It all started in my Undergraduate degree. I was unshackled from structure, no more routine or parents keeping me on task. No, I was my own man. It was a disaster.
I didn’t do anything productive, ever. Except for when I’d hand in half assed assignments the day they were due, and occasionally I wouldn’t even do that. I’d actually calculate how many late day deductions I could take to still pass. This behavior eventually led to me missing an exam because I was too busy cramming for it and not checking I had the time right. This meant I failed the subject and had to incur an additional $10,000 in student debt.
But look at me now…I still procrastinate. But, I get a lot more done and some of it is actually good. It is because over time with some practice and routine, I’ve gotten better at controlling my procrastination habit. It is something I will always battle. Yet, by understanding what goes on when I procrastinate it helps me stop doing it and to start doing the things I want with my life.
This post explores the procrastinator’s mind, how to stop procrastinating right now with six tactics and how to build a rock solid routine to defeat procrastination long term.
To first defeat it we must understand it.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination as the dictionary defines it, is “the act of delaying or postponing a task or set of tasks”. It’s that blog post you’ve been meaning to write, the washing you were meant to do or the project you’ve been meaning to finish.
Procrastination is something we’ve all dealt with at least once in our lives. It is something our homosapien ancestors dealt with and passed onto us, as they valued eating food that day rather than doing the cave drawing they’d been planning.
The same evolutionary gift that has kept our ancestors alive is now the same thing that keeps us from doing what we set out to do. So we know procrastination is something we have been doing for centuries, but if we’ve evolved past living in caves why do we still do it?
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Knowing what procrastination is, is cool and all, but you probably already knew that. So why do we procrastinate? What is going on inside our heads that causes us to avoid doing the things we know we should be doing?
Let’s welcome our friend science to the conversation. Science tells us there are basically two reasons we procrastinate, one is linked to the physical signals the body sends the brain.
The other is linked to behavioral psychology which is the idea of “time inconsistency”.
Let’s explore the two now.
Procrastination & Discomfort
We procrastinate on things that make us feel uncomfortable. Medical imaging research has shown that the pain centers of our brains light up when we contemplate doing a task we fear will be difficult. This helps explain why we avoid certain tasks, because avoiding something painful is the sensible thing to do.
This is what a typical procrastination pattern looks like. You think about something you don’t particularly like, say writing an essay, and then the pain centers in your brain light up. So you shift your attention to something more enjoyable like Netflix. This then causes the pain to diminish and you feel better, at least temporarily, until guilt and panic appear.
That temporary relief feels good in the moment, but your brain is actively working against you doing difficult tasks and is therefore hurting you in the long run.
But, there is good news. Research also shows that it is just the thought of the task that is painful not the actual task itself. When you actually sit down to do the task the pain disappears.
Try thinking of something you feel anxiety or apprehension about, for me it is linear algebra. The thought of doing linear algebra study even as I write this makes me want to switch from writing to playing some games. Yet, if I think back to when I was actually doing my linear algebra study it didn’t hurt, it actually felt good. I just needed to sit down and start and then I would be okay.
So this is the first reason you procrastinate. The thought of the tasks is what puts you off, your body fights against you. Due to your brain’s evolutionary reaction to tasks that make you feel fear, anxiety or apprehension it wisely sends a signal that you’re in pain until you change your focus away from those thoughts to something more pleasurable. So the problem is not doing the work, it is starting the work.
The second reason we procrastinate is time inconsistency. It is the phenomenon where the human brain tends to value immediate rewards over long term future rewards. It is a key theory that helps explain why we tend to get sucked into procrastination despite our best intentions to be productive. Essentially we are poor at evaluating short term current rewards vs. long term future rewards.
Here is how I think of it. I have two versions of me, the current me that is living in this moment and the future me who has to deal with all current me’s decisions. It is like the terminator plot. Now when I set out a goal for myself like learning to code, running a marathon or starting my own business – current me is making plans for the future me. I’m imagining what I want my life and me to be like in the future. Future me is all about the future rewards.
The problem is that future me can only influence what goals I set, current me is the one who has to make it happen. So when it comes time to make decisions, I am no longer making a choice for future me, current me is in charge. In the current moment my brain is just thinking about my current self. Current me can be a dick to future me. You see, what research tells us is that Mr. current me loves instant gratification, not so much the long term rewards. Current me wants the cookie, not the workout.
