We’re all familiar with the costs associated with procrastination: the stress of feeling behind, the panic of last-minute effort, the regret of missing deadlines.
But there’s another cost I want you to consider: the thinking cost.
Very often, the cost of procrastination is excessive thinking about the task.
For example, if you procrastinate on a minor household task, like putting something away, it probably doesn’t cost you much inconvenience day-to-day. That’s why it so easy to procrastinate. But you do think about it every time you see it. Every time you notice that thing you haven’t put away, you think to yourself, “Ugh. I should put that away.” And then you proceed to justify why now is not the right time to do so. After a few days, you’ve paid the thinking cost a dozen times or more.
Let’s say that putting the item away would take one minute, and that every time you notice it, you spend 30 seconds thinking about it. After a dozen notices, you’ve wasted six minutes just thinking about the task, and it’s still not done.
The thinking cost adds an unnecessary distraction to our already-distraction-filled lives.
How much of your day do you spend distracted by thoughts of unfinished tasks? Do you notice how it interrupts important work and deep thinking?
If you’ve been finding it difficult to focus, remember things, or solve problems, the thinking cost could be to blame.
Do you notice how thinking about unfished tasks draws your mind away from the present moment during social interaction, recreation, and relaxation?
If you’ve been having difficulty enjoying yourself during downtime, the thinking cost might be part of the reason.
Oh, and if you’re naturally prone to distractibility – if you have difficulty focusing in general – then eliminating the thinking cost is doubly important.
One specific way this sort of distraction harms you is by diminishing your creativity. It does this in two ways.
First, while you’re actively working on a creative project, noticing or remembering the little chores you haven’t done yet distracts you from the task at hand. It’s harder to maintain focus on whatever creative endeavor you’re working on when, out of the corner of your eye (or your mind’s eye), you keep seeing a messy kitchen, a full garbage can, or an unprocessed stack of mail.
Second, while you’re not actively working your creative project, your unconscious mind might still be chipping away at it in the background.1 These unconscious efforts occasionally bring forth insights when you least expect them, and they routinely help you produce better work during your next session of focused work.1,2 But if you’ve procrastinated on a minor chore, your mind might be thinking about that unfinished task rather than your creative work, reducing your likelihood of having an insight.
Creativity is not a fixed trait, and reducing the thinking cost is one simple way we can all become more creative. By getting the little things done right away, we increase our ability to do dive deeply into our creative work, and we increase our odds of having insights about that work when we’re disengaged from it.
For instance, I just took out the garbage, which involves a short walk around the building to the dumpster. While I was doing so, I found myself thinking about the fact that my apartment needs vacuuming. Although I could easily wait a few more days to vacuum my apartment and suffer no ill-effects, it occurred to me that I would prefer that my brain be thinking about more important things while I walked outside to the dumpster and back. I’m writing blogs and classes, which are creative projects for which I need insights. I’ll be much more likely to generate good ideas if I’m not distracted by thoughts of chores.*
Alternatively, I would love for my brain to have enjoyed a few moments of rest while I was taking out the garbage. It is, after all, a very easy activity that could offer my busy mind some precious downtime. But because I was thinking about unfinished chores, I lost this opportunity for rest and recovery. It wasn’t a large opportunity, but everything counts.
I don’t believe in the advice that we should “reduce stress” in our lives because I don’t think that’s a realistic request. But I do think we need to increase real recovery by creating and utilizing moments of true downtime. And we’ll be more likely to have such moments if we’re not constantly thinking about unfinished tasks.
Another part of the thinking cost is guilt.
When I think about a task I’m putting off, it not only occupies my mind, it also makes me feel slightly worse about myself. Even if I’ve done a very good job convincing myself that now is not the right time to do the work, on some level I still feel like I should be doing it. I might even feel like there’s something wrong with me. Why can’t I just find the motivation? Why am I so lazy?
Every time I procrastinate, self-perception causes me to feel less and less like an active agent. I see myself failing to take action, and that has a negative impact on my self-image. I want to live up to my chosen identity as a person who takes action even when he doesn’t feel like it, so when I procrastinate, I’m not living in integrity, and that doesn’t feel good.
Procrastination research involving fMRI brain imaging shows that when we think about the task we’re putting off, the pain center of the brain becomes active.2 It’s uncomfortable to think about the thing we’re procrastinating on. So the thinking cost also involves a small amount of pain. This pain could be guilt, as described above, or it could be dread, which is often unfounded.
We’ve all had the experience of putting off a task because we imagine that it’s going to be awful, only to finally do the task and discover that it wasn’t nearly as bad as we had thought. This, too, was found in the fMRI study: The pain of procrastination goes away shortly after starting the work.2
There is a commonly recommended practice for to-do lists: If something only takes two minutes to complete, and you can complete it right now, don’t write it on your to-do list, just do it right now. It takes more time and mental energy to write it down and look at it again and again until it’s crossed off than it does to just do it right now. And, either way, you’ll still have to pay the cost of doing it.
We can’t control the cost of doing the task – the work is the work – but we can control the thinking cost. The cost of action will only be paid once, either now or later. But we if choose procrastination, the thinking cost will paid many times over by our future selves.
If we put the task off over and over again, we’ll pay a very high thinking cost. But if we get it done immediately, we reduce the thinking cost – and the pain associated with it – to zero.
Taking immediate action frees up mental energy by lightening your cognitive load. This makes it easier to focus on other things you have to do, making them easier. Plus, while you’re taking action, your brain will observe you taking action and decide that you’re the kind of person who gets things done. This also makes it easier to continue working, and it makes you feel better about yourself.
Therefore, getting one thing done makes you less likely to procrastinate on the next thing. Taking care of small tasks as soon as you notice them establishes a productive momentum to your day and, done regularly, to your life.
You can choose not to pay.
I’ve spent my whole life paying the thinking cost without realizing it. Worse, I’ve spent my whole life choosing to pay the thinking cost without even realizing that I was making a choice.
Awareness is the first step. Start to notice the thinking cost, and when you find yourself paying it, consider what choices led you there. Do that, and you’ll stand a better chance of choosing a different path next time.
Because procrastination is optional, the thinking cost is optional. You can choose not to pay.
* Yes, this story does involve an insight coming to me be because I had an unfinished task, but this is the exception, not the norm.
1 Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books, 2010.
2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/young-woman-girl-lady-female-work-791849/. Text added.
Dog: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/boxer-dog-lazy-animal-boxer-dog-1562522/.