Published: January 3rd, 2017

Author: Mattanaw, Christopher Matthew Cavanaugh



Author: Mattanaw, Christopher Matthew Cavanaugh

Former Chief Architect, Adobe Systems

Current President/Advisor, Social Architects and Economists International.



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Procrastination is a complex topic that deserves an approximately holistic treatment. Instead of providing narrow recommendations and tips to resolve specific problems in a disconnected fashion, this series strives to support most or all examples. Here a detailed description of the most important issues faced along with a strategic approach for addressing its complexity are provided. Since most people find themselves in dual positions of counselor and the counseled, each role is considered in depth. A framework is described that can be useful to anyone needing guidance with mentoring or self-help.

Procrastination affects everyone, including the highly motivated. We all experience it because it is basic to earthly biology, and it exists because of clear evolutionary advantages. The details of our energy economy have been worked out for us, by nature; motivation is connected with the general tendency to expend less energy and seek pleasurable paths, which is universal, desirable and necessary. Our goal is to mitigate the negative effects of uncontrolled pursual of pleasant paths, and to redirect our energies to useful activities, full of foresight and fruitfulness. Since this basic tendency cannot be eliminated, we need to learn to cope and manage—there is no nostrum, only adaptation. Healthy adjustment requires a shift in mentality, to self-understanding and acceptance. Later parts of the series cover mindfulness and stress management, and verbal antidotes to poisonous thought processes, like absolute self-devaluation.

The main topic is procrastination, but the series is also an exposition of a philosophy about advice giving in complex circumstances—for collaboration or independent self-help. At several points the same approach is shown to apply to situations that are not related to procrastination, except that they involve analogically complex forms of advice giving and receiving.

The student experience is the primary example, since everyone has been a student and is likely to support a younger person later, either as a parent, teacher, counselor, or mentor. So this series is intended for everyone except those who refuse to improve themselves or support others. However, the primary example concerns the student who has motivational deficiencies, chronic delaying behavior, and little support from others. A student with very high global aptitude is assumed throughout, because that offers the most complex case of attention management. Application is not restricted to this useful example—it is assumed that everything in this series can be applied by most people at any stage of mature life, and that the student experience is merely a convenient example.

This article is the first part of a multipart series covering the topic from surrounding angles and perspectives. This first part discusses a strategy for situational awareness, and an organizing principle for quickly finding and using the right tools and suggestions, along with the tools themselves. The second part provides an example autobiography, which is related to ideas developed in previous and subsequent parts. The third article describes an algorithm that can be used for self-guidance, and identification of obstacles calling for additional outside help. This series does not cover illnesses or disorders that block progress, but is very interested in determining how and when that is necessary. Medical or pharmacological advice is not given here. The fourth section provides psychological, philosophical, and religious perspectives that are useful for dealing with continued demotivation. This concerns acceptance of one’s ongoing relationship with procrastination, and avoidance of illogical styles of thinking that can lead to extended depression or self-harm. We can go far beyond coping, however, and explore possibilities for partial self-actualization and life-long goal realization. The fifth article considers applications of the framework to a wide variety of cases and contexts, unrelated to the student experience, and provides suggestions for expanding the strategy to round-out the holistic approach. At this point, it is hoped, we will have achieved an approximately complete treatment.


For some, such as myself, procrastination has been a source of great torment and anguish; some of the worst periods of my life were when I was unable to find motivation to act in my own self-interest. Like others, I found there were no simple solutions, and constructive advice was hard to find. Procrastination is a much deeper topic than many people are willing to consider or accept; it is existential, and deeply technical. As a result, most parents and mentors are insufficiently prepared to provide the right encouragement when approached for help. This is expected due to the challenging nature of the task. Any advice given is often narrow or amiss. When I was in school, input from adults was rarely helpful or satisfying, and was sometimes more discouraging. Useful help was distant. I was alone to find answers on my own. Most students seem to be in the same position. Even today with plenty of resources online, good advice is hard to find.

