I'm finally back to blogging after a 8 year break. This blog has been more than 6 months in the work (ok… 2 to 4 years if you count all attempts). Only the last 2 weeks, I have came to realize how my procrastination came about and figured out how to over come it. I'm going to take you through my journey, present you my hypothesis of The Knowledge Curse Model of Procrastination, and give show you how I'm overcoming it.

Life Before Procrastination & Why I Procrastinated

When I started my last blog 10 years ago, it was easy to get started. It really was just pen to paper and go. There wasn't much to think about, I blogged about stuff I did like reviewing ski classes and traveling. I was full of confidence and everything seem very simple.

Then I started my first business. In the process of building my first website and learning about marketing, I started learning about another layer of blogging. Suddenly there were so many things to consider:

  • Did my blog have a focus?
  • SEO…
  • Did my blog represent my "personal brand"
  • How did my blog fit into the wider content landscape

Overloaded with so many new things to think about, I started to procrastinate. The time between each post became longer, I was doing more rewrites, taking more time to brainstorm for ideas and conduct more research for each post. Eventually, I stopped altogether.

I finally started again when I realized The Knowledge Curse.

The Knowledge Curse – Infrequent Discussed Cause of Procrastination

In the years since I stopped blogging, there were many attempt to start. But none were successful. It wasn't until this year when I came across the Dunning-Kruger Effect again that I started piece together what has happened. Unlike what how we usually associate procrastination with laziness or poor time management, I think there is something more going on.

Dunning-Kruger Effect – How Good Do You Think You Are?

This effect is quite well known in the education field. It's describes our own perceived ability when we start learning something new. At the beginning our own view of our knowledge becomes very high fairly soon as we learn the basics. And as we learn more, we eventually realized we are not that good. And the strange thing is, even when we become experts, our own perceived ability is never as high as when we first started. (If you prefer videos, the video "Why Bad Photographers Think They Are Good" does a great job explaining this effect.)

Perceived ability leads to 3 general categories of learners. Over confident beginners, know what you don't know, and expert imposters

Based on the graph, you can see how we can start categorizing people. At least 3 categories of people exist:

  1. Over confident beginners – thinks they are great
  2. Humbled beginners – start to realize they are not that great
  3. Competent people with imposter syndrome – don't think they are as great as they really are
Procrastination can increase with learning.

Group 1, the Over Confident Beginner, has no reason to procrastinate. They were like me from 8 years ago. I felt absolutely great about the articles I wrote and the blog I made.

Group 2, the Humbled Beginners, will start to loose motivation as they discovered there are more to it than they think. In education, we learned to observe for signs when learners start entering into this phase. This is when people are most likely to give up or start procrastinate.

Group 3, Imposter Syndrome, are people that are actually really competent, but don't think they are as good as other people think they are. Usually, likelihood of procrastination decreases the better you become. It's like Apple releasing the iPhone XR, they done so many, they are really good at it, no need to procrastinate.

But this alone doesn't explain my 8 years of "long-term procrastination".

Why High Standards Can Leads To Long-Term Procrastination

By itself having a standard is a great thing, it is the benchmark that we work towards. Without it there won't be progress. Back to the iPhone example, if people with high standards like Steve Jobs hasn't had such high design ideals, we wouldn't have the iPhone. In fact, the right amount of expectation can lead to high motivation that eventually leads up to skill mastery.

This video does a great job explaining the link between expectation and skill improvement.

But what happens when your expectation is too high or unrealistic?

Unrealistic expectation always reminded me of the first time I wrote a research paper in grad school. My professor warned the class with a procrastination syndrome she observed often while studying at MIT, "if you think your first paper or Ph.D thesis is going to get into that top journal or win the Nobel Prize, then you will never start. And if you do, you will never finish – because it will never be good enough". I guess unrealistic high standards is irrespective of education and intelligence level.

"[If you have unrealistic expectation] then you will never start. And if you do, you will never finish – because it will never be good enough."

When you start overlaying level of standards with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can get the table below. It becomes fairly obvious that some combinations can lead to long term procrastination. And that's where I my blog has lived for the last 8 years.

Yes, you get to live with my handwriting on my blog.

Conclusion: Knowledge + perceived ability + unrealistic standards = long term procrastination.

Effect of Long Term Procrastination

I noticed long term procrastination has a weird effect – high activity level & "constant learning". This is how we mask our lack of progress.

