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I. The Science Behind Procrastination
Let’s start by getting the basics nailed down. What is procrastination? What does procrastination mean? What exactly are we dealing with here?
What is Procrastination?
Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.
Here’s a modern definition:
Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing a task or set of tasks. So, whether you refer to it as procrastination or akrasia or something else, it is the force that prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.
Before we too deep into this discussion, let’s pause for just a second.
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Why Do We Procrastinate?
If we want to figure out how to overcome procrastination, then we have to understand why we procrastinate in the first place. This is a good time to bring some science into our discussion.
Behavioral psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called “time inconsistency,” which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
When you make plans for yourself — losing weight, writing a book, learning a language, or setting any goal — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future.
When you think about your future self it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self.
Researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff. This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling back into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.
What can we do about this? How can we stop procrastinating when it matters most?
II. How to Beat Chronic Procrastination
Everything I’ve learned about how to overcome procrastination boils down to three main strategies. Below, I’ll outline and explain each concept, then provide you with a specific strategy to help you put the strategy into action.
1. Use Constraints that Help You Start Small and Stay Focused
People often say that they want options. When it comes to getting things done, however, options aren’t always a good thing. When everything is a possibility, it actually becomes harder to make the right choice (or any choice at all). This is the paradox of choice.
Meanwhile, when we place a constraint on ourselves, it can become much easier to take action. This is especially true if it is a constraint that forces us to start small.
- If you want to start exercising, set a rule for yourself where you are not allowed to exercise for more than 5 minutes. You have to stop exercising after 5 minutes. I talked with a reader named Mitch who used this strategy to make his first six weeks of exercise very easy and then gradually built up to doing more. He ended up losing over 100 pounds. (Nice work, Mitch!)
- If you want to become more creative, you can use constraints to drive your creativity. For example, you could write a book by only using 50 different words. This is the strategy Dr. Seuss used to write Green Eggs and Ham. (Full story here.)
- If you want to eat more vegetables, you could limit yourself to only one type of vegetable this week. By limiting the number of choices you have to make, it’s more likely that you’ll actually eat something healthy rather than get overwhelmed trying to figure out all of the details of the perfect diet.
How to Eliminate Procrastination with Constraints (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)
In 2009, Fred Stutzman was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina and he was trying to grind out some important work on his thesis.
But there was a problem.
His favorite coffee shop, which had previously been a quiet sanctuary where he could escape distraction and get work done, had just added a new and very dangerous feature.
Now Stutzman found himself constantly distracted by the endless supply of entertainment and social media on the web — even if he really wanted to get something done. He tried disconnecting from the internet, but it wasn’t that simple. He was always clicking it back on to “take a break.” He was constantly fighting the urge to check his messages and updates.
Thankfully, Stutzman happened to be a programmer studying Information Science. When he went home that night, he decided to create a software program that would solve his problem.
The program was simple. You turned the application on, told it how long you wanted to focus, and it prevented your computer from going online for that amount of time. If you wanted to get back on before your time was up, you had to turn your computer completely off and reboot.
The program was called Freedom and not long after Stutzman created it, the application went viral. It was picked up by NPR, The Economist, The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Time, and nearly every major news outlet you can imagine. More than 500,000 people downloaded it.
Why Does It Work?
Making decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision — like constantly resisting the urge to check your email. (Another example: continually trying to follow a new, strict diet.)
You might be able to resist for 5 minutes or an hour or maybe even a week, but eventually, your willpower will begin to fade and you’ll give in. This is known as decision fatigue and in a previous article I discussed how it has a measurable impact on your willpower and the choices you make throughout any given day.
The Freedom app that Stutzman designed is effective not only because it prevents you from reaching the web, but also because it reduces decision fatigue. It eliminates your options and, as a result, doing the right thing becomes much easier. In other words, the application places a constraint on your behavior.
2. Design Your Future Actions
You can design your future actions with commitment devices. Commitment devices are strategies that help improve your behavior by either increasing the obstacles or costs of bad behaviors or reducing the effort required for good behaviors.
You can curb your future eating habits by purchasing food in individual packages rather than in the bulk size. You can stop wasting time on your phone by deleting games or social media apps. You can reduce the likelihood of mindless channel surfing by hiding your TV in a closet and only taking it out on big game days. You can voluntarily ask to be added to the banned list at casinos and online gambling sites to prevent future gambling sprees. You can build an emergency fund by setting up an automatic transfer of funds to your savings account. These are commitment devices.
Fred Stutzman’s Freedom app that we just discussed is a great example of a commitment device.
How to Stop Procrastinating, Avoid Laziness, and Get Things Done by Using “Temptation Bundling”
This idea that you can make it easier to perform a behavior that is good for you in the long-run by combining it with a behavior that feels good in the short-run is called “temptation bundling.” You are essentially bundling behaviors you are tempted to do with behaviors that you should do, but often neglect.
There is a simple exercise you can use to figure out your own temptation bundling strategy.
You’re going to create a two-column list:
- In column one, write down the pleasures you enjoy and the temptations that you want to do.
- In column two, write down the tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but often procrastinate on.
Take your time and write down as many behaviors as possible. Then, browse your list and see if you can link one of your instantly gratifying “want” behaviors with something you “should” be doing.
Here are a few common examples of temptation bundling:
- Only listen to audiobooks or podcasts you love while exercising.
- Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.
- Only watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
- Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.