The biggest challenge about procrastination is that it requires holistic treatment, but is affected by so many factors that holism is usually unreasonable. Even after much learning, one continually finds new causes that were previously hidden to consciousness. It is a stubborn issue; a single missed aspect can be the reason it persists. Procrastination is among the most complex things we can think about, although that is not apparent at the outset of investigation. Those who aren’t experiencing it tend to be dismissive, and expect the depressed on inactive to simply “snap out of it.” There is tremendous difference between observing it and experiencing it.

One begins an analysis of procrastination, by first completely underestimating its intricacies and difficulties. It is an ancient topic. It has never been considered completely, so we should not expect it to be quick and easy. The sciences we hope to provide answers are are too immature and separate to converge on finding answers. Another century or more is likely needed to reduce the phenomena to low-level physical science, and underlying principles of psychology and neurophysiology. Even if we stick to high level approaches like the one here, we find the task of creating an exhaustive list of contributing factors daunting (just creating a list of words!). It is truly a subject that challenges the wisdom and skill of any advice-giver.

Another major problem is that it appears to be a single issue when it arises in the mind of the procrastinator, who consequently forms leading and misdirecting questions—therefore starting out on the wrong path. With this beginning, inadequate advice is to be expected, and it cannot be corrected by continued reflection, if there is only one chance to provide assistance. This is common in the case of students requesting help, once desperate, when there is no time left to complete an assignment, or when poor reports are immanent.

Let’s consider a real example. What is needed, for example, to answer the following question effectively?:

“I’m smart and am frequently bored at school. Despite being capable, I’m having trouble staying motivated to complete my assignments, especially homework. What can I do to improve?”

This is a paraphrase of a question I received recently online, from a high school student I did not know. I faced the same issue at the same age, and would have asked the same question in the same way. But the student’s readiness to receive an answer, and the simplicity of the query, is a form of misdirection, encouraging a quick answer. I was tempted to answer immediately, but I realized I was unprepared—I needed more information. But what information exactly? I wasn’t sure, although my instincts hinted that I needed “context”. So I asked for additional details regarding whatever aspects I could think of at the moment, based on aspects of my history. These involved useful things to know, but my questions were not strategic—they were only intuitive. A strategy for becoming informed would have been better, and would have helped her as well, if only to self-explore and make sense of her circumstances. It was an unguided process for both participants. A professional would have a form to use, with all questions prepared in advance. I found this interesting, that despite the universality of this problem, there was no procedural solution people were aware of. People rely on their intuition to provide advice. There were no principles of informal advice giving and receiving ready at hand.

She (I will use “she,” but I am not aware of this student’s gender) very quickly responded with clarifications, and these made me feel properly orientated. I had an increased readiness to provide direction. But as I prepared my response it became clear that I still did not have nearly enough information. But alas, advice is sought when action is needed, and there was no time before the answers were overdue. She would lose interest. I sent what I could, in several chunks over the course of a week, which is better than providing too much information at once. Extending the advising process is helpful for maintaining and renewing interest, to gain discovery opportunities, and get more time to prepare. It also provides the other person breaks between reading, and is less overwhelming (with no information, one would have to recommend books to cover the entire topic). I was confident my recommendations were useful generally, despite being diffuse.

In this process I wondered what I was missing; what would I do the next time I received this question? What differentiated her situation from my own, that was of critical importance? Questions like these can be retained to see where information is missing, in future cases. Some questions I had were:

As I thought about the true complexity of my own past situations, and my own solutions, I knew I had almost no knowledge about this person to work with, and that she needed highly personal advice, over a long period, that I could not give. Instead I had to provide as much detail as I could about my own history and situation, and many tips and tricks that worked for me, in a roughly singular act of assistance. With that, I hoped, she could pick what she needed and apply to her own life. The implicit strategy in this assumes she has sufficient awareness of her own situation, and analogical skill, to compare here situation with mine, and select the tools that are appropriate. This strategy means the student is burdened with the requirements of awareness, imagination, tool selection, and usage. In the case of youth, each of these are lacking, and cannot be supplied by providing yet more information. However, in the case of gifted students, or students that have high trustworthiness and aptitude (this student claimed giftedness), one can feel more confident that they will be able to make use of what is provided. With the right person this turns out to be a reasonable strategy, and is probably part of their plan when asking the question (one must consider the source of the question). In the mostly anonymous online exchange, however, this cannot be verified.

