How to Overcome Procrastination
9 Surprisingly Effective Strategies (Backed by Science!)
I procrastinated on writing this article.
I know that it’s a topic that my readers will love and that my ideas will be immediately valuable to them. And therefore, writing and publishing it will help me achieve my long-term goals for this blog.
However, I couldn’t get started. I couldn’t force myself to put my butt in my chair and start moving my fingers.
The physical act of writing is simple and easy. But, in my head, it seemed so hard. It was easier to keep laying on my couch listening to podcasts and eating food.
The more I procrastinated the more anxiety I felt. I was obsessed with finishing this article, but I felt some psychological barrier preventing me from doing so.
I started making excuses to myself. I was afraid that it wouldn’t be a good article. That writing it would be a waste of time or that my ideas would sound stupid or wouldn’t be useful to my readers.
Then, I started feeling guilt and shame about procrastinating. That made me even less motivated to start. And finally, I started justifying my procrastination: “I’ve gone a week without writing, what’s another day?”
Procrastination is the voluntary but counterproductive delay of an intended action. More simply, it means delaying or postponing a task, despite benefits of completing the task and/or costs of failing to complete the task.
When procrastinating, it often feels like there’s a psychological force preventing you from following through on what you set out to achieve.
Here are a few of the things that I frequently procrastinate:
- Filling out paperwork
- Reading paper mail
- Doing boring or tedious work such as cleaning
- Having difficult conversations with friends and colleagues
The negative consequences of procrastinating on important work are well-documented. While it’s hard to get started on a project, doing so can have great benefits in the future. Your future self would be glad you started now. In addition, getting stuff done sooner rather than later frees your mind and your schedule to pursue new opportunities.
However, there are also instances when it’s actually beneficial to procrastinate. Procrastinating may not be the symptom of a character flaw or moral shortcoming like it’s commonly made out to be in the latest listicle of productivity hacks. Rather, procrastination may be an adaptive strategy. By understanding the latest research into the psychology behind why we procrastinate, we can develop strategies for beating procrastination that actually work.
Why do we procrastinate?
“Know thy self, know thy enemy.” – Sun Tzu
Beating procrastination requires beating the underlying psychology that encourages us to procrastinate — that force that compels us to keep sitting on the couch instead of doing the work. Beating the underlying psychology requires knowing the underlying psychology.
I had previously assumed that the desire to procrastinate was a flaw — an irrational behavior that hurts our productivity. It turns out that procrastinating is sometimes beneficial. Our desire to procrastinate may actually be warranted or may be a signal that we need to make a change.
The challenge is differentiating between which feelings are rational and which are irrational. Here we will explore how and why our brains feel compelled to procrastinate. In the following section, I’ll share a few strategies to counter the compulsions one has that are irrational.
1. Sometimes procrastination pays off
According to Dr. Doug Lisle, our ancestors lived in uncertain times where there was a moderate chance that our obligations would actually go away. In this environment, procrastination was a useful strategy because there was a chance that circumstances would change and you wouldn’t need to complete the task on which you’re procrastinating. For example, there was a chance that the person you borrowed money from would die or disappear before you needed to make a repayment to them.
However, this was far more prevalent pre-modern civilization. Today, it is far less likely that our lender will disappear or that our responsibility will simply go away or become ineffectual. Therefore, procrastination is less likely to pay off today than it was in pre-civilized times.
2. Your ego is trying to protect you from failure
According to Cal Newport, the compulsion to procrastinate may come as a result of an underlying fear of failure:
“Complex planning is a pre-verbal adaptation, so it’s not going to manifest itself as a voice in your head exclaiming ‘plan rejected!’ Instead, it’s going to be more intuitive: a biochemical cascade designed to steer you away from a bad decision; something, perhaps, that feels like a lack of motivation to get started.”
In a sense, where you lie on the spectrum between feeling motivated and feeling compelled to procrastinate is a result of a risk-reward calculation your brain makes about your ability to succeed. For example, if that business idea you’ve been procrastinating on getting started is not actually a good idea, it would be wise to keep procrastinating. If you were to invest your time and money into a bad idea, it would be quite costly. You would be better off not testing your status.
When we fail, we lose status with ourselves and our peers. Thus, in some such instances, your procrastination may be your ego trying to protect you. Sometimes that fear is warranted, and sometimes it is not.
