There’s one task that I’ve been known to avoid: going to the dentist.
And it seems I’m not alone.
In a 2015 UK study, visiting the dentist was #6 on a list of the top 10 most common activities that people procrastinate.
It makes perfect sense to me. Even a routine cleaning is uncomfortable, with all that scraping, suctioning and polishing. Unless you’re in agony, it’s so easy to put off the next appointment.
However, the dentist’s chair is one of the only things I avoid.
12 years into building my company, JotForm, I can honestly say that I don’t procrastinate anymore — and it’s not because I have superhuman willpower.
Why can’t I get to work?
Before we can beat procrastination, it’s important to understand why we do it.
Author James Clear explains that Greek philosophers including Socrates and Aristotle developed the word akrasia to describe the state of acting against your better judgment.
In modern terms, Clear says we all have a Present Self, which wants instant gratification, and a Future Self, which values long-term rewards:
When the time comes to make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self.
Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self.”
Procrastination often feels like self-sabotage. Your Present Self overrules your Future Self in order to get what it wants — right now.
When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I made a conscious choice to play the long game. I bootstrapped the business and we grew slowly, from just a handful of users in 2006 to over 3.5 million today.
I may not have understood the psychological tug-of-war between my Present and Future Self, but I did know that every small step adds up. I worked consistently and learned to manage my own procrastination triggers.
Now that we have over 100 employees on two continents, we’ve also created an anti-procrastination culture.
When procrastination fuels creativity
While avoiding your tasks can have tough consequences, not all procrastination is created equal.
In a 2016 New York Times article, management and psychology professor Adam Grant shares an experiment conducted by a former student, Jihae Shin.
When independent evaluators rated the business ideas, the procrastinators’ plans were 28 percent more creative.
“When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity,” writes Grant. “It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.”
The line between idle and inspired
So, how do you know the difference between a reasonable, creativity-inducing delay and destructive procrastination?
In an article for The Atlantic, author Derek Thompson says our emotions hold the key. He points to the work of psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, and explains that we procrastinate for two reasons:
We make familiar excuses, like “I’ll have this piece of pie now and work extra hard at the gym tomorrow.” The cycle continues and we end up in “The Procrastination Doom Loop.”
It’s not always easy to differentiate between a healthy step back and classic avoidance, but I agree that it requires an emotional check-in.
I like to ask myself and my team why we’re waiting — to finish a task, make a decision, or tackle a problem — and if that delay will truly serve us.
I’m also a big proponent of stability. You can’t dodge procrastination loopholes if you’re always fighting fires, both in your work and your personal life.
For example, if the server is always going down, try to solve the root cause. Don’t keep fixing the same issue. Create relaxed, repeatable and sane systems that actually support you.
How our team stays productive and happy
At JotForm, our staff work in small, cross-functional teams. Every group is empowered to make and execute their own decisions. They have space and independence.
1. Crush indecision and unknowns
2. Collaborate in real time
3. Break it down
4. Slash bureaucracy
5. Plan a team push
6. Harness momentum
7. Show your work
8. Make projects visible
Systems that help me squash procrastination
1. Separate work and play
2. Do the toughest task first
3. Enjoy the rewards
4. Set time limits
5. Follow a strict order
I always answer my oldest emails first. I never skip around. It forces me to tackle issues and questions right away, instead of saving them for later. You can also try the Seinfeld Strategy to develop an unbroken chain of daily effort.
These anti-procrastination tactics might not be earth-shattering, but they work for me — which is the most important tip of all.
Experiment on yourself. Try different approaches and see what works best.
Remember that procrastination is natural and human, so don’t beat yourself up when you slip into the doom loop.
Just pick yourself up, shake off the fog, and think about how to serve your Future Self.