The personal history and tools I provided, were probably exactly what she was hoping for. The advice receiver does not expect the advice giver to have a full and intimate knowledge of their private struggles. Usually they do not want to disclose to make that level of assistance possible. They do hope for a degree of mind-reading; they want a discerning and non-judgmental person to see deeply, to be able to read between the lines, and provide tactful, powerful, and comprehensive advice, with limited information.

There is a general problem of getting complete, accurate, and relevant data to assist another person. When truly in a position to help, there are opportunities to create a detailed case file, including all the relevant details of the person’s history, region, culture, school, family, friends, usual places, and general environment. Getting this information is problematic, as any teacher, parent, or doctor laments. This issue is pressing with youths because they are not as aware or forthcoming with information of importance, and are likely to lie and conceal to avoid embarrassment. They do not have the skills to manage their embarrassment. So we rely on limited question-answer procedures, and hope for complete and truthful responses. Proximity doesn’t always help either, since we all recall the limited information our family had about our lives. Counselors cannot do much better than rely on the self-report of the person counseled. We will postpone these issues for now, and simply recommend providing many tips and tools to draw from. This way the student does not need to reveal anything and can select those tools that turn out to apply to the situation.

Although there are difficulties to giving comprehensive support, I’m convinced they are not insurmountable for all occurrences. Advice regarding procrastination fits into a wider discipline around assisting others on complex matters. This series exhibits the use of a schematic approach that provides a sound collaborative strategy, that is treated more abstractly elsewhere (“Limits and Principles of Advising”, to be published on this site soon). The reader is an individual participant in the overall process, and fills in specifics and gaps that could not have been provided for in advance by another person (This is not unusual, since the individual must fill in the gap, of actually carrying out the plan!). I provide an approach, of using a framework of strategies, that are both general and extensible, along with an example case history and example applications. The second part of this series will include my history, and the tools and tips are included here at the conclusion.

We will consider additional details of methodology, in depth, as we progress through later parts of the series (to be published soon). For now we will move to something immediately useful, and consider the first strategy.

Using Keywords and Corresponding Tools

The Concept of “Situation”

It is clear that before any progress can be made, one must have a thorough understanding of the problem situation. What are the key aspects of an instance of procrastination, and how does do these relate to some present inactivity? How can we understand our situation well enough, that we see what tools are required? Inability to find a useful tool, or failure to perceive all contributing factors will decrease our chances of breaking free from delaying behavior.

The goal of the our first strategy is to build situational awareness, and create/use tools that are organized in a way we can easily recall. The means for situational awareness is found through keywords (which can be thought of as factors, dimensions, variables, or aspects that summarize). Secondly, keywords are with a set of tools—like useful tips, recommendations, principles, and sub-strategies. In combination, this provides a simple but powerful method that can be put into immediate action, and can be extended for new circumstances. The problems of breadth and depth are addressed strategically, by expanding upon keywords and inserting new tools. We will have a prototype to guide us, and a means to deal with the uniquenesses of new but related issues.

Let us consider the first aspect of the strategy concerning situational awareness. It must be recognized that what we comfortably call a “situation” is poorly understood. A situation is something incredibly abstract; we use the word routinely without seeing all that must come together for the idea to be useful, or even exist linguistically. When we are asked to describe a situation precisely, we find that we cannot do it—ever. The case of a procrastination situation is no different, and we continually fail to capture all its elements when we try to describe it.

Here we need to make a detour. To progress through later sections we will need to have a working understanding of what a situation is. Here we will introduce a few distinctions and supporting terms. What follows may appear to be a philosophical or metaphysical discussion, but do not be confused—it deals with current practical problems that are unsolved within the sciences. There is no consensus about the best methods of representing interrelated pieces of information in the real world, in data storage or running software (the ultimate destination for managing information). No model exists in any science that can represent something so abstract as a prototypical situation. That would require a model to represent situational models of any kind, be it chemical, geographical, psychological, astronomical, or social. It is simply not possible to create such a prototypical situational model, and map it to computer systems, at least not yet.

