فصل 9

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فصل 9

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{ 9 }

procrastination zombie wrap-up

We’ve swept through a number of issues related to procrastination in these last few chapters. But here are a few final thoughts that can shed new insight into procrastination.

The Pluses and Minuses of Working Unrelentingly in “The Zone”

A chance meeting of two Microsoft techies at a Friday-night party in 1988 resulted in an exciting solution to a major software stumbling block that Microsoft had basically given up on. The pair left the party to give the idea a shot, firing up a computer and going through the problematic code line by line. Later that evening, it was clear that they were onto something. That something, as Frans Johansson describes in his fascinating book The Click Moment, turned the nearly abandoned software project into Windows 3.0, which helped turn Microsoft into the global technology titan it is today.1 There are times when inspiration seems to erupt from nowhere.

These kinds of rare creative breakthroughs—relaxed moments of insight followed by mentally strenuous, all-out, late-night labor—are very different from a typical day of studying math and science. It’s rather like sports: Every once in a while, you have a day of competition when you need to give everything you have under conditions of extraordinary stress. But you certainly wouldn’t train every single day under those kinds of conditions.

On days when you are super productive and keep working away long into the night, you may get a lot done—but in subsequent days, if you look at your planner-journal, you may note that you are less productive. People who make a habit of getting their work done in binges are much less productive overall than those who generally do their work in reasonable, limited stints.2 Staying in the zone too long will send you toward burnout.3 An impending deadline can ratchet up stress levels, moving you into a zone where the stress hormones can kick in and assist in thinking. But relying on adrenaline can be a dangerous game, because once stress goes too high, the ability to think clearly can disappear. More important, learning math and science for an upcoming examination is very different from finishing a written report by a given due date. This is because math and science demand the development of new neural scaffolds that are different from the social, pictorial, and language-oriented scaffolds that our brains have evolved to excel at. For many people, math- and science-related scaffolds develop slowly, alternating focused-mode and diffuse-mode thinking as the material is absorbed. Especially when it comes to learning math and science, the bingeing excuse, “I do my best work under deadlines,” is simply not true.4 Remember the arsenic eaters at the beginning of these chapters on procrastination? Back in the 1800s, when arsenic eating took hold in one tiny Austrian population, people ignored how harmful it was long-term, even if tolerance could be built up. It’s a little like not recognizing the dangers of procrastination.

Getting a grip on habits of procrastination means acknowledging that something that feels painful at the moment can ultimately be healthy. Overcoming your urge to procrastinate shares much in common with other minor stressors that are ultimately beneficial.

“When I am not working, I must relax—not work on something else!”

—Psychologist B. F. Skinner, reflecting on a crucial realization that became a turning point in his career5

Wise Waiting

We’ve learned that seemingly good traits can have bad consequences. Einstellung in chess—being blocked from seeing a better move because of previously conceived notions—is a fine example. Your focused attention, normally desirable, keeps your mind preoccupied so that it doesn’t see better solutions.

Just as focused attention isn’t always good, seemingly nasty habits of procrastination aren’t always bad. Whenever you make up a to-do list, for example, you could be accused of procrastinating on whatever isn’t first on your list. A healthy form of procrastination entails learning to pause and reflect before jumping in and accomplishing something. You are learning to wait wisely. There is always something to be done. Prioritizing allows you to gain big-picture context for your decision making. Sometimes waiting allows a situation to resolve itself.

Pausing and reflecting are key, not only in stopping procrastination but in math and science problem solving in general. You may be surprised to learn that the difference in the way that math experts (professors and graduate students) and math novices (undergraduate students) solve physics problems is that experts are slower to begin solving a problem.6 Experts took an average of forty-five seconds to figure out how they would categorize a problem according to its underlying physics principles. Undergraduates, on the other hand, simply rushed right in, taking only thirty seconds to determine how they should proceed.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusions drawn by the undergraduates were often wrong because their choices were based on superficial appearances rather than underlying principles. It’s as if experts took their time to conclude that broccoli is a vegetable and lemon is a fruit, while novices barged in to say that broccoli is a tiny tree while lemons are clearly eggs. Pausing gives you time to access your library of chunks and allows your brain to make connections between a particular problem and the bigger picture.

