There is much being said about how creating habits is the key to stopping procrastination, but Dr Rebecca Stafford, who has a Ph.D. in Health Psychology and has just written a book, The 21-Day Myth, disagrees with the idea that if you simply do something over a number of days, it will create a habit and end procrastination.
The 21-Day Myth is based around the idea that if you do something daily, it becomes a habit in 21 days. She also mentions the 66-day myth — which is the same idea, but it claims 66 days.
Stafford rather focuses on the difference between workaholism and occupational productivity.
"Workaholism is just fancy procrastination — as is perfectionism. It's just that workaholism is easier to disguise as a virtue."
She says regular procrastination is doing anything other than your work.
"With workaholism you're focusing on minor things. People with workaholism tend to do a lot but they also work ineffectively. They work on the less important, low priority tasks. So they tend to be digging a hole fast in the wrong place.
This is often seen as a virtue — people will boast of working long hours and how stressed they are.
"Workaholics have their self worth attached to being busy and stressed and working. Our self worth is a belief on how worthy we are to be loved and accepted. They only feel of value if they are busy."
She says that it doesn't help to ask a workaholic to relax. They can't. If they're not working, they've been stripped of their self worth. If they're not working, they feel they're not worthy of acceptance. It's a real psychological terror. Our brain can't see the difference between deadlines and sabre tooth tigers.
"In terms of an organisation, if the managers of a company are workaholics then that will be the culture of the organisation — so good luck. It's no use telling the employees to take breaks if management is not.
"The definition of national productivity is GDP v hours worked. This is why New Zealand has really low productivity. We work long hours inefficiently. It's because we have an inefficient work culture."
Stafford says that one way of working with workaholics is to give them the logical explanation: the German occupational culture expects people to work fewer hours, they take their sick leave. When they are at work they're working efficiently and effectively.
"Workaholism kind of works but it's not sustainable. It leads to burn out. It's tied in with workplace bullying and our awful mental health issues in this country.
So workaholics prioritise urgent, less important tasks — they tend to ignore large projects until they become urgent.
"For example, most people when they come to work in the morning check emails. This is not a good thing of course — it's the day hijacked from the start."
She says that for most people the start of the day is the most productive time. "Checking emails is not a good use of our time. Also, a lot of problems resolve themselves. If you respond immediately to emails it generates a whole lot of more responses. Generally you get caught up with unnecessary conversation. We also have a sense of urgency around this.
Here we are using our most productive time of day in an unproductive way and rejecting our more important work until it becomes critically urgent."
Stafford says that the way around this is scheduling. There is of course a part of us that wants to check emails straight away. The most motivating rewards are immediate. Behaviours that get rewarded get repeated.
Responses from emails can feel like rewards even though we complain about them. Even though emails can feel overwhelming, they give an immediate hit in the way a long-term project does not.
Reverse this through scheduling. First thing in the morning schedule an amount of time for your important work rather than checking emails straight away.
She warns: "Also don't punish yourself in advance by telling yourself how much you want to avoid doing the work. Just tell yourself you'll work on it for 20 minutes. Give yourself a reward afterwards rather than telling yourself: "Oh, I should have done it earlier, I left it too long." What we're doing there is punishing our efforts. We need to reward our efforts.
"If we punish our efforts it makes it harder to start again — whipping ourselves along works in an inefficient way and makes us sick."
Stafford says: "We have a cultural misunderstanding of motivation. Whipping ourselves along makes us exhausted, then we whip ourselves more — we're in a punitive, shame-based culture. We don't know any other way of doing it.
Practical tips: Schedule in the less urgent, important work. Reward yourself (even if it's with a piece of chocolate) afterwards, and watch your self-talk.
●The 21-Day Myth is due to be released this month.