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How to Defeat Procrastination: the Proximity Principle

How to defeat procrastination with the proximity principle

Do you have a procrastination problem which you cannot defeat? Have you ever noticed a decrease in motivation towards the ending of some projects, while for others you cannot wait to finish? Every time you approach the finishing line, in some cases you procrastinate for days. Other times, instead, you are determined to end it as soon as possible.

Wouldn’t it be great to focus and stay motivated until the end of any of your tasks? With the right knowledge, you might be able to do so and defeat procrastination.

The Studies

In the past years, many human behavior studies spotted a common pattern in the habits of their subjects — the more they stayed close to each other, the more they were willing to connect.

Theodore Newcomb was the first psychologist to document this tendency. In his studies, he noticed how people that lived nearby had a strong tendency to build relationships.

Leon Festinger later resumed Theodore’s studies by analyzing the network of attractions in residential housing units and noticing how neighbors interact with each other. More importantly, he extended this behavioral pattern to the connection developed between a person and any other subject, concrete or abstract. A person could cultivate a strong relationship with a ring, for example, or even a task or project.

Today, we call this behavioral pattern the Proximity Principle. And even if it helps us build connections and relationships, it also obstacles us from finishing our tasks.

The Problem of the Proximity Principle

The difference between the lack of motivation towards some activities, and the ability to focus on others, depends on the amount of time you spend working on that specific task.

Due to the proximity principle, the more you stay in contact with a project or a task, the more you feel connected to it. But this makes it difficult to end because it would mean losing it. Falling in love with the process is a powerful tool when it deals with an idea, a purpose of life, but is extremely counterproductive when it deals with finite tasks in time.

The more you deal with a project and work on it, the more you feel connected and want it to continue endlessly. This is why some students start procrastinating when they only need a few exams to finish school. And this is also the reason you feel more motivated towards a task and less motivated towards others.

If a task lasts for too long, you fall in love with it and feel comfortable with it. Instead, if it lasts for a shorter time, you are not connected with it, so you are more eager to finish.

How does your proximity relationships work?

To analyze the relationship you build with your tasks, divide their duration into three main phases — the beginning, the developing, and the revisioning phase.

In the beginning phase, you will experience both motivation and fear of the unknown. Whatever the task is, it challenges you with freshness and beauty but threatens you with the possibility of failure.

In the developing phase, your fears will be way less compelling because your brain understood the challenge better, and the proximity you experienced made you connect with the challenge itself.

The last part, the ending phase, could be both a cage or a boost to your productivity, depending on the time you spent on the task and the relationship you built with it.

From the proximity principle point of view, this is what happens:

1 — Beginning phase

In the first phase, you are completely detached from the task. You have a glimpse of the hurdle you are about to approach, but you are not aware of the entity. You do not know if it will be easy or hard. Your curious attitudes make your motivation escalate, while the fear of the unknown makes you a little fearful.

In this phase, you will most probably procrastinate because of your insecurities, but once you start digging into the challenge, you will soon reach high levels of motivation that will make you proceed for hours.

Keep your fear under control.

2 — Developing Phase

The second phase can be divided into two other parts, depending on your relationship with the challenge.

The first part is best for productivity and motivation — it is what you ideally want to perpetuate. You feel motivated, full of energy, and the task is challenging enough to keep you interested but also quite comfortable. You are slowly falling in love with it.

The second part of this phase is problematic since you start attaching to the task and the challenge. You want your results to be perfect, without any errors, and the more you think about them, the more you get attached to the problem.

3 — Revisioning Phase

In the last phase, you reached some results, and the task nearly finished, but it still needs some revisioning to be perfect. For other people, it may seem ready, but you developed a relationship with that task, and you know better it will never be perfect. You could always make it better. So you keep procrastinating because you want to see it perfect. After all, you love the project itself.

As you can notice, the problem with long projects, or even interesting ones, is that you get attached to them, so it will be tricky to finish and abandon them after a while.

What if, instead of getting attached to a task, you remain cold? In this case, its ending will contrarily affect you. Instead of procrastinating, you will feel motivated because you are approaching the finishing line. So you could effectively use that motivation to drag on other projects or start new ones feeling less fearful.

But first, let’s see how to prevent and solve the proximity principle problem.

