Cousin Ed was a big man. I mean, a big man. He and my father had barely known each other growing up, but had reconnected years later when Ed began working on a nearby Air Force base. Ed was the kind of man that got things done, and in that respect, he and my father could not have been more different. My father made list after list of things to do, and little ever got crossed off. When Ed came over he’d pull the list off the fridge with a grin, and look at my father, one of his eyelids sagging in a permanent half-wink, and grin like a schoolboy before getting to work.
Whenever Ed asked him if a certain project was done yet, my father would reply that he would get it done when he could “get around to it”. One birthday, after years of this broken record of an exchange, a Hallmark card showed up for my father from none other than Cousin Ed, and the inside was labeled in large letters “Round Tuit”. He said that he was officially sending my father the “round tuit” he had been waiting for all these years in order to get started on his projects.
Now, my father was by no means a lazy man. In fact he worked 60 hours+ a week for years running his own freelance writing business. But what is it about some tasks that makes us procrastinate? Why do we delay something we have taken the time to write down in order to remember to do it?
The Science of Procrastination
According to a report from the BBC, our brains have two areas that activate at different times depending on what activities we engage in. One is the attention network and the other is the default network. These networks are neural pathways within the brain. Think of them as a connection of way stations that serve as a railroad track between areas of the brain or your nervous system. For example, when you are playing the board game Operation with your five year old niece and trying with all your might to stop your hand from shaking as you remove the Butterflies in Cavity Sam’s stomach, and your little monster of a relative is barely suppressing an evil cackle, excitedly longing for that annoying buzzer to blow up in your face, your attention network is on high alert.
What people who have trouble with focus find is that their brains tend to drift into default state more easily, taking them away from the task at hand. This means they are not only more likely to stop mid project (not start at all), but are also much more prone to making mistakes while working, particularly if the work is not interesting to them. In one test, researchers occasionally interspersed female faces among a long and steady line of male visages. Testers were told to hit the space bar every time a face appeared except when it was a female face. Those with high mistake rates were the ones who struggled to activate and keep their attention systems engaged. But, if you think this may be you and are already feeling discouraged, simply turn it around and claim that you have a neural default system to rival the strength of The Mountain from Game of Thrones. Now that’s something to be proud of!
The Path Through Procrastination: Grit?
On the other side of the procrastination coin, is what Angela Duckworth has simply termed “Grit”. In her book of the same title, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and on her website, Duckworth defines the word as “…the tendency to sustain interest and effort toward very long term goals,” she delves into research that shows how this measure of “stick-to-it-iveness” outperforms IQ, test scores, physical well-being, and a host of other markers across industries to indicate who will and who will not be successful. Personally, I like to call this the “ability to get shit done”, but hey, Angela is the one who wrote the book.
In a book review in the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz breaks down the importance of grit into a simple math equation (don’t close the browser just yet, even my useless brain could grasp this one). If achievement of some sort is your goal, whether that is in a professional career or personal passion, then the formula looks like this:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
If you agree with this formula, which looks reasonable enough, then you will notice that effort (grit, in a sense) counts twice. Shulevitz goes on to argue that this is what makes the high achiever’s in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers capable of practicing for those interminable 10,000 hours. That’s why grit is more indicative of success. It’s simply a tool we need to pull more often from our toolbelts.
How to Keep Track of Your “Round Tuit”
I can hear you mumbling under your breath, “Okay, so my brain is different? I wasn’t born with the trait of hard work that some social psychologist re-branded and used to sell books? I just need to work harder? Thanks for the insight. Earth-shattering, no really it is.”
But wait, hold on, please. Just a moment before you go. There are practical solutions. You know that brain wandering referenced above? The tendency of the default system to overrule your attention system? There is a practice that can help with that, and it’s been around for thousands of years. It’s called mindfulness training, and one of its greatest benefits is simply that it teaches its practitioners how to live in the now, and train the wandering mind to wander a little bit less. Ignore Silicon Valley’s obsession and the Instagram posts about meditation and Matcha lattes and instead look at the research. It’s impressive.
And what about grit? Duckworth says simply to find something you already have interest in, practice at it a lot, and (most importantly) make a connection in your brain between this work and how it can improve the world. This higher purpose can help keep you both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. Your practice here will train your ability to set a task and achieve it, which will bleed into the rest of your life.
And if all this fails or sounds too difficult, there is always the blue collar approach. Find a smart-ass, hardworking family member to write the words “Round Tuit” on an over-stylized, five dollar greeting card, or legal pad paper, or any scrap of trash and just keep it in your pocket. When you realize you are procrastinating, simply pull it out, stand it up on your desk in a place of honor, and get to work.