So there is constant friction between current me and future me. Future me wants to be fit and healthy and able to program at a high level. But, current me wants to eat cookies and play video games. I know that I should eat fruit and sit down to study, some I’m not unhealthy and unable to code in the future. But, those problems like heart disease and being stuck in a job are years away, current me doesn’t have to worry about that.
So this is the second reason why you tend to procrastinate. It is because your brain due to some evolutionary reasons values immediate gratification over future rewards.
What Happens When We Procrastinate
When it comes to procrastination we put tasks off, to feel temporary relief and because we prefer instant gratification over long-term benefits. We rob our future selves of a better life and in doing so we are slowing building up anxiety and guilt.
When we delay action to a task, we tend to fill it with instant gratification. We like to visit the galaxy of gratification. It’s an expansive world where free time activities happen at times those activities aren’t supposed to be happening. The galaxy filled with new and exciting planets of procrastination to explore. But, like space travel it can be dangerous, sure YouTube alien conspiracy videos seem fun, but the fun is unearned you can be filled with the dark void of feelings the feelings of guilt, dread, anxiety and shame.
But, in the beginning that guilt and anxiety of the dark void is still outweighed by the good feelings of more mindless, less anxiety inducing activities. That is until the balance of those feelings tips the other way and panic sets in. Those distant future consequences current you didn’t care about become the present consequences that you have to handle now to reduce the guilt and anxiety. The panic of the consequences tips us into action.
To use an example to contextualize this, say you have an exam to prepare for. You’ve known about it since the start of semester and you’ve put it off anyway. You have that little ringing sound of anxiety and guilt telling you should study each week, but unfortunately for you it’s not enough to actually do anything about it. Then suddenly it’s the day before the exam (or the day of in my case) and the future consequences are now present consequences and you cram all that you can. The panic of the consequences has tipped you into action.
Once you’ve tipped over into action, the pain disappears. As we know that it is the anticipation of the task that causes the pain and not the actual action. Like in the image above once you get through the clouds of procrastination the guilt, dread, anxiety and shame that you feel while procrastinating are usually worse than the actual energy and discomfort you feel while actually working. You just have to get through the clouds.
If we want to avoid doing all our work when we reach the tipping point, then we need to make it as simple as possible for our current selves to get started on the task, knowing that perceived pain is temporary and that the momentum will carry us through once we begin.
How to Stop Procrastinating Now
If we want to stop procrastinating right now, then we need to consider how we make it as easy as possible for our current self to get to the started.
There are a variety of tactics we can utilize to stop procrastinating. Below, I’ll explain 6 key tactics to stop procrastinating.
Tactic 1: Break Your Tasks Down and Gamify Them
Procrastinators love to plan. Planning gives the illusion of productivity. In reality it is activity without progress and those mega plans can tend to be more daunting and pain receptor stimulating than action. You need to break down your tasks.
Breaking down your tasks means turning your big list into small, clear and actionable tasks. Let’s say you have a list of big projects, learn to code, learn linear algebra, start blog, start side hustle, apply for jobs. That list is daunting, it is more likely to cause you to delay action. What you need to do is prioritize and break each of those items down.
If learning to code is you number one priority then you might break it down like so:
Sign up for Freecodecamp account
Start Lesson one
Summarize lesson one notes
Start Lesson two
Active recall lesson 1 and 2
You can see how this makes the bigger task of learning to code a lot less daunting, you can easily sign up for an account and start lesson one. Your plan is more effective, clear and each task is more actionable.
The last step is to gamify them. I have a points system I assign tasks and those points link to rewards. So one task might be worth 5 points because it’s a hard task, once I have 30 points I can go to the movies. The best part is the rewards are guilt free because I’ve done the work and earnt it.
Tactic 2: Set Up a Distraction Free Environment
Different people function better in certain environments, some prefer the quiet of the library others need the background noise of a cafe. You need to test and learn what works best for you. But, the key to being productive in any environment is eliminating distractions.
To minimize distractions you have to understand what your distractions are. Here is a list of common distractions:
Each of these distractions will require a different tactic. If your phone is a big distraction, put it on airplane mode then put it in a draw or another room. Can’t help refreshing Reddit, install a website blocker (I use Self Control) and set it whenever you sit down to start working. Is TV a distraction, sell it or less drastically unplug it and put the cord at a friend’s house.
Identifying and eliminating your distractions is one of the best ways to increase your productivity. You’ll quickly discover those distractions weren’t as enjoyable as the achievement you feel for achieving results.