How to Defeat Procrastination

If you ever got attached to a person, you know it is hard to forget it, and the process needs time. So, before getting yourself into trouble, act to prevent it. The first step you have to take is to understand what task you are dealing with before starting it. Therefore, divide each of your tasks into four categories: short, long, simple, and complex.

These categories are customizable, and you can choose which to consider short and which are your long tasks. If you never thought about it, you could count short an activity you can finish in approximately one month or less. Everything else goes under the long task category. In terms of complexity, a simple task is one for which you have prior experience, while everything that needs studying and research goes under the complex task category.

You can use the diagram below to categorize your task.

How to defeat procrastination with the proximity principle
Infographic – Procrastination Explained with the Proximity Principle

Explanation of the Proximity Principle Table

If a task is short and manageable, you should not worry. Most probably, it is something you did many times, and it does not take much energy to perform, so you do not risk any attachment issues.

If a task is complex and short, or simple and long, you may have some perfectionism problems. In the first case, something that needs research and study may open up new doors for you and make you fall in love with the things you discovered. If it does, you will procrastinate because you will pass more time researching than performing.

In the second case, a simple but more prolonged task also makes you deal with perfectionism because there is a high chance of failing a part of it, and you cannot allow it since you did it many times before.

Lastly, if a task is both complex and long-drawn, there is a high chance you will get attached. In these cases, there are some precautions you could take.

  1. Control perfectionism: once you reach a percentage of the task that is about 80%, give yourself a limit of time, and never overpass it.
  2. Detach the schedule: when you schedule a tedious project, give it the same amount of time you give to other projects. If you treat it as the others, your brain will be less inclined to favorite it.
  3. Split the task in independent subtasks: the more you split a long and intricate project into shorter tasks, the less you will attach to it. Still, for this technique to work, the tasks also have to be independent, or the division will not have any effect.

In some cases, prevention will keep you away from the fatal attraction, but it will not always work. You will find, or you already found in your life, projects that are extremely hard to close out and that you drag on for months or ages. To escape the attraction of a project is expensive, both in terms of time and mental fatigue, but not impossible.

How to Solve the Proximity Principle

Attachment is a problem in many people’s life. You may have already dealt with it, or you may not. Still, some basic principles work on every type of attachment. Stop thinking about the subject you are attached to, for example. Or finding another one to distract yourself.

When you are attached to a person, it is hard to escape it, and it may take months. Still, for people and projects, when you are the one deciding to end the relationship, you have an advantage.

In our case, you always have an advantage — you can prepare yourself with the techniques above to make the separation less harmful.

Still, in case you already fell in love with your project, you could apply the following steps to escape from the torture of detachment.

1 — Stop overworking

One of the most important things when it comes to attaching to a task is that sometimes you get so interested in it you start overworking. For this reason, you should plan strict working sessions and never overreach.

2 — Surround yourself with other projects

The ending of a cycle could be harmful, but it also brings new opportunities and horizons. If you feel attached to a project you are trying to finish, surround yourself with other tasks, and give that one project only the strict amount of necessary time. In general, when you surpass the 80% percentage, start working on other projects along with the main one.

3 — Declare failure

If you are unable to detach from a project, there is one last solution you could adopt. You can declare its early ending or its failure.

In the first case, you know the project needs refinement, but it does the work. While in the second case, you close any contact with the task and never work on it again. You could return to the task when your brain detaches completely, but do not rush it. I will suggest waiting for about six months before considering the idea. But if you feel ready, you can approach it even before.

Should you avoid getting attached?

The proximity principle will probably cause you problems when dealing with projects and long-term tasks. We are humans, and we get attached to things — there is nothing we could do to prevent it. And even if we fail, we can still escape from the attachment, or at least try to prevent it.

However, there are cases in which the attachment to a project is mandatory for its success. Think about a life-time project, a dream, or a goal. In those cases, if you stay detached from the result of the project, you will fail. With time, your interest will drop, and you will never reach the level of perfectionism that would have allowed your dream to function.

In those cases, more than others, you need to understand if the goal is worth the emotional attachment it requires. In an ideal world, you need to evaluate and distinguish between successful and ruinous projects. You decide what is worth continuing and what is not. You know what could bring you joy and success and what brings you only pain and suffering.

The proximity principle gives us the tools and motivation to get attached to a project, but it is up to us to decide if that attraction is worth it or it is not.


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Cover photo by Octavian Dan on Unsplash.

Article published on Curious.

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