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17. Why We Procrastinate


Procrastination isn't what you might think. Do you really not have the time to get that thing done, or is there something else getting in the way? In this episode, Christina Shenvi MD, PhD breaks down: why we procrastinate and how to break free of that habit, reframing 'business', value based scheduling, how she decides on responding yes or no, how to say no in a skillful yet honest manner, and techniques to keep up with email. If you want to go deeper into all of this in a small group setting, Dr. Shenvi has an online time management course in October 2020.




Guest Bio: Dr. Christina Shenvi MD, PhD is a fellowship trained geriatric emergency physician from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she is the director of the UNC Office of Academic Excellence. She's host of her own show, GEMCAST, focusing on clinical topics to help physicians, trainees, nurses, and paramedics who take care of older adults, particularly in the acute care setting.



We discuss:



Why “I’m too busy” implies that you have no control over your situation or what you’re doing [01:50];

  • We have agency over our time, so if overwhelmed we have no one to blame but ourselves. It is freeing to take ownership of your schedule.

  • We choose to “make time” for things that are important to us.

  • Try reframing your busyness by appreciating how amazing it is you get to do the things that you enjoy, rather than thinking of them as a burden.


Value-based scheduling, which means evaluating tasks to be sure they align with your big values [08:20];

  • Too often we get caught up in small details.

  • We can step back and question how every commitment is helping accomplish our personal mission statement.


Techniques for saying “no” when invited to do something that doesn’t excite you [11:40];

  • Look into a trade -- “If I agree to do it (ie. be on a committee), what other duty can I give up?”

  • Make a suggestion -- “I don’t have the bandwidth to do it, but I know someone else who would be great.”

  • Be honest -- Explain that you don’t have the time to give it the attention that it deserves.


Why procrastination at its core is more about emotions than productivity [18:00];

  • A New York Times article titled, “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)”, states: “people engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”.

  • Bottom line: we’re more likely to put off things around which we have negative emotions.

  • When procrastinating the things that are important becomes a pattern of behavior, it becomes maladaptive.


The determinants of self-worth: ability, effort, and performance [21:30];

  • Our self-worth is incredibly important to our ego and is something that we must protect as humans.

  • Self-worth is determined by our innate abilities which are demonstrated through our performance.

  • Abilities + effort → performance → self-worth

  • Failure threatens self-worth. So if we’re worried we’re going to fail at something, the tendency is to sever the tie between ability and performance. That way, poor performance won’t truly reflect ability.


Procrastination, and how it is one of many self-worth protection strategies [22:50];

  • Self-sabotage is one way we protect our self-worth. This includes procrastinating, withholding effort, and having ready excuses.

  • Studies show that high levels of shame result when people fail despite putting in a lot of effort. This shame is reduced by having ready excuses, by reducing effort, or a combination of the two.


Reasons for large activation barriers for getting certain things done [25:00];

  • Fear of failure is one reason for a big activation barrier.

  • Another is the avoidance of negative emotion.


Tips for avoiding procrastination and self-sabotage [28:30];

  • The first step is noticing what’s going on in your mind and the negative emotions associated with a task.

  • Cultivate curiosity about why you might be avoiding a project or activity.

  • Try to keep your focus on your efforts instead of on your abilities, and decouple your self-worth from the process.

  • Look at how the task aligns with your big values and mission.

  • Make temptations (ie. access to Netflix, or food in the pantry) inconvenient.

  • Focus on the immediate next step, especially if a project is huge and overwhelming. By breaking it down into micro-steps that on their own are doable, you can remove a lot of the emotional latency that you’ve piled onto the activation barrier.

  • Prepare to fail.


Why we have to have a certain amount of tolerance for failure in order to succeed [37:30];

  • If you never fail and always succeed, then you’re not trying difficult enough things.

  • Plan for and allow yourself to have failures. That’s how you will know that you’re living in a zone where you’re growing, expanding and learning.

  • If you have a tolerance for failure, then that lowers the activation barrier to all the things that you are/aren’t doing because you’re afraid of failure.


“If you have no tolerance for failure, you will not create anything new.” Brene brown

Ways to keep up with email (and other shallow work) [39:25];

  • Cal Newport teaches in his book that the goal is to maximize the amount of deep work that we do. An efficient email management system creates more time for deeper tasks.

  • Shenvi subscribes to the 5 D’s for handling her email inbox: Do, Delegate, Defer, Decline, and Delete.

  • Emails identified to be saved are categorized into folders and subfolders.

  • Whatever system you use, you have to trust it and know that the information is in a retrievable place.

  • The goal is not to have a perfect inbox. Instead, it is to be strategic about how you spend your time and to focus on the things that are most you are most passionate about and that are aligned with your big values.

And more.


Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD

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