Everybody feels the pain of procrastination – when you have an important, but not always urgent, task to do but instead that you decide to just take a ‘just one minute’ to check the football results, look at Facebook, make a cup of coffee, anything to avoid tackling the job in hand. And one hour later you’ve followed the click bait trail until you are checking out 50 Hollywood actresses that are hot after 50! Then as the day progresses you decide that you’re a little tired so will invest your remaining working hours in clearing your desk and dealing with a few emails in preparation for tomorrow; the day when everything happens. Not such a problem if you act out this scenario from time to time but for the chronic procrastinator this is a daily occurrence which can, with no exaggeration, lead to a wasted life of tomorrows that never come.
In his incisive and amusing TED Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban, calls these ‘easy and fun’ diversionary tactics the Dark Playground. They are those things that are supposed to make us feel good but they don’t; because we know that we should be doing something else, plus we haven’t earned these “rewards” for doing what needs to be done so we feel a double pain. This is what Brian Johnson has termed ‘procrastipain’. Tim Urban jokes that we have two entities struggling for control of our brain – the ‘rational decision-maker’ who works for our long-term good and the ‘pleasure monkey’ who lives only for the moment. Oftentimes, extrinsic motivations, such as an impending deadline or a looming boss, help the rational decision-maker wrestle control of our brain from the pleasure monkey via Urban’s ‘panic monster’, and we move from the Dark Playground to productive work. Everybody has deadlines but not everybody has a boss. So which groups are most vulnerable to the pain of procrastination? In my humble opinion, higher education students and the self-employed?
Ways of winning the daily duel
As somebody who has spent many years in both categories, I think I know a bit about procrastination and over time I have discovered a number of ways to win my daily duels with that pesky pleasure monkey: Goal-setting including daily and weekly mini goals; David Allen’s two-minute rule – if it takes less than two minutes just do it; the Pomodoro Technique – set your timer for 20-25 minutes, get started and allow motivation to flow from action; becoming more attached to the process (the now) rather than to outcomes (the future and never entirely controllable results of the process), accepting the fact that I cannot multitask, etc. Most of the tools in my toolbox have been gleaned from others and if you suffer from procrastination like I do I would recommend you consult the references listed at the foot of this blog. But my go-to procrastination-busting tool is the WOOP-Tap, something that you won’t find in any text that I know of. I put it together a couple of years ago as a way of combining EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) or Tapping with the WOOP technique detailed by Gabriele Oettingen in her paradigm-shifting book Rethinking Positive Thinking. This new mind tool thus takes its place in the proud tradition of amalgamating two powerful entities to make something new and beautiful, alongside a lengthy list of notables including the teasmade, the sofabed and Brangelina.
The WOOP Strategy: Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions
Before I explain my WOOP-Tap, I will give some brief background on its components. First the WOOP. Gabriele Oettingen, a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, sought to test the widely-held notion that positive thinking leads to success. Unfortunately, and contrary to what you may read in countless self-help books, the research was unequivocal; if you only focus on the positive you are less likely to achieve your intended outcome – losing weight, becoming rich, meeting the man/woman of your dreams, etc., etc., etc. Read the book for the full details of why this is but, in a nutshell, your brain cannot distinguish imagination from reality so positive visualisations trick your brain into thinking that the outcome has already been achieved. So why do the work when you are in a blissed-out state?
These findings were a blow to Oettingen because she had hoped that her research would confirm the power of positive thinking. But here’s the good news. Oettingen developed a technique she called ‘mental contrasting’; visualising your objective and then immediately confronting these dreams with the realities standing in their way in order to “circumvent the calming effects of dreaming and mobilize dreams as a tool for prompting directed action.” Unlike pure positive thinking, mental contrasting did help people to reach their goals but with one important caveat. These goals had to be believable to those holding them. If not, the motivation levels of the mental contrasters fell below those of the dreamers. This is actually a good thing as it helps us to pursue realistic goals instead of forever chasing that crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The final piece in the WOOP jigsaw was provided by Peter M. Gollwitzer — a fellow Professor of Psychology at New York and Oettingen’s husband. His research findings indicated that if you added an “if-then” plan to the mental contrasting you further improved people’s power to attain their goals. The ‘if’ is the stimulus for action and the ‘then’ is the action: If my boss challenges me, then I will take a deep breath before responding; if I am tempted to look at Facebook when I should be working, then I will turn off the Internet; and my personal favourite, if I don’t feel like doing [insert task here], then I will just get started because I don’t need to have it all figured out in advance - ‘Just get Started’ mantra courtesy of Timothy Pychyl.