Waiting is also important in a broader context. When you have difficulty puzzling out a particular math or science concept, it is important not to let frustration take control and dismiss those concepts as too difficult or abstract. In his aptly titled book Stalling for Time, FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner notes that we could all learn from the successes and failures of hostage negotiation.7 At the beginning of such situations, emotions run high. Efforts to speed matters along often lead to disaster. Staving off natural desires to react aggressively to emotional provocations allows time for the molecules of emotion to gradually dissipate. The resulting cooler heads save lives.

Emotions that goad you by saying, “Just do it, it feels right,” can be misleading in other ways. In choosing your career, for example, “Follow your passion” may be like deciding to marry your favorite movie star. It sounds great until reality rears its head. The proof is in the outcome: Over the past decades, students who have blindly followed their passion, without rational analysis of whether their choice of career truly was wise, have been more unhappy with their job choices than those who coupled passion with rationality.8 All of this relates to my own life. I originally had no passion, talent, or skill in math. But as a result of rational considerations, I became willing to get good at it. I worked hard to get good at it. And I knew that working hard wasn’t enough—I also had to avoid fooling myself.

I did get good at math. That opened the door to science. And I gradually got good at that, too. As I got good, the passion also came.

We develop a passion for what we are good at. The mistake is thinking that if we aren’t good at something, we do not have and can never develop a passion for it.

Procrastination FAQs

I’m so overwhelmed by how much I’ve got to do that I avoid thinking about it, even though it only makes my bad situation worse. What can I do when I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the work I need to do?

Write down three “microtasks” that you can do within a few minutes. Remember how Lady Luck favors those who try—just do your best to focus on something worthwhile.

At this point, close your eyes and tell your mind that you have nothing else to worry about, no other concerns, just your first microtask. (I’m not kidding about the “close your eyes” part—remember, that can help disengage you from your previous thought patterns.9) You may want to play a Pomodoro game with yourself. Can you get a start on the first few pages of the chapter in twenty-five minutes?

Accomplishing a lot of difficult tasks is like eating a salami. You go slice by slice—bit by bit. Cheer every accomplishment, even the tiniest ones. You’re moving ahead!

How long will it take to change my procrastination habits?

Although you will probably see some results right away, it may take about three months of adjustment to get in place a new set of working habits that you like and are comfortable with. Be patient and use common sense—don’t attempt to make drastic changes immediately because they may not be sustainable and that may only discourage you more.

My attention tends to hop all over the place, so it’s difficult for me to stay focused on the task at hand. Am I doomed to be a procrastinator?

Of course not! Many of my most creative and successful students have overcome ADHD and related attention difficulties using the types of tools I’ve outlined in this book. You can, too.

If your attention is easily divided, you especially will benefit from tools that help keep you focused on a specific task for a short period of time. These tools include a planner-journal, a whiteboard by your door, a timer, and scheduling and timing apps and programs on your smartphone or computer. All of these tools can help you turn your zombie procrastination habits into zombie “take charge” habits.


“As a student with attention deficit disorder, I struggle with procrastination on a daily basis, and structure is the only foolproof way to prevent procrastination. For me, this means writing EVERYTHING down in my planner or notebook—things like assignment due dates, work hours, and times to hang out with friends. It also means studying in the same area every day and removing ALL distractions—for example, turning my cell phone off.

“I now also do things at the same general time every week—my body likes structure and routine; that’s why it was so hard at the beginning to break out of my procrastination habits, but it is also why it has been so easy to keep up with new habits after a month of forcing myself into it.” —Weston Jeshurun, sophomore, undeclared major

You’ve told me to use as little as possible of my willpower in dealing with procrastination. But shouldn’t I be using my willpower a lot so that I can strengthen it?

