Friday, February 22, 2019

I think I may have understood what procrastination is all about (thank you Dr Oakley!)

I used to love writing. I wrote about the mountains I climbed, imagining scores of people using my blog to plan their own treks. I wrote about my disastrous dates (names removed), imagining people reading and chuckling. It was mostly friends and family who read and loved my blog - they said they did and I chose to believe them. Every once in a while, a stranger would pop in here and leave a flattering comment that would leave me glowing for weeks.

At some point, I became aware that I was an only an average sort of writer, not brilliant. It wasn't a sudden realization, brought on by any specific criticism, but it came insidiously and took away all the crazy joy I used to get out of a very loved routine – keyboard clacking, throwing a bunch of random thoughts down on a document, rereading a dozen times, hitting publish, nagging folks to read and enjoying the attention. It just stopped being fun. My frequency of posting on my blog is a very telling graph:

The number of posts I wrote from 2007 to 2018

My brother, who thinks a lot about how powerful the act of creating is and how much it makes us who we want to become, continued to gently remind me to write, and always said “Great!” whenever I said I would write soon. He also continued to renew the subscription on my domain, year on year, without ever saying anything about it. 

I wanted to write. In May 2018, a friend and I went on a gorgeous trek in Nepal, and even as I was climbing those breathtakingly beautiful trails, I was thinking – this will break my writer’s block for sure. I know I will want to write about this. We got back on the 2nd of June, and I started to write about the Langtang trail in July. I wrote a few words, put a few pictures in. And stopped. Every night, I would put this on my to-do list – “Finish Langtang post”. Every morning I would see that entry, and this is it what would happen:
  • 7 AM: I’ll start my day with, that should inspire me to write
  • 8.30 AM: Let me make some fresh coffee and start writing
  • 9 AM: I’ll tidy up my work desk first, then write about Langtang before I open my work 
  • 9.30 AM: Let me quickly check email to see if something important has come in that might need a response from me
  • 7 PM: I’m exhausted. I’ll scroll through Facebook and Instagram for a bit, that’ll help me unwind and then I’ll write
  • 8 PM: I don’t feel like writing, it’s been such a long day. I’ll have dinner and put Langtang on my to-do list for tomorrow.
And so it went for 3 weeks. And then I decided to stop thinking about Langtang because it was too painful. I decided I don’t really need to write, I have a pretty fulfilling life as it is.

And then, two weeks ago, I started a course called “Learning How to Learn” (LHTL) - often cited as the most popular among all MOOCs. I have a tendency to be hyperbolic, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this course has probably changed my life. And within this course, the lesson on Procrastination which I want to summarise here, so that I can remember it. 

Everyone I know procrastinates. We acknowledge it, with shame, sheepishness, sometimes even a weird sort of pride. As I went through the course, the mechanics of procrastination started to make sense. I see patterns in my life and something is starting to shift in my brain. It also helps that thanks to Simon Sinek, I got intensely interested in neurochemicals, so the procrastination circuit, as explained in LHTL, makes even more sense. This is what the circuit looks like, with some examples from my life:

The procrastination circuit [source: my notes from Learning How to Learn]

So here are the top four things I’ve learned from the LHTL’s section on procrastination:
  1. Will power is a limited resource. Using it can deplete it, so it needs to be used strategically. You only need to apply it at point X – between Cue and Habit – and learning to identify the cues is the way to streamline the use of your will power
  2. Discomfort is your friend. When you’re trying to manage procrastination, the discomfort you feel when you do not follow your usual cue>habit cycle will be significant. Every time, multiple times. But knowing this discomfort, acknowledging it, being okay with it, not trying to push it away is the best gift you can give yourself. This discomfort is building new brain circuits and so it is your friend (Vipassana flashback!)
  3. Failing is okay, as long as it is with awareness. Anytime you try to break the cue>habit, one of two things will happen. You will either not perform the habit that the cue wants you to do – let’s call this success. Or you will follow your usual pattern and perform the habit – let’s call that failure. Success builds new habit circuits, so that over time and repetition, the discomfort of the new habit will lessen. Failure will increase your understanding of your self and your patterns so that next time you try to break the cue>habit pattern, this understanding will make the process slightly, infinitesimally, easier. So both outcomes are okay, but you need to be aware of what is going on.
  4. Celebrate when you’re successful. Reward yourself. Sometimes the reward is the just the feeling that OMG, I did it! Savour that feeling. The way I’m feeling right now because I finished this piece.

Final takeaway: just start. Choose a random self-experiment of breaking one procrastination habit. My experiment – I will write something every day. It will be uncomfortable, but I will do it.


  1. Excellent read! Loved the infographic :-)

  2. Loved it. I’m going to try it to build some habits. Also reminded me of a poem I wanted to share with you

    Chapter One of My Life. I walk down the street. There's a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in.
    I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It still takes forever to find a way out.

    Chapter Two. I walk down the same street. There's a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I'm in the same place! But it isn't my fault. And it still takes a long time to get out.

    Chapter Three. I walk down the same street. There's a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in. It's a habit! My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

    Chapter Four. I walk down the same street. There's a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

    Chapter Five. I walk down a different street.

  3. Love it and I hope you continue writing I wait for your posts

  4. Interesting post! It's helped me understand reasons for my procrastination better. The point on using willpower strategically is a good one, I hadn't thought of it this way before.


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