3. We’re not used to abstract concepts or long-term thinking
Our ancestors lived in an Immediate Return environment. Living conditions were harsh in this environment. The probability that you would die on any given day was far greater than it is today. In this environment, it was beneficial to take actions with more immediate payoff. “When food was scarce, the mantra typically went that in order to survive you must kill to avoid getting killed. Act now; don’t wait. Our ancestors needed to be quick-thinking and even quicker to make decisions. They had to be impulsive,” Chris Weller writes in Medical Daily.
A study published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information further supports this theory:
“Impulsivity was a useful trait for early humans (hunter-gatherers) who needed to satisfy their basic survival needs quickly. In those preagricultural days, there may have been little reason to spend time creating long-term plans for the distant future; in fact, taking too much time thinking about the future could sometimes have been harmful if it meant distraction from satisfying immediate needs.”
It wasn’t necessary for our ancestors to make the complex decisions that we have to make today. As our economy has shifted from a hunter-gatherer to agriculture and technologically-driven system, our environment has shifted from Immediate Return to Delayed Return.
However, our brains haven’t kept pace with that shift. “Scientists suggest this absence of necessary impulsivity is what allows tasks that don’t threaten our lives to lead us to distraction. Since we don’t have vicious, sharp-toothed animals keeping us on high-alert, our natural sense of impulsivity leads us astray,” Weller says.
In a sense, when you procrastinate, you are opting for the instant gratification, which was appropriate in the Immediate Return Environment, as opposed to opting for the future gratification that would be rewarded for accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. Humans value immediate rewards over future rewards.
We also haven’t evolved to fully comprehend some of the more abstract concepts that are prevalent in our lives today. Spending four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “degree” that would increase your earnings potential in future decades is not something our ancestors would have ever considered. As a result, our brains today are hesitant to spend so much time and energy on such a project. So, we procrastinate, despite the potential upsides.
5. We’re not living in line with our values
Cal Newport differentiates between “procrastination” and “deep procrastination.” When you start asking yourself why you’re in college, as opposed to just resisting doing your homework, you’re experiencing deep procrastination.
You’re likely to experience deep procrastination if, for example, an excessive workload is hurting your physical or mental health, or preventing you from spending time on other things you care about such as relationships or music, or you’re not actually interested in a career within the field you’re majoring.
It’s difficult to allocate time and energy to something that doesn’t align with your values. You’d be likely to procrastinate on a research product for a Republican think tank if you’re a Democrat.
According to Garth Sundem (via Psychology Today), procrastinators tend to be more intrinsically motivated, as opposed to being motivated by material achievement:
“More and more, research is showing that procrastination isn’t a defect in ability or personality but rather a disconnect between the demands of a task and what motivates the procrastinator. Procrastinators are intrinsically and not extrinsically motivated, meaning that neither tempting them with rewards nor warning them the sky will fall is likely to up their motivation to the threshold of action.”
You’re more likely to procrastinate if your goals aren’t in line with your values. In this case, “procrastination is not your enemy. It is instead a constructive source of criticism,” Newport says.
How to Overcome Procrastination
You now have a better understanding of the psychology behind your desire to procrastinate. Awareness of how your brain works is the first and most important step to overcome procrastination. You are now better equipped to counter the irrational impulses to procrastinate and listen to the rational reasons to procrastinate. Here are nine strategies and several action steps to do so.
1. Recalculate your probabilities to account for modern times
When determining whether to complete a task or to procrastinate, your brain runs a cost-benefit analysis that incorporates an estimate of the probability that you won’t ever need to complete the task. Because our brains have evolved from environments where there was a more significant probability that we wouldn’t need to complete the task, and if you overestimate the probability that you won’t need to complete the task, you won’t be motivated to complete it until the last minute.
So, make a more accurate estimate of the probability that you won’t need to complete the task based on modern times and modern individual expectations. Be conservative and take into account that things often take longer than expected.
Here are four action steps for re-calculating the probability of your obligation:
- Estimate the probability that you’re not going to be obligated to do whatever it is you need to do. Take into account your brain’s tendency to perceive the probability as being lower than it actually is.
- Differentiate between what you’re going to have to do and what you might not have to do
- If there’s a high probability that you’re going to need to complete the task, complete that task sooner rather than later.