Situations can vary in size, from the smallest and shortest event, to the largest and longest-lasting totality we can think of. We will consider situations as subsets of the whole, which we will call the “universe” or “world.” We understand situations in relation to their larger contexts. The largest context can be understood as the collection of all potential data that we have available, from physical raw material. The universe contains all situations, past, present, and future. We imagine a universe, here, to be the container that contains everything else. It is certain that even a basic instance of procrastination is connected with larger part of the universe than we are prepared to deal with, so we will focus our attention, as we do naturally, on a proximal chunk, that is useful to us. Using our normal conception, we can arrive at the basic methods we use to reduce the physical universe unreflectingly. What interests us when we naturally think about situations are:

  1. Relevance
  2. Utility

A situation must include only relevant information: nothing false, and nothing perceived as disconnected. Relevance is partly understood in terms of the second item: usefulness. If something is not useful to understanding a situation, we believe it does not form a part, and we lose interest. A person who has high capacity for understanding situations will lose interest when criteria of relevance and utility fail. We focus our attention to that which feels connected and can be used to our advantage. We expand our situations as we attempt to find additional points of control, for explanation or some other purpose.

There is a difference between the utterly complete “real situation”, which is out-there in the physical world, and what we imagine. We will no longer say the word “situation”, without appending clarifiers. We will say “real-situation” or “true-situation” to distinguish from the purely psychological “mental-situation” that relates to it. A “digital-situation” will be that version represented in a computer system, corresponding to both of the above.

Reflecting on a situation for the first time, we can draw from any resources we have accessible in our mind, but not from the world. Most real-situations are not present directly before us as we reflect—they are either in the past, or they are continuing from the past into the future with us. We are only initially working with what is stored in our brains. Thus we have a mental-world that we use to construct a mental-situation.

Humans are great at forming associations naturally, on the basis of experience in the world, and quickly combine thoughts to form cohesive images of events. We create associative-maps of a sort. We generate mental-situations almost immediately after we experience events. We don’t have any choice in the process. When we do this before we have thought carefully about it, we say it is of relatively low quality, versus after sustained reflection and consideration. When we retrace out events, we make more well-considered associations. So there is a range involved—mental-situations differ in completeness and level of processing, from low to high. When it is highly processed, a mental-situation comes to resemble a more complete model of the real situation. We assume that we can improve our understanding of situations by continuing to reflect on them. Without an ability to do this, we would be ineffective at learning anything complex.

We are constantly learning, so mental-worlds and mental-situations grow and are refined in parallel, in response to exposure to the world. The mental world is the human brain’s analogue of the real-world (after all our brain includes everything we have learned about the real-world, and we are contained by our mental universe. The mental-situation is the simple analogue to a real-situation.

The completeness of the mental-situation depends on the capabilities of an animal’s mind. We know that people range in natural abilities, so some can achieve a better mental-situation than others. For example, in the presence of others who have shared experiences, some are preferred to tell stories over others, and not merely because their versions are more entertaining. When I reminisce with friends, for example, I am routinely preferred as the story teller, because it is trusted that I will be accurate and complete. Conversely, I know others who are unable to tell stories because they will alter it, and usually these people look to me or others for guidance to get it right.

A computer may soon achieve a higher level of representation, than what can be contained in any animal’s mind. In the future it is likely that brains and machines will be combined to construct even higher-fidelity representations of true situations. While this is speculation, it does make sense to think of what near-perfect representation, within its defined limits, would be like. I suspect that representation will always be limited, due to having different media from which to construct representations (versus an exact duplication of the world). It is assumed that a complete mental-situation would be in one-to-one correspondence with a real-situation and is basically unchanging once space-time bound. This is important, because we believe we can get closer and closer to the truth, if only we were more capable and had more meticulous information. We accept that in a courtroom, one person may provide a story that is more true than another, and that as a case progresses, things can get more clear and precise. Scientists and historians assume the same. We will not question this assumption, because we will see first hand, in a later part, that we can come to understand our own situations better, when we have a better data-model to use as a guide.

