Why We Procrastinate On Simple Things


This article was written by Erik van Mechelen. Content is based on a video on from Yu-kai Chou

Our Friend, Procrastination

We’ve all been there. You need to write an important email to a friend, client or investor. But you do other things instead.

Even if that email is simple or short, you might defer it and make progress on other tasks. You probably procrastinate because that email is important.

How could something so simple as an email throw us off? Let’s look at why you might be procrastinating on important things, even if they should be simple.

Anti Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance

Check out this post on Anti Core Drives if you haven’t heard the concept before.

Generally speaking, Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance motivates you to take a Desired Action for fear of losing something or to actively avoid a consequence. The flip side is the Anti Core Drive. For the Anti Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, the feeling of avoidance motivates you away from the Desired Action. In this case, procrastination occurs.

Accomplishing Something Else

Often, our procrastination comes in the form of doing something else (vs doing nothing). Through Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment, our anxiety is lifted. We feel progress in the chosen task.

Yu-kai rightly points out that instead of tackling the procrastination task, we often choose to do even more demanding tasks (in terms of effort and time). The avoidance of the procrastination task stems either from an attached emotional weight or financial value, or both.

Conveniently (for the part of your brain eager to begin procrastinating), other tasks are also usually more urgent. From an Octalysis standpoint, these tasks probably include one of Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience, Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity, or Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance (the Black Hat region).

Black Hat vs White Hat: A Review

Black Hat drives urgency. But if we only use Black Hat design, we will burn out.

Consider your high school or university studies ahead of a major exam. For extended periods we can put ourselves in high levels of concentration through scarcity and avoidance (top grades are hard to get; avoiding getting bad grades). But all-night study sessions have their limits in the long-term. Eventually, everyone burns out.

Instead, a blend of Black Hat and White Hat design can defeat procrastination.

How Yu-kai Completed Actionable Gamification (his book)

Early on, Yu-kai tried using Black Hat design to overcome procrastination on his book, Actionable Gamification. The problem wasn’t in desiring to write it, but in allocating his attention to it.

Whenever Yu-kai took a break from important client work, he knew he should work on his book. But he wanted a break, so he’d play a video game or check a few client emails. But then he’d get caught up in those tasks.

Trying Black Hat Design

So he tried Black Hat. In his upcoming workshop marketing materials, Yu-kai added a reward of receiving a signed copy of his book, Actionable Gamification. If Yu-kai didn’t finish the book, he’d disappoint his workshop attendees. So, Black Hat design was underway.

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance (avoidance of disappointing workshop attendees) kept Yu-kai writing 4, 5, and sometimes 6 hours in a day leading up to the workshop. But with 2 months to go, Yu-kai realized he wasn’t going to make it. He still needed to improve, edit, and publish the book.

Yu-kai’s Octalysis had predicted the outcome of not finishing the book. Yu-kai got burned out.

He told attendees he was sorry and promised they would get the book, but a little later than expected.

Enter White Hat Design

The switch to White Hat design helped Yu-kai finish his book.

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback was at the heart of the design. CD3 is both White Hat and Right Brain-Intrinsice. Whenever Yu-kai took a break from client work, he decided to read the last paragraph of his previous writing. This energized him and filled him with ideas of what to write next. Then he’d get to work. Sometimes an hour or two would pass before he realized he needed to get back to client work.

Let’s look closely at this.

We know from the getting things done movement and from B. J. Foggs work on tiny habits that cognitive ease is really important for getting into a productive mode.

Yu-kai made these one or two-hour writing sessions easy by simply reading the last paragraph of his writing. Then creativity and the feedback of reviewing his own previous thoughts on paper launched him into the next session.

An even easier approach. Don’t think about writing Chapter 3. Too esoteric. Instead, start by opening the laptop. Don’t do 20 pushups. Do 2. In the language of B. J. Foggs, behavior is just motivation plus ability and a trigger. Yu-kai used finishing his client work (and needing a break) as a trigger to read the last paragraph of writing. And the rest is history. He finished the book and it has helped numerous designers and businesses since.

Applying White Hat to Your Own Design

What have you procrastinated on already today? Maybe it’s been something you’ve been procrastinating on for even longer.

We can learn a lot from Yu-kai’s experience completing his book, but the one takeaway is to consider how to input very small, cognitively easy steps into the opening of a task you are procrastinating on.

Do one thing. One small thing. If what you’re working on is intrinsically motivating, the rest will take care of itself.

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