Tactic 3: Do the Hardest Task First
Do the hardest task first, the one that makes you the weakest. If you’ve got the whole day ahead of you, it’s easy to put it off until after you get your coffee, check our email, or finish some quick life admin.
What do I mean by the hardest, it is the task you’re most likely to procrastinate on. The deadline you’re dreading, the homework you were supposed to do yesterday, the blog post you said you’d write.
Why first? Because, first thing in the morning your mind is strong, your body is fresh and you haven’t had any external distractions…yet. By knocking out something important on your to-do list before anything else, you get both momentum that you can carry through with you for the rest of the day.
Set yourself up to do your hardest task tomorrow morning by tonight writing down your three priorities for tomorrow on a postit note. Research has shown doing it the night before is super effective. As soon as you sit down to work before email, before coffee just start the hardest task.The momentum of completing this task will carry you through to the next and the next one after that until you’ve accomplished what you set out to.
Tactic 4: Make the Rewards and Consequences More Immediate
If you can find a way to make the rewards of not procrastinating and the consequences of procrastinating more immediate then it becomes easier to avoid procrastination. Making either the rewards or the consequences more immediate will help greatly but doing both will rocket you into a god tier anti-procrastinator.
One of the best ways to make the rewards more immediate is to bring future rewards into the current moment. Say you need to go to the gym, your reward could be watching your favorite TV show while doing cardio, this is known as temptation bundling. Combining the thing you dread with the reward will make you more likely to stop procrastinating.
One way to make the consequences of procrastination more immediate is by using a commitment device. For example, committing to working on your side hustle with a friend at the library if you don’t show your friend will think you’re a jerk. You could also try paying upfront for personal training sessions, so that the cost of missing a session is instant.
By making the rewards and consequences of procrastination more immediate you are actively avoiding procrastination.
Tactic 5: Enlist Help
It can be dangerous to go it alone. One of the best ways to ensure you accomplish what you set out to do is to enlist the help of friends and family.
For example, get support by telling one of your friends or family about a goal you’re trying to accomplish and then asking them to hold you accountable. Bonus points if you give them money or something you care about to hold onto until you achieve the goal.
Another way is to enlist the help of deadlines. Let’s say you’re trying to write a blog post a week, then put it on your blog for your readers to see that you publish a new post every week (I’m currently trying this out myself). If I don’t post then my readers think I’m lazy and I’ve missed a deadline leaving me with shame.
Putting skin in the game and asking others to hold you accountable or scheduling deadlines will help you reduce the odds of procrastinating.
Tactic 6: The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomo-what? The Pomodoro technique, it’s a time management approach based on working in 25-minute intervals using a timer to keep you accountable.
Here is how you enlist the pomodoro technique to overcome procrastination.
Pick the task you want to work on.
Set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on that task.
Make notes of all the distractions you experience during the 25 minutes on a note-pad – When you first try using the Pomodoro, you will probably be amazed at how often the urge arises to take a quick peek at something non-work-related so just write it down to review later.
Take a 5 minute break – surf the web, do whatever you want.
Repeat steps 1 – 4, 2-4 more times, then take a longer break where you get up and leave the distraction free environment before coming back to start again.
The technique is an effective tool for stopping procrastination as it imposes a short burst of discipline onto you. It is an achievable non-daunting amount of time to focus, rather than saying I’m going to do 8 hours of work today you only have to do 25 minutes which is much more appealing and effective.
Try a pomodoro session next time you notice yourself putting off a task, tell yourself I’ll just do 25 minutes and you’ll see how you reduce your time procrastinating.
How To Stop Procrastination Long Term
We’ve discussed how to stop procrastination in the short term using the six tactics above. Now, let’s discuss how we can make productivity a long term habit and stop procrastination from ever coming back into our lives.
To stop our poor productivity we must first be able to spot our procrastination triggers.
Spotting Procrastination Triggers
Procrastination like any habit is something you simply fall into. Yet, it quickly becomes an important “keystone” bad habit. The first step in stopping bad habits is being able to spot them.
You can probably spot when you’re procrastinating pretty easily. You’ll notice yourself on YouTube or Instagram when you promised yourself today was going to be different. The spotting is easy, what we need to understand is what triggered the unearned YouTube session.
Triggers are the cues that send us off into a procrastination spiral. A trigger for procrastination might be sitting down to study, you feel the pang of pain so you switch to YouTube. Another trigger might be you open your browser ready to go to your Google docs but when you open the browser you first go to Reddit.