Now that we have our concept of a mental-situation, let’s briefly discuss some details about what mental-situations and computer-situations include. It is clear they will include models that correspond to nature, as we have seen, but in what ways? When we look at the world, at real-situations, we naturally separate them into objects, properties, and relationships. We have gotten progressively better at this since we were mostly unable to do it, as infants. A real-situation is exactly the set objects, properties, and relationships we want to capture in mental-storage. The brain models information in unknown ways, but we are certain these ways are extremely useful! This skill is what makes modeling possible to begin with, and we can use strategies for getting better at it, with the proper learning, aids, and world-view. With traditional concepts and science we form a taxonomy of knowledge (forming a true conceptual system, organized in a way that matches the world), along with mental images, sounds, and so on…. As stated above, humans have not come to any consensus on how the world should be depicted, and this should be obvious upon reflection concerning refinements and transformations in scientific taxonomies that we’ve witnessed in just the last 100 years. They are not always presented in hierarchical tree models, but webs, and other visual or logical models. They are included in database models within functional software systems have been created in computer science as well. This makes computer simulations and games possible, which model reality well enough for us to find them appealing and exciting.

The data-model and running software that is focused on a specific phenomena is a digital-situation, represented by a design and architecture implemented physically in the computer, that represents objects, properties, and relationships. Models created to represent phenomena are diverse. There are many ways of doing it in software, but common methods involve creation of entity-reference-diagrams, object-oriented-diagrams, or multi-perspective models using unified modeling language (or other methods). Implementations in software systems typically use relational-databases that are basically familiar data-tables that are tied together with key relationships. These databases (along with the state of running software) provide a snapshot of a state of a digital-situation, which then represents a true-situation. So a situation ends up being represented in a computer by entities/objects that have variables, measured values, and relationships to other objects, just as we would expect. Since we find it mentally satisfying, we know there is some correspondence with mental situations, and the world that we can immediately compare it with. Virtual reality can feel just like the world, and since we are fooled, we are certain that it is representing some phenomena correctly.

This concludes our meandering into the complexities of situations. We will return to this topic in later sections and continue to make use of the basic distinctions. We will find this analysis to be excellent for generating other useful ideas. With this we are ready to move to our first strategy.

Using Keywords for Situational Awareness

We can see from the above, the first step is get a fairly well-processed mental-situation, that we could use to generate a detailed written case study. We need this before we can do anything else effectively. To process a situation for the correct data, we ask questions about the various dimensions situations have, and various factors, just like a scientist would when analyzing any phenomenon of interest. Some of these factors and dimensions are common to all situations, and some are specially relevant to procrastination. Ultimately we are talking about objects, properties, and relationships, but for now we are proceeding informally, so we will identify factors without jargon. If we can identify most of these, we will have made key first steps in strategic processing of our real-situation using plain language, which will assist with communication later.

The natural approach to this process is to simply brainstorm using keywords and associations we have about the topic. With popularization in social media everyone can recognize the effectiveness of tagging for loose categorization, and its importance for combining information and for searchability on the internet. After we have relevant keywords we can organize and reorganize them to more closely match the structure of the situation we perceive. We may create diagrams to represent the phenomena from several different perspectives. This extends our natural process of forming associations and using them to organize our understanding of phenomena.

Since we can create keywords without reference to any specific situation, we can get an idea of a prototypical procrastination. We can use this prototype as a schematic to use for understanding future instances. This is little more than learning patterns and applying them in the future. Recall that I did not do this when I was assisting the student, but I would have greatly benefited. Analysing a real-situation is much faster and more complete if we start with a list of all dimensions they typically contain, than to merely recall or reconstruct a situation from memory and intuition. So we will start with a kind of evolving paradigmatic skeleton of procrastination. We will have limitations due to generality to deal with, and our prototype could cause distortion unique instances. Thus we prune it and extend it as we apply it to new situations. We will see that relying on a list is an efficient way to quickly understand a situation in all its parts, and is a starting point for understanding its complexity. It is a great way to prime oneself on associations that one can use to quickly see many aspects of a situation, and to form new associations and find new revelations.

