The Art of Doing
Last month I stared long and hard at the Skype call with my French Grandma. We both smiled politely and nodded awkwardly a lot. At which point, I promised myself I'd make an effort to learn a little more French so we could talk properly. The problem is, I made the same promise the month before... and the month before that. Then I realised what the real issue was and I had an epiphany. I'd write an article on ‘procrastination’ and I gave myself a week to finish it.
The truth is though, I could have given myself a month or a day because the results would have been the same. I'm going to watch Netflix, learn to play the violin and climb several ranks on Elite Dangerous before, with two hours to go, on my self-imposed deadline, The Panic Monster finally wrestles control of my brain back from the Instant Gratification Monkey and I can get things done.
We'll get to all of these guys later, but for now, you've probably realised I am talking about procrastination and more importantly the psychology of motivation and how we can stop procrastinating.
What is procrastination and what does procrastination mean in our daily lives?
Simply put, it is an invisible force which prevents us from carrying out tasks in a timely order. Procrastination affects everyone, but often at different levels. Some of us are great at spreading the workload – once a language goal is set – while the rest of us are too easily seduced by the lure of YouTube, cleaning the fridge or any one of a million other tasks or chores to distract us from doing what we're supposed to be doing. Once we start to deviate from our goal it's often hard to stop. Procrastinating once in full tilt is a difficult habit to break.
Procrastination can be a big problem for learners because it can make the act of learning seem like a chore. Any task that has elements like home work, study time, or practice can fall foul of procrastination and that's why as a language learner it's a good idea to get a handle on it.
I mentioned the Panic Monster and the Instant Gratification Monkey above. These two constructs are the invention of Tim Urban, a self-styled anti-procrastination guru and author of the blog Wait But Why. Tim explains these characters and a good deal more in his epic TED Talk Inside The Mind of a Master Procrastinator. I'll put a link at the end because it's worth a watch, but for now, I'll discuss the key takeaways.
The first and most important character in Tim's talk is the Rational Decision Maker. This is us, we're in charge and we know where we're going and how to get there. Unfortunately for us we also have a passenger. This charming creature is Tim Urban's Instant Gratification Monkey. It's a problem because despite only enjoying things which are quick and easy, once the Monkey gets an idea in its head, he's hard to avoid. The Instant Gratification Monkey loves TV, windows, video games, random magazines, and just about anything that can get in the way of getting stuff done. He has only one enemy, the Panic Monster.
The Panic Monster is Batman to the Monkey's Joker. He's an arch rival and the only thing that terrifies the Monkey. Sadly for us, the Panic Monster only ever shows up when a deadline is looming and when the danger of failing is very close.
Now as Tim points out, there are times when the Rational Decision-Maker and the Instant Gratification Monkey are in agreement. Life isn't all business after all and there are times when we want to do nothing more than have some fun. The problem is, fun is all the monkey wants and when we need to get things done there is going to be a conflict. We asked the question what does procrastination mean above and there are a number of answers, but perhaps the simplest is this. Procrastination is your mind's way of avoiding the future.
To illustrate this Urban leveraged a psychological tool known as the Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix breaks tasks down into four categories and places each of these tasks into a different quadrants.
The minds of procrastinators tend to spend too long in the wrong segments or as Tim puts it, they have a different kind of Matrix. Tim has his own version, but I've taken his idea and run with it.
As you can see from our very scientific document, the procrastinator tends to spend time in Quadrants three and four and will only be driven into Quadrants one and two if they have no other option.
This is the problem faced by all procrastinators. We are essentially delaying the task we have in front of us so we can get instant victories or avoid failing altogether... that is until it's too late.
When it comes to learning a language the procrastinator is in double jeopardy because there may not even be a deadline to wake our Panic Monsters and set us back on course. To learn a language is a great achievement and we must not allow ourselves to be swayed from the path by simple distraction itself. Too often later in life we rekindle a dream or a thought that we had in our youth. Plans like taking up the guitar or learning Spanish reappear only to remind us that procrastination has robbed us of a life goal. We must be careful not to give in to procrastination. We have to be careful when we drop a project and ask ourselves if we had a real reason to stop. Procrastination, as the English poet Edward Young once said, is the thief of time.
How to stop procrastinating
Failure is an option... (but this doesn't mean quitting)
Overcoming our procrastination is often as simple as overcoming our anxiety of the task. Simply put, we fear failure so we put off the task until we have no choice but to attempt it, by which time we have less chance of success. We are in essence our own nemesis. The key to overcoming that fear is looking at that future. We know it's going to happen, there is a logical chain of events. We either leave it too late or we take our time and get it right. We know there is no other way and by facing our fears we increase our chances of success. It's also important to take away the fear of failure.
Failing is just another part of our journey and if we don't succeed in our first attempt we'll be closer to achieving our goal on the second run. After all what is procrastination, but another hurdle we all have to jump. For language learners this is particularly important. Even if you don't make it all the way the first time, no time spent learning is ever wasted. Every word, every step, every conversation is a little win and I'll talk more about those in a second.
Little successes appeal to our innate Monkeys. Rather than risk everything by setting yourself harder and harder goals, make the journey easier and take your time. They're clichés, but “slow and steady wins the race” and let's not forget “softly softly catchy monkey”. Instead of setting a five word a day vocab challenge, start with one or two. Once you find yourself gaining momentum, then raise the bar back to five word a day vocab – and then more! When learning a language online we must be careful not to stray towards another website and we must learn when to stop. Procrastination can cost you dearly if you let it in, but not even the Instant Gratification Monkey can get in the way of small steps and like all steps, they will add up.
Now you know what the Monkey wants, make it wait for its reward. Set a challenge and stick to it. You can still have the Game of Thrones marathon, make that model plane or practice your flute, but make yourself earn it. Rewards which are harder fought will be more rewarding and remember, at the end of the exercise will be that glorious moment when you're sitting in a sun drenched square two thousand miles from homes just soaking up the atmosphere and taking in the conversation. Don't let the monkey steal your moment.
Give yourself a break
One of the key triggers for procrastinating is guilt, which is exactly what you get when you procrastinate. It's a pitiless cycle that feeds itself. Stop being so hard on yourself, we all fall by the road side sometimes and it's easy to make yourself a martyr. If you can forgive yourself for straying, you might prevent the next attack. Before you know it, you'll be on target and on top of the world.
Eyes on the prize
Never allow procrastination to distract you from your end goal. Learning a language will open doors half a planet away and enrich your life in ways you haven't even begun to fathom yet. Procrastination is just another hurdle and one which you can easily climb. So when you're looking at your course work and you feel the lure of Facebook, remember what's at stake. Every time you resist the urge to look at a cat video or work out your Jedi name is a step closer to your dream of embracing another culture. Envision the friends you'll make, the jobs you could have and most of all... think of the adventures that await you.
On your side
At italki, we can empathize with the plight of the procrastinator, because we've been there. We've been putting language teachers in touch with language learners for many years and we know all about getting stuff done. Watch out for more blogs, guides and binge-worthy content, but don't let them get in the way of your end goal.
Thanks for listening and here's that Tim Urban link we promised. (Before you click through though...isn't about time you booked your first/next lesson?)
Oh, and remember it's only polite to share.