During my 8 years of long term procrastination, my mind was still on the topic of starting a blog (again). And to the outside world I wasn't really "procrastinating". I was busy, always doing something, and I was educating myself on knowledge related to blogging – all signs of a productive long term procrastinator.

The Long Term Procrastination Dance

Long term procrastinator can often be observed dancing around what they were suppose to do doing everything except what they are actually suppose to do. You have probably seen this.

Imagine Joe the junior structural engineer, it's his first job, and he's task with designing the foundation of a power house (just think of a heavyish building with lot of metal equipments in there). Joe thinks he's capable, after all he has a masters degree in civil engineering (mid-high ability). And Joe wants to impress – he wants to get his manager's approval the first time around (unrealistic expectation).

First thing Joe is going to do is not start designing. He will first request for more training or start "researching". Then he will request for more background or related project information. Next, he will start looking at other people's projects. And if his manager doesn't intervene he will eventually start volunteering to go on coffee runs and can continue the dance for a long time.

Over Coming Procrastination – Think Like A Teacher

The last 2 weeks I finally figured out how to overcome this 8 year procrastination. I studied how school teach children & arrived at the a similar work model as the agile method.

If you think about what kids can do 12 years of school, it really is amazing. Both in terms of their ability increase and in the shear quantity of work they produce during that time. If you think about it, every school project, home work assignment, and test is really like a completed task.

Think like a teacher will help you overcome procrastination!

Teachers do 2 things to make sure this is possible:

  1. Knowledge dependent increase in task difficulty – basically task only gets harder once you become better
  2. Clearly defined bite size deliverables – remember those weekly assignments?

An Overly Simplified Way to Design Assignment

By looking at an overly simplified version of how teachers design weekly assignments we can see the 2 things teachers do minimize procrastination for the whole class.

First design the assignment. In order to do this, they need to figure out what is achievable in 1 week for someone with that particular skill level. This makes the assignment realistic in terms of scope and difficulty – setting realistic standard.

Then, they need to figure out a grading scene. The grading scene gives them an idea of what is acceptable from the students so the ability needed for the assignment and the students' ability are not too far off – further reducing the chance of procrastination. And this can go back and forth a few times until the right balance is reached.

And this make teachers great managers, they can take 20 to 30 "low skilled labours" and have them adhere to weekly "work deadlines" and "up skill" them over a predictable amount of time, with very little global procrastination compare to many work places. I say, this puts many corporate managers to shame ;p

Starting My Blog

Over the last 2 weeks, I used the same principles to get my blog up and running. First, I had a clearly defined deliverable – a blog that I liked the look of, and 1 article.

I further broke this down into a bunch of bite size deliverables:

  1. Setup domain
  • Buy domain
    • Direct DNS to host

2. Setup Blog

    • Install WordPress
    • Upload theme
    • Configure theme
    • Install plugins
    • Take photos
    • Link to social media
    • Setup basic distribution

3. Write first article

    • Outline v1
    • Outline v2
    • Bite size writing to get ideas
    • Outline v3
    • Collect assets (images and videos)
    • Write draft
    • Revise draft

Each of these tasks didn't take long to do, and I was able to get small amount of feedback throughout the process. An added benefit was that this kept my fear of criticism at bay, since no chunk was big enough for me to stop the project.

3 Steps To Overcome Your Long Term Procrastination

1. Break down your task

Now, I'm not talking about just any break down. It was to be small enough that when you look at it you know exactly what to do. When you start thinking "oh, that's easy, let me do it now" then the task is small enough. Also, you don't need to break down the entire project, you can just do enough and when you finished those tasks, the next logical tasks will be obvious.

2. Have Realistic Standards

You have to do able to do the task. For example, if I didn't know how to host my own WordPress, then that's not realistic. However, creating a WordPress.com account would be. And I shouldn't be thinking that I need to take a course to do it… for most working folks I would say that's a sign you are on track to become a long term procrastinator.

3. Share your work frequently

Because everything was in small bits, it became quite easy. For me this was showing an empty blog with only photos, and then talking to people about the outline and the general insights of this piece.

To get started, you can even just show it to 1 person you trust – even your grandma could work. (link to Ted Talk)

This step has the added benefit of combating Imposter Syndrome. Feedback will help you can get a more accurate picture of your ability as you become better, preventing your perceived ability to become too low compared to your actual ability.

By following these 3 steps in the last 2 weeks I'm back blogging again!

P.S. Share this with people you know that is looking to overcome procrastination.

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Nancy Lin

I'm a new mom & an entrepreneur trained in engineering and finance. I enjoy designing systems.
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