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How to Beat Procrastination

We all get that feeling once in a while, when we think of the tasks we need to complete today and all the hassle it will bring – sometimes it’s so easy to just sigh and say ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. 

Procrastination. Although it’s defined in a rather blasé term by the modern dictionary as being “the action of delaying or postponing something”, the meaning is far more complicated (and interesting) than that.

Humans have been procrastinating for centuries. Socrates and Aristotle developed a more fitting word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia, meaning the state of acting against your better judgment. You do one thing even though you know you should do something else. With this said, labeling the driving force of procrastination as being purely a lack of self-control would still be only scratching the surface.

According to behavioral psychology, the cause of this avoidance is a sensation known as “time inconsistency”, which is the tendency of our brain to value instant gratification more than future rewards.

Essentially, we have two selves: our present and our future self. When setting goals we are actually making plans for our future self. While the future self can set goals, only the present self can put them into action. Yes, our future self wants to be slim and healthy, but our present self really wants to eat that second dessert or skip exercising today. Our present self is very disconnected from our future self and the negative consequences of our actions can feel like fictional fragments of our present self’s imagination – almost as if they will impact an entirely different person. That’s why we seek what satisfies our wants right now, through instant gratification. 

Lack of motivation equals procrastination

Perhaps you can relate to this scenario: you were informed of your report’s due date weeks ago but have been putting it off by doing almost everything except working on it. There’s literally not a speck of dirt left in your entire apartment! As the due date draws closer, a nagging feeling of anxiety in your gut arises, but… what’s that? You suddenly need to clear up the bookshelf you never use? Suddenly, with 24 hours to go, the future consequences have now become the present consequences. Flooded with anxiety at the looming reality, you finally take action and, without sleep, manage to slam out the report just in time.

The main obstacle to prevent procrastination is that we cannot depend on long-term consequences or rewards to motivate our future self. Instead, we must bring the consequences into the present and create a short-term reward for completing the delegated task. This is what happens naturally when the suffering of procrastinating escalates to the point that we finally take action. You finally got the report done at the cost of sleep. The irony is that the stress and guilt we experience when procrastinating is far worse than the discomfort of actually doing the thing we are avoiding. The problem is not doing the action, it is starting it. Motivation often comes only after starting our task, and not before, hence we just end up dawlding until it’s almost too late and suffer the consequences.

So what can we do? Here’s some tangible strategies for you to beat procrastination.

Make rewards more immediate by temptation bundling

The bottom line is that it becomes easier to avoid procrastination if you can bring the benefits of your long-term decisions closer into the present. Temptation bundling entails combining a behavior that is good for you in the future with a behavior that feels good for you now. This involves only doing the thing you love with the thing you procrastinate on. For example, you can listen to the podcasts you enjoy only if you’re exercising at the same time, or watch your favourite TV show while doing household chores.

If it is not possible to combine both behaviors at once, then give yourself a reward as soon as you’ve completed the task. It’s also a good idea to reserve a specific reward for when you’ve completed the tasks you are prone to procrastinating on. For example, your favorite biscuits (which you might often indulge too much in) could become your procrastination-beating prizes, in that you don’t touch them unless they have been earned in this way: as soon as you’ve written 1000 words of that report, only then do you get to enjoy them!

Make the negative consequences more immediate

Skipping that workout won’t impact you until 4 weeks later, when you feel out of breath and your jeans no longer fit. However, if you agreed to workout with a friend, then bailing on them on a short notice will result in them feeling frustrated with you. A handy tip to stick with commitments is to increase the negative repercussions of avoiding doing what you’d planned. Reserving rewards is also linked to this, as you can’t enjoy your biscuits if you haven’t written your report. It takes a lot of discipline and honesty with yourself to enact these rules, but once you get the ball rolling, you’re definitely able to keep it up!

Design your future actions

Making ‘good’ decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision, such as resisting the urge to go on Youtube when you should be answering important emails. Decision fatigue occurs when our willpower fades after making a decision to resist something again and again. This next tip involves eliminating having to make the decisions.

Knowing yourself and the things you normally procrastinate with, you can create a space which has reduced temptations by removing them from your reach. For example, if you are prone to getting sucked into Youtube spirals instead of answering emails, you can block certain websites or use apps to help you manage. Getting rid of these distractions, or making it a hassle to succumb to your bad habits would make it easier to focus.

Make the task feel more achievable

Behind a lot of procrastination is the fear that we will not succeed at completing the action. What if I mess up despite all my efforts? I might as well just do it later. The task seems intimidating and that’s why it’s hard to begin. Instead of focusing on the task as a whole, use small measures of progress to help maintain momentum. You’re more likely to finish the large tasks. You’ll get the feeling of accomplishment much sooner and become more efficient as it goes on. Break large tasks down into small ones so that they are less scary. For instance, if your goal is to write a book, set your target as writing 200 words in an hour. Every 30 minutes, you’ll feel a wave of pride for succeeding your goal. Breaking down tasks to bite-sized chunks makes it easier for you to surpass your goal, while giving you room to take breaks without feeling guilty or pressured as well.

The more you are consistent with not procrastinating, the sooner productivity will become a long-term habit. Good luck!