Along with his colleague, the late Amos Tversky, Kahneman was the founder and figurehead of Behavioural Economics which involves the study of real human decisions (which are often irrational) rather than what is rational (which economics assumes us to be).

Kahneman, in his classic work, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes how the human mind has two systems of processes, the fast automatic System 1 and the slow effortful System 2.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly with little sense of voluntary control. To envision System 1, imagine yourself explaining your ideas to a friend when drunk. Yes, you might ramble, or repeat, or assume knowledge, or be incoherent. But you also might also capture ideas on the very edge of your awareness, ideas that are new and barely expressible.

We prefer to think via System 1. This state of mind is fun and free. Perfect for creating.

System 2 is much harder and thus less favoured. This type of thinking is rational and critical. This system is more like arguing a philosophical point by appealing to logic. Cold, critical, exacting. Perfect for editing.

Silence the Inner Critic

Creating and editing use entirely different systems. The problem with day-before-assignment-writing is that we simultaneously try to create and edit, we try to use both systems. Toggling between both, we end up doing each equally poorly.

Most of us have an Inner Critic. This is the part that analyses and critiques your thoughts, feelings and especially words and actions. For those of us with a strong Inner Critic, writing an assignment is a painful process. We don’t really know what we are talking about (for this is the point of an essay, to push the boundaries of our knowledge) and the critic excoriates us for it.

The Inner Critic is pure System 2 and thus is your friend when you need to edit. but it is a malevolent spirit when we need to be creative. It makes you agonise over every little word and phrase. For some chronic procrastinators, the only thing that silences the Critic is a deadline. The harried urgency of a deadline leaves no time and space for the Critic to intrude.

Fake Deadlines

During my post-grad studies, I would make a fake deadline for assignments, well before the actual due date. I would give myself a big chunk of time, maybe about 1 hours per 1,000 words of assignment. And I would just write. No textbooks, no researching. Despite ignorance of the subject, write. Just write until I met the word count, no matter if I had spewed forth the world’s worst work.

And because I would just be writing and not caring about editing, I could keep the Critic at bay. I tried my hardest to remain in pure System 1 thinking. Not trying to be coherent or polished, just write write write until reaching the magic word number.

The In-between Time

Then, for weeks, I would leave the assignment in peace. But my mind would be far from passive. Having written the assignment, many relevant facts and thoughts about the assessment would pop into my head effortlessly. Sources and citations would seemingly magically appear before me.

The scaffolding of the first draft allows the mind notice and capture relevant information in the in-between time. This is because of the Priming Effect. The initial draft had primed my consciousness to notice any information that was relevant to the assignment. My mind was drawing information like a magnet.

The Critic Returns

The day before the assignment was due, I would again open the assignment. The Critic returned and I let him of his leash completely. By this stage I had much more knowledge (thanks to the priming effect) and some paragraphs had to be completely re-written. The Critic just did his job, finding logical inconsistencies, improving coherence and adherence to the literary laws. The harsh System 2 doing the job for which it was intended.

Take Homes

I’ve passed on this two-day method (which I’ve, tongue in cheek named the Hendriks Method) to many others, including clients. Everyone who has used it has told me that they derived some benefit from it.

But do I still use this method? Well you’re reading the product of it now. When I wrote this article first, I incontinently splattered some ideas onto the page, with very little sense of conscious control. Later, the Critic scrupulously reviewed the sentences, cleaned up the grammar, changed a few words and posted this post.


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