- If there’s a low probability that you’ll need to complete a given task, or if there’s a chance the probability will change based on upcoming events, feel free to procrastinate.
2. Develop a better plan
If your ego believes you may fail at your goal, it will try to protect you to avoid losing status with yourself or your peers. This effort manifests itself as a lack of motivation, and, therefore, procrastination. In some cases, you may need to adjust your goal, such as starting a business so you can quit your job. In other cases, you just need a better plan. Cal Newport explains the importance of having a viable strategy:
“The evolutionary perspective on procrastination, by contrast, says we delay because our frontal lobe doesn’t see a convincing plan behind our aspiration. The solution, therefore, is not to muster the courage to blindly charge ahead, but to instead accept what our brain is telling us: our plans need more hard work invested before they’re ready.”
Here are six ways you can upgrade your plan to start a business and quit your job:
- Study entrepreneurship to learn best practices for product development, marketing, etc.
- Run some low-risk experiments. This will give you some evidence about which of your ideas are good and which are bad, without putting your bank account at risk.
- Find mentors who can share what they’ve learned from their own experiences.
- Think critically about your strategy and develop alternatives.
- Save more money before investing too heavily in your business or quitting your job.
- Break a big goal into a series of smaller goals that won’t scare your ego.
3. Bring future consequences and benefits into the present
Our brains aren’t good at thinking long-term. We prefer immediate rewards. Bringing the future consequences of procrastinating and the future benefits of beating procrastinating into the present can counter that. The future consequences need to become present consequences and the future benefits need to become present benefits.
For example, if in a year, you still haven’t started blogging, the consequence is that you won’t be any closer to your goals. You won’t see an immediate benefit from blogging, but if you do start, you can grow a large reader base within a year if you do it right.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Lisle, thinking of lofty goals is more likely to trigger the ego into protecting itself. If you start and fail, your ego will be crushed. If you don’t start at all, your ego can still believe that you’re capable of succeeding.
Here are six ways to counteract your brain’s tendency to miscalculate long-term costs and benefits:
- Set deadlines.
- Break big projects into small pieces. Small pieces are easier to start and provide more immediate rewards.
- Reward yourself for small wins. A candy bar every time you finish a blog post, or something equivalent.
- Recognize smaller benefits: every article, every reader counts.
- Recognize smaller consequences: missed revenue or missed learning.
- Remind yourself of the benefits of abstract concepts. A college degree is not just a piece of paper, it’s a ticket to higher status.
4. Make it easier to start and harder to procrastinate
Humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. We seek the path of least resistance to accomplish these ends. This is what Lisle refers to as “The Motivational Triad.” We want the most possible for the least possible because there’s a limited amount of time in the day and we have a limited amount of energy to spend.
This knowledge yields four strategies for beating procrastination and getting work done:
- Increase the benefits of doing the work
- Reduce the costs of doing the work
- Increase the costs of procrastinating
- Reduce the benefits of procrastinating
Here are some ways to execute on those strategies:
- Do work that you generally enjoy so that the costs of doing it are minimal.
- Minimize dependence on willpower. Make it easier to complete desired actions. Reduce the energy that’s required to start working.
- Focus on activities that will yield great results and are therefore worth the energy expenditure.
- Give yourself small but tangible rewards for doing work.
- Remind yourself that the short-term benefits of procrastinating are outweighed by the costs of procrastinating.
- Remind yourself of the benefit of simply pushing yourself to do work that will help you over the long-run.
- Affirm confidence in your ability to succeed (that the energy expenditure will pay off).
- Start small. Identify a tiny piece of a big project to get started on for a lower energy expenditure. Build on the momentum.
5. Work less
Overworking can have many negative consequences. In the context of procrastination, allocating too much of your time to work throws your life out of balance with your values. You won’t have as much time for your friends or interests outside of work which are likely more important to you. Cal Newport describes how overworking can lead to resentment and procrastination:
“If you want to cure deep procrastination you have to remove the source of resentment. And this means doing less; much less. …The light schedule takes away their fatigue, and a true interest in their work blossoms again.”
Counterintuitively, working less can help your productivity over the long-term. But it’s surprisingly hard to work less. It’s hard, in part, because we haven’t evolved to know exactly how much we need to work or how much money we need to make. We just want to survive and reproduce, and being anxious about work is more likely to help us achieve those ends.
