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How We Trick Our Brains Into Feeling Productive

According to experts, not all procrastination distractions are created equal.

How We Trick Our Brains Into Feeling Productive
[Man cleaning a glass: oneinchpunch via Shutterstock]

I’d been working from home last week when I found myself furiously scrubbing the grout between the kitchen tiles in the middle of the day.

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I had a deadline and didn’t feel up for tackling the task. Somewhere along the line, I must have figured scrubbing grout would be a noble substitute. After all, I wasn’t mindlessly clicking around the Internet or watching cat videos. Surely cleaning was a productive use of my time. Right?

That’s a way to rationalize it, but current research in psychology says we’re only fooling ourselves when we do. Avoiding the assignment you’re supposed to be doing by taking up a task that feels more responsible than puttering on social media is a complex way we trick ourselves into believing we’re not time wasters.

Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, calls these behaviors “morally substitutable acts.” Pychyl, professor of psychology at Canada’s Carleton University, looks at why we choose to do things that seem like moral substitutes for the projects we are supposed to be tackling.

“There’s something really twisted going on there,” says Pychyl. Often these acts are compulsive, “done in a knee-jerk way that shows you are lacking a sense of urgency.” What’s more, doing something fun and restorative may help us feel more focused and ready to jump back into a task.

First, we need to understand how we waste our time in the first place. “Everyone knows what they should be doing,” says Pychyl. “It’s how we choose not to do that thing that can be interesting.”

Here are some of the key areas psychology experts have zoomed in to to better understand why and how we procrastinate the way we do.

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The Need to Feel Like a Good Person

Where people often get procrastination wrong, says Pychyl, is they consider it a time management problem when it’s an issue of self-control. “In a nutshell, it’s the inability to regulate one’s behavior to achieve one’s goal,” he says. “It’s all part of a lack of self-control.”

Gravitating toward a morally substitutable act like organizing emails or cleaning out the filing cabinet is a way to avoid doing a task at hand, while still maintaining some self-preservation.

The problem? “It’s all the same crap,” says Pychyl. “When someone says, ‘I’m not doing this task, I’m going to go listen to music instead,’ at least they are going to do something they enjoy, that’s meaningful to them. Some other people will find themselves sorting their CDs or alphabetizing their spice rack.”

Often, we gravitate to these kinds of tasks because we know we can’t screw them up. A project might feel overwhelming, but sorting through a giant pile of papers on the desk is easy. You won’t screw that one up. The procrastination becomes a compulsive coping mechanism. “There’s some self-deception going on there,” says Pychyl. “If you lay it bare, you say to yourself that I’m cleaning because I just want to feel good about myself.”

The Instant Gratification Of The E-Break

One of the most common ways people choose to waste time is what psychologists James Baker and James Phillips call e-breaks–checking and responding to email as a way to avoid an actual task at hand. But they see these e-breaks as a form of “defensive avoidance”; not all that different from the morally substitutable acts Pychyl is interested in. According to their research, people who choose to e-break as a way to step away from their work tend to be more frequent procrastinators.

It makes sense. If someone is inclined to check email as a break from working on another task and email is simply a click away, the chances of succumbing to distraction are far more frequent than getting up to go to the vending machine.

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Ron Friedman, founder of the leadership consulting firm ignite80 likens compulsively checking and responding to email to dropping everything to run to the grocery store each time you discover you’re running low on an item in your cupboard. “It’s easy to see the cost of driving to the store every time we crave a bag of potato chips,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. “What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and switch activities to satisfy a mental craving.”

According to research from the University of California, Irvine, distractions place a strain on our cognitive abilities. It can take more than 20 minutes to regain focus after a single interruption.

How Not To Fall Into A Bottomless Pit Of Procrastination

That’s why it’s critical to clearly define breaks before taking them. That means setting a time limit for how long you’ll be checking email, taking a walk, or chatting with a coworker before taking a break. “You have to make sure you are not walking into a bottomless pit,” says Pychyl.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how long a break should be, but research documents how well our minds focus in a given period of time. According to Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, our bodies follow ultradian rhythms, cycles last around 90 minutes before we start to feel we can no longer work at our most optimal level. If you haven’t taken a break by that time, then you’re working at a loss.

Structured Procrastination

While Pychyl sees morally substitutable acts as a form of self-deception, others argue substituting one task for another is a way to make the most of procrastination. John Perry, Stanford University professor of philosophy and author of The Art of Procrastination, calls this approach “structured procrastination.”

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The idea is creating a list of all the things that we need to get done with the most important ones at the top encourages us to pick a task farther down on the list to do instead. “The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important,” writes Perry.

This is in line with Pychyl’s argument. Consciously creating a list of alternative tasks that can and need to be done can prevent impulsively doing something like cleaning the fridge, when catching up on emails might be a more useful task. It’s all about consciously making choices rather than acting on impulse. “This requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness,” says Pychyl.

Make Your Breaks Restorative

You might as well do something fun or relaxing if you’re not getting work done. That’s not the way we tend to think about time management. “If I’m not working, I should be doing something else useful,” is a more common line of thought. But there’s no sense in not allowing for a real restorative break if finishing a project or task is a struggle.

In fact, doing something enjoyable and relaxing will probably do you a lot of good, says Pychyl. “There are projects in our lives that wear us down,” says Pychyl. “What projects should we engage in when we want to restore ourselves? They are things that keep us moving and feed us emotionally.”

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About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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