There’s a lot of ways to procrastinate. Extra pushes of the snooze button, the final cram session before an exam, waiting until midlife to pick a career. Maybe you’re procrastinating right now.
I used to believe most of this was just inertia. With a push, you could start rolling and finish the work with less effort. Procrastination was just temporary laziness.
Now I’m not so sure.
Consider chronic procrastination. These are the projects you drag your feet on regardless of how many pushes you get. Inertia can’t be the core problem here.
But if action isn’t the cure for procrastination, what is?
“Just Do It” Culture and Distaste for Planning
We live in a culture that has taken Nike’s famous slogan to heart. Action is celebrated, planning is obsolete. The world changes too quickly for stuffy things like research, what we need are brave pioneers and risk takers to do the bold things overly-cautious people cannot.
The slogan has some merit, doing things is how things get done (even if tautologically so). If you want change, there must be some action to cause it.
By putting all the emphasis on momentum, however, we might ignore other more fruitful approaches. Instead of pushing on a locked door, why not spend some time to find a key first?
Conversations with fellow blogger Cal Newport clued me in on this possibility. Cal’s philosophy contradicts much of the just-do-it approach. He researches exhaustively before starting. Despite this slowness, he’s hardly a non-starter—he is currently working on his fifth book.
Obsessive Research (Or How Not to Procrastinate on Hard Things)
Analysis paralysis was a buzzword of a self-help era with audio cassettes and three-day seminars. The idea was that spending too much time thinking about an idea would stall action. At some point, you just need to stop thinking and just do it.
Now I believe that this is almost entirely true: thinking excessively about something can lead to inaction. But I’m not being self-contradictory, I’m saying this because researching a goal isn’t the same as thinking about it.
Research isn’t pondering. Researching is an activity to gather more information. Here are some research activities which are certainly a lot more than day-dreaming:
- Reading at least a dozen books on the subject.
- Creating an experimental prototype.
- Interviewing several experts.
- Doing a pilot project, as a proof of concept.
It’s important to note that none of these are the same as starting in full force. A pilot or prototype is purposely reduced in scope or quality. The purpose isn’t to build something to get started, but to learn what works in the project itself.
Research like this has a major advantage over actually doing the project. Because its entire purpose is as an information probe, there is no possibility of failure. As much as we try to laud failure as progress, nobody acts that way—failures still sting. Research allows us to gather information before we’ve put any of our ego or commitment on the line.
Why Research Kills Chronic Procrastination
A big cause of chronic procrastination is uncertainty. You don’t start that ambitious project, not because you lack momentum, but because you don’t know enough. Research fixes that in an obvious way, replacing ignorance with impetus.
Uncertainty also hits as a general malaise. Students I work with often have chronic procrastination issues. Research can help here too: more information can either give them more reasons to be excited to move forward, or it can give them the acute reasons they need to make a change immediately.
Obsessive research helps beyond minimizing uncertainty however. Even with projects where uncertainty can’t be reduced, the power of obsessive research is that it builds commitment. The more you research, the more invested you become in starting, so that when you do, you’re far less likely to back out on a whim.
I researched obsessively before doing my MIT Challenge, and I think it was a big part of the reason I didn’t give up, even when the subjects were often difficult. Now I’m preparing for another mega project, and I already see how doing preparation and research is escalating my commitment.
Where Does This Method Work?
Like all advice, I don’t believe obsessive research has universal applicability, but I do think there are a range of situations it is well suited for, and still more where it might work.
First, obsessive research is helpful where you feel a lot of uncertainty or doubt. Human psychology is peculiar in that, even if a project appears more difficult than you had assumed, this is still more motivating than lacking any information.
Second, research can help with projects which fail due to lack of commitment. Regular people like to poke fun at those who set resolutions to get in shape each January, but I feel sorry for the people who have given up on setting any goals because they know they can’t commit to them.
Finally, I think research can also be useful in some cases where chronic procrastination is due to unexciting prospects. Many students or employees are stuck in this demotivating trap. Research can help either to find exciting opportunities, or at least to get the pressure to pull the kill switch and make a change.