Here are four ways to start the simple but hard process of working less:
- Take inventory of your values and priorities in life. Where does work fall on the list?
- Consider whether there are anxieties or problems in your life that you are working to run away from.
- Delegate work that you don’t need to do yourself.
- Stop doing work that isn’t worth your time.
6. Lower your expectations for being comfortable
Costs and benefits are partially subjective. A 9-5 job would probably feel like hell to someone who recently failed at starting a business. However, to someone in jail, working a 9-5 job would probably be a dream come true. It all comes down to expectations.
To expect that life will always be comfortable and easy is wishful thinking. If you expect life to always be comfortable and easy, you will inevitably be disappointed. If you expect life to be hard, you have the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.
We didn’t evolve to always be happy and comfortable. A little anxiety and hard work is a natural part of life.
Working is hard. Life is full of hard stuff. Setting expectations accordingly makes pushing through it anyways a lot less painful — potentially even enjoyable.
7. Find meaning in the work
We used to get status from hunting and gathering. Now we get status from graduating from college. It’s far more challenging for our brains to understand the importance of the latter than it is the former.
To counter your brain’s challenges comprehending abstract ideas and to stay motivated to do work that you’re not intrinsically motivated to do, think deeply about the real meaning of the work. Think about the long-term career, financial, or altruistic goal that you’re trying to achieve.
You’re not just chopping wood, you’re chopping wood so that you can provide for your family. You’re not just bookkeeping, you’re saving up money so you can start a business or donate to charity. You’re not just starting a business to make money, you’re doing it to help your customers or solve an important problem in the world.
In addition to the big picture rewards, remind yourself of some of the smaller rewards, such as learning from experience and growing stronger from exercising willpower. Whatever it is you’re trying to get yourself to do, there must be some small aspect that has meaning. When in doubt, be grateful.
Meditation helps you become aware of your thoughts. Becoming aware of your thoughts is an essential step to ignoring the thoughts that aren’t useful.
You don’t have to go on a big fancy retreat in order to mediate. You can start with just 5-10 minutes per day. You can also make a habit of being mindful throughout your day. Simply complete the steps below when you find yourself procrastinating:
- Focus your attention on your breath.
- Be aware of the thoughts that are flowing in your head that lead you to procrastination.
Don’t try to make the thoughts go away. Don’t feel guilty for having them. Just acknowledge that they are present in your mind. Say “hello” to the thoughts. Then, choose the best course of action. Do the work.
9. Live in line with your values
Doing something that is not in line with, or even opposite to, your values can be emotionally challenging, which leads to procrastination. In this case, your desire to procrastinate may be a good sign that you shouldn’t do it and instead should find something to do that’s in line with your values.
Here are a few ways to discover your values:
- Experiment with different lines of work.
- Meditate and be mindful of your reaction to your actions.
- Write down a list of characteristics of your ideal life.
- Write down a list of behavioral traits that you aspire to.
Your values will probably change over time as you learn and grow. I cared a lot more about novelty and excitement in my twenties than I do in my thirties. Consider your values on an ongoing basis. Never be afraid to reassess.
Living in line with your values will keep you happy, motivated, and productive.
Stop waiting until the last minute to do what you need to do. Procrastination adds stress and often leads to lower-quality work.
Start doing the things that you know you need to do in order to achieve your long-term goals. You’ll be glad you did three years from now
But remember, sometimes procrastinating is a rational strategy. Sometimes, it’s best to do more than just wait. When you’re not living in line with your values or you’re taking on too much risk on a project that’s likely to fail, it’s best not to do it at all.
Be aware of how our brains have evolved and how that can lead to thinking that’s not appropriate for our modern environment. Think critically about whether you should procrastinate, do what you need to do, or develop a new plan. Motivation is not a viable alternative to living within your values or doing something that has a reasonable chance of succeeding. Overcoming procrastination is not helpful if what you’re procrastinating is going to do more harm than good.
When you’re living in line with your values and doing something that’s actually beneficial to you, make harder to procrastinate and easier to start and finish. Find meaning in the work, even the mundane work, and take pride in exercising willpower and pushing through your desire to procrastinate.