No.12 – “I’ll do it later…”

How many times in the last month have you heard someone say (or maybe said yourself) “I don‟t have time to do that now” or “I need more time before I can start that” or “I’ll do it later”?

Time is certainly a valuable commodity these days – so is there a secret to having the time you need to meet the deadlines, complete the tasks as well as fitting in leisure time, family time and/or “me” time?

How is it that we find time for some things and not others – what‟s driving that decision? Despite knowing all the theories/good practise with regard to good time management…

‐ Buying a daily planner or a to-do list application for your phone.
‐ Writing yourself notes
‐ Filling out schedules.
‐ Surrounding yourself with instruments to make life more efficient

…these tools alone will not help, because the problem isn’t that you are a bad manager of your time – the key is in understanding the beliefs, values and attitudes of mind which are driving the so-called “unwanted” behaviours.

One of the issues that often gets in the way is procrastination – such a pervasive element of the human experience that there are over 600 books for sale promising to snap you out of your bad habits, and this year alone 120 new books on the topic were published.

It’s a problem many people admit to, but why is it so hard to defeat? Why is it that we have a tendency to put off what we should or need to do now, in favour of the immediate (short-term) reward of doing something else?

You may tell yourself “I need to start that report – the deadline is next week”… “I should phone that client, it‟s while since I spoke to them”… “I ought to prepare the presentation – it‟s probably going to take longer than I think”

…And yet you decide that before you get started maybe you should check your email, just to get it out of the way… Perhaps you could get the small “easy” tasks done first, so you have clear space to get the big task done… A cup of coffee would probably get you going and get you in the right frame of – it won‟t take a minute to go and get one!

Procrastination is the thief of time, and core to our ability to deal with this is the issue of delayed gratification.

I am not sure this is directly connected, but I am reminded of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (1972) This was designed to test the theory of a person‟s ability to delay gratification, and was conducted by Prof. Walter Mischel, at Stanford University, California. He studied a group of four-year-old children, each of whom was given one marshmallow, but promised two on condition that he or she wait twenty minutes, before eating the first marshmallow. Some children were able to wait the twenty minutes, and others were not.

Furthermore, Mischel and his team then studied the developmental progress of each participant child into adolescence, through high-school, college and into adulthood where they accumulated children, mortgages and jobs. They reported that children able to delay gratification (wait) were psychologically better adjusted, more dependable persons, and, as high school students, scored significantly greater grades.

A key learning from this research is that children who were able to overcome their desire for short-term reward in favour of a better outcome later were not more clever than the other children, nor were they less gluttonous. They just had a better grasp of how to trick themselves into doing what was best for them.
They watched the wall instead of looking at the food. They tapped their feet instead of smelling the confection. The wait was torture for all, but some knew it was going to be impossible to just sit there and stare at the delicious, gigantic marshmallow without giving in. Some were better at devising schemes for avoiding their own weak wills, and years later, as adults, they seemed to be able to use that power to their advantage.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment indicates that good impulse control might be psychologically important for academic achievement and for success in adult life. Research also indicates that animals do not defer gratification but instead apply something called “hyperbolic discounting”. So, the intellectual problem of delayed gratification is philosophically fundamental to human nature. What started as an experiment about delayed gratification has now, decades later, yielded a far more interesting set of revelations about meta-cognition – thinking about thinking.

Procrastination is all about choosing want over should. Given two similar rewards, humans show a preference for one that arrives sooner rather than later. We are said to discount the value of the later reward, by a factor that increases with the length of the delay.

For instance, when offered the choice between £500 now and £1000 a year from now, many people will choose the immediate £500. However, given the choice between £500 in five years or £1000 in six years almost everyone will choose £1000 in six years, even though that is the same choice seen at five years’ greater distance.

A being of pure logic would think “more is more” and pick the higher amount every time, but we aren’t beings of pure logic. Faced with two possible rewards, we are more likely to take the one which we can enjoy now over one we will enjoy later – even if the later reward is far greater.

So what is the key to developing the skill of “deferred gratification” – doing the “should” first and the “want” later?

The first thing is to become aware of what you‟re doing as you‟re doing it – particularly in terms of your inner dialogue and the nature of the internal negotiation you are having with yourself. Next time you hear yourself say something like “I really should get “X” done, but maybe I’ll just do “Y” first”… ask yourself…

“What stops me doing X right now?”
“What would I get (positively) from doing X?”
“What do I get out of doing Y first?”
“What reward can I give myself for doing X first which is even more appealing than choosing to do Y first?”

There are many positive effects of adopting the concept of deferred gratification – you’ll get more done, faster, more effectively – and get much more satisfaction from the “reward”…..Enjoy!

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