This Small Oversight Can Make You Procrastinate


Have you ever made plans for later, remembered the plans, and procrastinated anyway?

Why does that happen?

I’ve already talked about the reason why we procrastinate, and within that reason is a small, but critical detail that many of us—myself included—fail to internalize and implement with regularity. Failure to do it means you’ll fail to take action every time. It may in fact be the crux of inaction for most procrastinators.

In order to take action, you must first terminate deliberation.

When we make decisions, first we deliberate (i.e., weigh our options), and then we implement. But before implementation is possible, we have to stop weighing our options. This means that you can decide to do something, but still procrastinate indefinitely to the point where it’s like you never decided to do it.

Remember when I wrote about when to turn your brain off? That’s not only useful for doing things we resist like getting up in the morning or getting in a good workout, but for deciding to do anything. All actions taken go through this sequence:

  1. Multiple thoughts and ideas float around in your head
  2. You deliberate (weigh your options) 
  3. You choose something to do
  4. You terminate further deliberation
  5. You take action

People struggle most with the red highlighted section. First, it can be hard to decide what to do. Even after the best option is chosen, some people perpetually cycle through existing and additional ideas.

What It Means To Terminate Deliberation

Terminating deliberation is not a gentle process. When done properly, it’s fast and brutal to the point of being shocking. To give you an idea, it’s like how secret agent messages are discarded. When James Bond receives a message with mission instructions, the thing explodes! So too should your mind explode (figuratively speaking) once you’ve figured out a good thing to do.

Once you determine a good course of action (it doesn’t have to be “best,” you perfectionists!), destroy all other options, ideas, and thoughts. This is what enables you to completely focus on the implementation of your decision. But until you destroy deliberation, until you decide that no other option is acceptable at this time, you are still weighing your options, have not yet decided, and will continue to procrastinate.

I’m drawing attention to the intensity and finality of termination because many people continue to deliberate casually out of habit. They dabble, but rarely commit. They haven’t learned to terminate ruthlessly! 

Knowing this process is a useful mental tool because it takes the grey area out of procrastination. Otherwise, procrastination can be difficult to spot because while you’re procrastinating on the web, you can pretend like you’re still sorting out what to do next or waiting for the right opportunity to take action (or any other excuse).

But under this straightforward process, doing anything besides thinking about your options with the sole intent of choosing one is pure procrastination—it’s exposed. No part of these five steps has room for procrastination:

  1. Multiple thoughts and ideas float around in your head
  2. You deliberate (weigh your options) 
  3. You choose something to do
  4. You terminate further deliberation
  5. You take action

Step one is our default state of life, and it naturally leads us straight into step two—what should I do? You might think that this step, deliberation, could involve procrastination, but real deliberation is a focused process of weighing pros and cons of different activities. Deliberation is not playing angry birds while you wait for an epiphany.

If you can’t decide because of the complexity and number of ideas in your head, write down your thoughts to figure it out (like you would a complex math problem). 

Two Reasons We Don’t Terminate Deliberation  

Upon analyzing myself, I’ve found some common reasons for failing to commit to a task, which is shown by terminating the deliberation phase. They’re emotional reasons, not logical ones, as the only logical response to knowing of something good to do is to do it. Emotions cloud that.

1. Fear

We fear taking action for a lot of reasons: making a mistake, failing to choose the best option, and failing to execute the action. They’re all rooted in perfectionism—fear that some part of choosing and implementing this task won’t go as expected or hoped.

Solution: If you sense you’re afraid of choosing poorly or not doing a satisfactory job, I heartily recommend dropping all expectations for the task. Take on more of a “try it and see what happens” approach. This kills perfectionistic fear pretty effectively. Though that’s a simple recommendation, I’ve found that it works for me. 

Relative Discomfort

I avoid work. Of course I do! It’s always easier to watch a TV show than to use my brain. My brain likes to prop it’s brain-feet up and relax just like my body does.

If your brain wants to avoid uncomfortable (or less comfortable) work in favor of something mindless, it’ll throw its bag of tricks at you. You’ll be thinking, “I should probably work on my paper now.” Before you know what’s going on, you’ll get not-so-coincidental thoughts to check email or Facebook right in the middle of your idea to start working (if I had a nickel for every time that’s happened, I’d put them all into one of those coinstar machines because I don’t like carrying change around… and it’d be a lot of nickels). 

