Don’t be a procrastinating donkey!

There’s a parable of sorts, a metaphor maybe, about a donkey. The donkey in the tale is stuck. He is both ravaged with thirst and famished with hunger and he is equidistant between the water trough and the hay bale. The donkey in this tale of woe was proposed by Jean de Buridan, and is indeed named after him – the Buridan Donkey. He proposes that, disabled by indecision, the donkey becomes stuck and doesn’t know whether to satiate his hunger or quench his thirst. As a consequence, he dies. Stuck between a rock and a hard place!

It has amazed me, in a really positive way, how during lockdown many people have taken up exercise. The streets around where we live are positively strewn with people who I’ve never seen out running, cycling, or walking before. We walk the dog several times a day and I run regularly so you get used to the faces and lots of these faces are new. Turns out all it took was a pandemic, a lock down, and a suggestion from the Prime Minister (…well he has to be good for something!) to motivate people to get out and exercise. It’s great! If only someone had nudged the donkey one way or the other (probably towards the water first!) the donkey would still be alive. (Disclaimer: to my knowledge no real donkeys were harmed during this thought experiment!)

How many times is it like that for us? We want to get on with something, yet we don’t, we procrastinate. We find other things to do. Easier things. We talk about this in our recently published book How to Thrive in Professional Practice. Here’s an excerpt that talks about this idea from the chapter on motivation:

Steel (in Levitin, 2015 ) says we procrastinate because, in the moment, we have a low tolerance for frustration – so if something appears difficult, we will tend to put it off. When we do initiate a task, we tend to choose the easiest tasks rather than the ones that will give us the greatest reward in the long term. He suggests that there are two problems with the human mind. First, we think life should be easy, so we have a tendency to put off difficult things and, second, our self- worth is bound up in our success. If something looks like it is going to be difficult and there’s a risk we might not do it well then we put off doing it. There’s an obvious link here to Deci and Ryan’s idea of mastery that we’ve just considered.
(Mordue et al, 2020, pg. 127)
…..always wanted to do that! First time I have! Yay!

Picking up where that paragraph leaves off Deci and Ryan are talking about achieving flow, and the three things they say we need to achieve flow are Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. When we don’t have these things we may not be able to get into flow or even get started with the task to hand and will procrastinate and put the task off. “You may delay, but time will not”, as Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said.

So, what can you do….

There’s more in the book 😉 [Buy your copy here!]

The key points are:

If Mastery is the issue, if you feel unable to complete the task then seek advice. Don’t put off. Go to someone who can help you. It seems simple but we don’t do it because we don’t want to look incapable. But how more incapable do we look when we do a poor job. Go and ask someone. Then, be in control of your development. Explore what you need to do with others, ask for help, and figure out if you need some training.

If Autonomy is the problem, then explore where you do have control. Some things are outside of our control, but we still need to do them (more below under Purpose). Some things are completely under our control – do I do this now or later (see the same bit below under Purpose!). Some things are not fully under our control, but we have influence. The influence is where we have control. “Do I have to do this now or can I make a case that it would be better done at another time?” (See the same bit below under Purpose!!!) The secret, Stoic philosophy would tell us, is to focus on the bit you can control and as Massimo Pigliucci (in video presentation I watched recently on iai.tv) said “bet your happiness on those things”. We have no choice other than to take the stuff we don’t control just as it comes, because, well, we can’t control it. (Note: This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge the status quo…. That would fall under the category using our influence which is completely under our control… but it might not get you anywhere…. But don’t stop trying… in the meantime you have to accept it….)

If Purpose is the problem, then be aware it’s often a problem for us all. So, don’t beat yourself up. Our lazy brains (see Chapter 8 in the book for a layman’s summary, or ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman for a comprehensive view from the master!) like easy things so we don’t see the advantage of doing something right now that’s difficult that doesn’t need to be done right now. We prefer to do something easy. The problem is that if we don’t do those things that are due in the future, they eventually become due today, and we’re left manning the panic stations and feeling stressed. You need to accept that long term gains are more important that short term gains. Imagine it’s Monday and something is due on Friday, and you do it on Monday, and on Thursday your boss says, “don’t forget I need that report tomorrow”. And you say “yes, no problem”, because it’s done!! Of course, you don’t tell them it’s done… you play the office game. Because if you tell them it’s done then they’ll start giving you shorter timescales…. Ssshhhh just saying 😉

So, if you have the time, do it now.

Don’t put it off simply because it’s not due for a while. This, for me, is where I really started feeling in control of my work. If I had a due date, I set myself my own due date which was before the actual date and I aimed for that. And once I started getting things done in that way not much ever crept up on me.

There are other things you can do to help!

The “How to Eat an Elephant” idea of breaking down big tasks into smaller tasks

The 2-minute rule that gets small tasks done

….and others, that, you guessed it, we cover in the book 😉

Recommended Reading:

Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow

Massimo Pigliucci How to be a Stoic

Daniel Levitin The Organised Mind

And obviously!

Mordue, Watson, and Hunter How to Thrive in Professional Practice

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