You need to identify your triggers so that you can swap the behaviors associated with that trigger for productive behaviors. Then you can start building long term productivity habits.
Swapping a Bad Habits for Good Habits
Now you’ve spotted your triggers for your poor procrastination habits you can begin to use that trigger to help you build a good habit.
Habit formation I’ll touch on briefly in this post as I plan on going into the topic in more depth later. There are essentially three steps to habit formation.
The Cue (trigger): Cues fall into a few categories: location, time, how you feel, reactions to other people and preceding events. The cue is what “triggers” you to move to the routine. So the triggers mentioned above cause you to procrastinate.
The Routine: You automatically go into the routine when you’ve gotten your cue. The routine is procrastinating.
The Reward: Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The reward for procrastination is we get instant gratification and don’t feel the pang of pain anymore.
To develop a new routine you need a plan. You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the procrastination triggers that prompts you to procrastinate. Implementing this plan will allow you to start rewiring your brain.
Let’s take the example that your cue is to start working at 9am. Your plan to start working is to put your phone in another room, block non-productive procrastination websites and to say to yourself “I’ll just do 5 minutes on the first task, and then if I want I can have a break”. Once you’ve gotten past the five minutes you need to give yourself the reward.
The reward can be something really simple like an “attaboy” or “attagirl”. This is where you start rewiring your brain. Once your brain starts expecting the reward the rewiring will start taking place and you’ll start to build new habits.
You can then take that habit and start building a solid system that will allow you to stop procrastination for good.
Building a Solid Daily Routine
If you protect your routine, eventually it will protect you. We tend to slip easily back into procrastination because we don’t have a strong system that helps us prioritize tasks.
To a degree the highest performing people, the ones who get things done, the ones that we all admire. They’re the ones who have installed a system that prevents them from ever falling into productivity pitfalls. The system helps them analyse when they are getting off track and allows them to easily get back on track. I am going to discuss the productivity system I use and how you can use it too.
The system I follow is the ‘Getting Results the Agile Way’ system and it is perfect because it is simple and effective. It has five key steps.
Write your three yearly goals -> your three monthly goals -> your three weekly goals -> your three daily goals.
Set your day up with power hours to get your daily goals done.
Start with the hardest goal, when you are feeling strong and fresh.
Repeat the process daily, moving anything you didn’t get done the day before to the new day.
Reflect at the end of the week on what went well and what can be improved.
Here is why the system works:
It is basic. The system is simple, it doesn’t ask you to build a complex plan. Complexity is bad for productivity. The system asks you to consider your three goals for the year and then determine how each of your monthly, weekly and daily goals work to help you achieve those outcomes.
It forces you to prioritise and look at what helps you achieve your big outcomes. The system asks you to focus on the three most important things each day, week, month and year. This forces you to put limits on what you can work on. Constraints are powerful tools to keep you focused. In my experience when I don’t constrain myself and commit to something, then I tend to be distracted by everything. Bouncing from one thing to another without actually moving towards a larger outcome.
It helps you avoid multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. When you have fewer priorities it leads to better work. Why? Because how can you be great at one task when you’re constantly dividing your time amongst 5 different tasks. It is why athletes tend to only be great at one sport (with a few exceptions), because they singularly focus on running or swimming or their forehand and not shooting a basketball as well as mountain bike riding.
It gets you to reflect on what is working and what is not. The system works for me, it is important to remember there is no perfect system out there. Otherwise we’d all be productive and procrastination free. My advice is to just try the system for a few weeks, keep what works and dump what isn’t working for you. Don’t try and force what isn’t working, just because I told you it works for me. Use the weekly reflections to consider what’s working and what’s not.
Give yourself about three months of adjustment to get in place a new set of working habits that you like and are comfortable with. It has taken years to build your bad procrastination habits. It will take some time to break them.
To Productivity and Beyond
Now we know what procrastination is, why we procrastinate and how to stop procrastinating right now. Problem solved.
Not quite, procrastination will still rears its ugly little head from time to time but the systems and tactics above, as well as being more aware of your procrastination triggers will help you get back on track.
Hopefully this simple guide on procrastination was helpful. It is an important topic for me because stopping procrastination was a key milestone in taking the steering wheel of my life. For to, long I had let life move me, rather than the other way. I’ve come to realize that so much of what makes life and our relationships happy, enjoyable and fulfilling is affected by procrastination. So take control of your life, treat procrastination as something you can conquer and start living the life you want on your terms.
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