This is how the subconscious mind exerts its will over the conscious mind. It likes to grab easy habitual behaviors with quick micro-rewards like checking Facebook or email. When threatened with productive work, it just starts chucking them at you, one after the other.

“Heeeeey. Hey! Angry birds? Oooh, check your website stats! I bet you have a new visitor! How many books did you sell today? What’s on Reddit? It’s probably funny! A laugh would be nice. Laughter. I wonder if there are any good Seinfeld bits on Youtube. Check! Hey! Music is fun to listen to and it’s so quiet here! Hi! Hi! Hi! Heeeeeey. Text someone. Grab a snack for no reason! Do it! Food is good. What’s on TV?”

~ Panicked Subconscious

If your subconscious is REALLY out to sabotage your productivity, it will cause you to desire your worst time-drain. We all know what our weaknesses are: for some it’s Facebook, for others it’s Reddit, and for others it’s TV. Our conscious mind wants to get work done, however, and resists these because we know what happens when we start reading Reddit (there goes 2 hours!). So a tug-of-war can develop here, and unfortunately, just dealing with this internal struggle drains us and makes us likely to pick the lazy activities. But that doesn’t have to mean a loss!

The phrase “work hard and play hard” is so important because we’re too often compromising into “no win” behaviors because of these competing desires. If your subconscious can’t convince you to go all out on your favorite leisure activity, and you don’t have it in you to be productive, you might end up “compromising” with non-work and non-reward activities, which is terrible, but hilarious when you think about it.

I’ve been in disbelief as my brain has told me I need to check all kinds of stats I had just checked seconds ago. Do you think I’d choose to check stats if I wanted a relaxing break? Of course not! I’d be playing video games or watching TV with ice cream in my lap! I resist doing those because they’re more “obvious” breaks. But inferior breaks are much worse in that they waste our time without recharging us satisfactorily.

Dear Brain,

Do I actually need to know if there are 11 or 12 people reading Deep Existence right now? I just checked two minutes ago and it was 11. How does checking again help me? Oh…oh…you’re just burning time. Got it. You’re fired.



Solution: The best way to combat the struggle between work and play—and this requires willpower since your subconscious is actively resisting work—is to frame your productive decision as the small, easy first step of the work task. This lessens the relative discomfort to “play” as well as makes the task easier to commit to. Alternatively, you can make yourself a deal where you take a short 20-30 minute break first and then do your work. I’ve done this successfully before. It works when you’re being especially stubborn about getting work done. 

Sometimes we think the time we need to exert our will the most is when we are the most stubborn. That’s not necessarily a good idea. For one, that’s going to cost the most willpower. For two, keep in mind that your subconscious is a part of you. It’s on the same team. And generally speaking, the entire team will win or lose. When you manage your life well, your productive spurts will benefit your entire life, and your meaningful breaks will keep you energized to continue to allow you continued productivity.

The best way forward may be to take a real break with the promise of work afterwards. Or work now with the promise of reward later. Whatever you do, don’t go too extreme. If you go for 100% work, you’ll burn out and rebel. If you go for 100% play, you’ll have fun until you pay for it later.

Be Decisive. Do it.

Indecisiveness is one of the greatest human enemies. People are swept away in petty distractions that seem like a compromise between work and play, but those are lose lose activities. The next time you notice you’re spending too much time on Facebook, Reddit, reading the news, or even something like watching a TV show when you’d rather watch a movie (but don’t want to commit 1.5 hours), think about not only the work you could be getting done, but also the more enjoyable reward you could be having if you were more decisive in both work and play.

This week, consciously practice terminating deliberation. That split second when you know it’s a good idea to do something, terminate and decide! Being decisive is one of the best feelings in the world with huge benefits, and you’ll get better at it by practicing this.

While I gave specific solutions, the general way to improve this area is to be mindful of it, and I hope this article makes you think about where you stand in your ability to terminate deliberation. You can learn to recognize when you’re stringing out a decision that can be made sooner. Be aware of when you do it and terminate all thoughts contrary to “I’m doing this right now.” If you need to promise a reward before or after the activity in order to get moving, do it.

photo by Moyan_Brenn

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