Willpower is a lot like muscle. You have to use your muscles to strengthen and develop them over time. But at any given time, your muscles have only so much energy available. Developing and using willpower is a bit of a balancing act.10 This is why it’s often important to pick only one difficult thing at a time that requires self-discipline if you are trying to make changes.

It’s easy to get myself to sit down and start my schoolwork. But as soon as I start, I find myself taking quick peeks at Facebook or my e-mail. Before I know it, it’s taken me eight hours to do a three-hour task.

The Pomodoro timer is your all-purpose zombie distracter. No one ever said you have to be perfect about overcoming habits of procrastination. All you need to do is keep working to improve your process.

What do you say to the student who procrastinates but refuses to accept his own role and instead blames everyone and everything except himself? Or the student who flunks every test but thinks she knows the materials better than her scores show?

If you find yourself constantly falling into situations where you think, “It’s not my fault,” something is wrong. Ultimately, you are the captain of your fate. If you aren’t getting the grades you’d like, you need to start making changes to steer yourself toward better shores, rather than blaming others.

A number of students have told me over the years that they “really knew the material.” They protest that they flunked because they don’t test well. Often, the student’s teammates tell me the real story: The student does little to no studying. It’s sad to say that misplaced self-confidence in one’s abilities can sometimes reach almost delusional levels. I’m convinced this is part of why employers like to hire people who are successful in math and science. Good grades in those disciplines are often based on objective data about a student’s ability to grapple with difficult material.

It’s worth reemphasizing that world-class experts in a variety of disciplines reveal that their path to expertise wasn’t easy. They slogged through some tedious, difficult times to get to their current level of expertise where they can glide by and make it all look easy.11 NOW YOU TRY!

Practicing Your Zombie Wrangling

Think of a challenge that you have been putting off. What kind of thoughts would help you actually do it? For example, you might think: “It’s not really so difficult; it will get easier once I get started; sometimes it’s good to do things that I don’t enjoy; the rewards are worth it.”12 SUMMING IT UP

Procrastination is such an important topic that this summary includes key takeaway points from all this book’s chapters on overcoming procrastination: Keep a planner-journal so you can easily track when you reach your goals and observe what does and doesn’t work.

Commit yourself to certain routines and tasks each day.

Write your planned tasks out the night before, so your brain has time to dwell on your goals to help ensure success.

Arrange your work into a series of small challenges. Always make sure you (and your zombies!) get lots of rewards. Take a few minutes to savor the feelings of happiness and triumph.

Deliberately delay rewards until you have finished a task.

Watch for procrastination cues.

Put yourself in new surroundings with few procrastination cues, such as the quiet section of a library.

Obstacles arise, but don’t make a practice of blaming all your problems on external factors. If everything is always somebody else’s fault, it’s time to start looking in the mirror.

Gain trust in your new system. You want to work hard during times of focused concentration—and also trust your system enough that when it comes time to relax, you actually relax without feelings of guilt.

Have backup plans for when you still procrastinate. No one is perfect, after all.

Eat your frogs first.

Happy experimenting!


Close the book and look away. What were the main ideas of this chapter? When you go to bed this evening, try recalling the main ideas again—just before sleep often seems to be a particularly powerful time for setting ideas mentally in mind.


  1. If you have problems with being easily distracted, what are some good approaches to help you prevent procrastination?

  2. How would you decide when procrastination is useful and when it is harmful?

  3. Where have you noticed that pausing and reflecting before charging forward has been beneficial in your life?

  4. If you sit down to work but find yourself frittering away your time, what are some actions you can take to quickly get yourself back on task?

  5. Reflect on your way of reacting to setbacks. Do you take active responsibility for your part in those setbacks? Or do you assume a victim’s role? What way of responding is ultimately most helpful? Why?

  6. Why would those who followed their passion in choosing their careers, without balancing their decision with rational analysis of their choice, be less likely to be happy in those careers?

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