With this we can present our first strategy. Success with procrastination is largely a matter of maximizing our abilities that relate to all factors defining the situation. It is little more than finding all the points of control, finding tools and tips for each point, and then becoming experienced controlling and manipulating them. This starts with an awareness of situation, and progresses with an awareness of factors. After awareness, one can learn to maximize power by quickly accessing the correct tools, and increasing abilities in each domain. The tips and tools below are a starting point for slowly building up strength in each area. By using this strategy, we can better understand our situations and tools that apply. Half of the task is identifying the tools we need to work with, and the skills we need to develop.

Power over procrastination could be measured, in part, by the degree of our awareness of factors and our skill and speed at manipulating anything that can be controlled, without thinking hard about it. With this we can see that the approach is not restricted to procrastination, but to any situation, particularly those that require complex consciousness and diverse controls. The goal, then, in situations like these, is to create a preponderance of resources, support structures, positive environments, habits, thoughts, and anything else that contributes to cases of success.

Factors, in this context, are kept to a personal level, and do not exactly match objects and variables we would choose for scientific investigation, although we could and would use associations like these to generate them. It is worthwhile to be rigorous in model development, but right now we are trying to be useful on a day to day basis, where no measurements are going to be taken. Basic language simply works best for our goals here. Factors should be easy to recall and make use of, in addition to providing an increasingly powerful mental image of the realities involved. Some aspects can be thought of as true dimensions, while others are keywords that relate to important factors or aspects of the situation. All of these are encompassed within the use of keywords. The desire to categorize and recategorize excessively should be avoided as a waste of time, and here we will prefer usefulness over a well-formed scientific taxonomy, or data-model (although we will develop a starting data model later).

Later we will also see how important lists like this are for research. Not only for identifying fields for gathering more information, but for having search terms to use in search engines.

Below is the initial list of factors. It is composed of keywords that I found highly useful in my own struggles. Feedback has taught me that others find them useful as well. It is meant to be tailored and extended for individual experience.

Starter Keywords:

Variants of the keywords are included in parenthesis. Notice that these are little more than especially applicable words and synonyms.

There are more, but it would be boring to be too exhaustive here. This process would expand into a dictionary, if not controlled. Key useful factors are what interest us. An appendix will be provided with a cheat sheet, containing more examples, at a later time. The main point here is to recognize the many contributing aspects that can be controlled, and to have a finite list that is easy to understand and recall. If a word in the bulleted list doesn’t work for you, perhaps you can substitute your own word or a word in parenthesis. Or, use the entire list if that is helpful. The reader should notice, that every bullet point here is clearly related to the experience of procrastination in several ways. This will be obvious as the tools are examined. If some point is not considered, a huge chunk of the strategy will be missing! Since I am not omniscient, I believe other large chunks are missing as well, which means I am probably still being influenced by factors that I have not considered! This is to be expected, since we are so limited, and there is no apparent end to the self-mastery we can obtain, by careful observation and learning. There is more to learn and more to add, and it can be quite exciting to discover and apply something new. Procrastination need not be boring. It is an opportunity for self-discovery.

Tools for the Student By Keyword

Below are the tips that I provided the student, in expanded and edited form. These are informal and conversational. Try to receive this information as a student would.

These factors and suggestions can be used to gradually evolve into a position where goals tend towards completion naturally. The environment itself can come to invoke the correct feeling and mood, and repeated use of that environment leads to habituation and therefore transformation. If I had to choose a factor that yields the greatest reward, it would be a change of environment and position in that environment. Sticking to the same environment creates the same distractions, cravings, compulsions, and preserves general tendencies. It is wise to choose the right places and companions for your goals, and commit. If you would like to become like people who are productive, you should seriously consider going to places they would go, and being around people they would choose to be around. Where does your future self spend time? Not the same places! Who will your friends be? The environment played a key role in making you who you are today, and it will make you who you are tomorrow if you’re not careful. If you are resistant about changing your environment, this will likely slow your progress or stop it entirely. A change of surroundings decreases the chances of reverting to old ways. You should be prepared to change environments routinely to support improvements in motivation that you require.


Mattanaw, M. (2019). Determinism in the Procrastination. Book and Journal of Mattanaw. christopher-matthew-cavanaugh-thoughtstream.html#determinism-in-the-procrastination

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