These implementation intentions when combined with mental contrasting became the WOOP Strategy: Wish, Objective, Obstacle and Plan.
- Wish: What you want to achieve. The size of the goal and the time period is not important; it can apply to a life time goal, the next task you wish to focus on or anything in between.
- Outcome: How this achievement will benefit you.
- Obstacle: The internal obstacle or obstacles that are standing in your way.
- Plan: What simple action you can take to implement your wish.
My typical WOOP goes like this:
- Wish: Start to write an introduction to the report on x,y,z.
- Outcome: Build-up of momentum and the generation of a feeling of satisfaction.
- Obstacle: Inertia and lack of momentum.
- Plan: Set my timer for 20 minutes and just get started.
So where does the tapping come in?
Well, I tap as I WOOP so for those of you who do not know, I will explain the basics of Tapping or Emotional Freedom Techniques.
Tapping or Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
Thanks to my wife Julie, who is a Certified EFT Practitioner, I learned the basics of Tapping and, before I discovered the WOOP, I had been using EFT for some time when I felt emotional blockages, large or small. Tapping your fingers on acupuncture points on the face and body calms the amygdala (the part of your brain that triggers your fight or flight response) and helps energy to flow freely throughout the body. Tapping has been shown to provide effective relief for a myriad of issues such as anxiety, depression, obesity, high blood pressure and chronic pain.
The classic EFT process involves tapping nine acupuncture points in turn and saying (aloud or to yourself) “even though I have this problem” [insert problem here], “I love and accept myself.” Following this ‘set up statement’, you come to name the problem, explore its root cause and find your own solutions while you are in a resourceful state, rather than sitting or lying passively. Tapping can be done on your own but it is better to work with a qualified therapist if you are a beginner or have complex issues to deal with. Tapping is easier to conceive of when watched rather than read about so I recommend that you consult the YouTube video linked to below for a clearer idea of what it is all about and how to do it.
Given that I knew a bit about tapping before I discovered WOOP, it seemed natural to combine the two. It is just a matter of tapping on the acupuncture points while articulating your wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. I generally do one tapping cycle of the nine acupuncture points for each letter of the WOOP but there are no hard and fast rules. My day to day WOOP-take about a minute but it will no doubt take a bit longer when you are starting out. Most of you would probably agree that tapping does looks pretty weird and it is probably not the sort of thing that you would be seen dead doing in the office. I’m lucky in that I work on my own in my garret so I do not have the ridicule of my colleagues to contend with. But for those of you who share a work environment, there are ways to WOOP-Tap in ‘stealth mode’. You can do it from the comfort of your chair, reciting your WOOP internally and tapping your thumb against each finger of one hand in turn (you have acupuncture points in your fingers). Not too obtrusive and, I think, equally effective. If even this is too embarrassing, you can WOOP-tap during a toilet break or do a session before you go to work. WOOP-Tapping is likely to work for a variety of conditions but I’ve mainly practiced it to banish procrastination so I am not qualified to comment on its wider applicability.
So, if you suffer from procrastipain try WOOP-Tapping. What have you got to lose?
Just get started, feel the satisfaction as the pleasure monkey surrenders control of your brain, and do it; again, and again and again…
David Allen (2002). Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Group.
Stephen Guise (2015). How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism. Selective Entertainment LLC.
Gabriele Oettingen (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current.
Timothy A. Pychyl (2013). Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. Tarcher.
Piers Steel (2012). The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Harper Perennial.