The main topics in this article concern procrastination, why you should not procrastinate, the benefits of not procrastinating, why procrastination is bad, and why it is better not to procrastinate.
We are all familiar with a set of mind when you have to do so much, a lot of tasks are waiting to get done, and you just keep watching one YouTube video after another, or you keep reading these news articles non-stop.
Once you realize that you have made zero progress in the past two hours, you start feeling more dissatisfied and anxious than even before you decided to start working! Every time we promise ourselves that next time we are not going to waste time, that we will be organized… and the next time exactly the same thing happens again! We call ourselves lazy and search for advice on the Internet on how to become more efficient at work … and seem to forget it immediately!
At BooksRun, we understand this better than anyone else: deadlines, a lot of commitments, and, as a result, a lot of stress, which make it harder to meet the deadlines! So we decided to look from a psychological perspective at what procrastination really is, how it appears, and what its signs are. As they say: forewarned is forearmed! This information will let you better understand the nature of your procrastination and help you take practical steps to become more efficient.
What Is Procrastination?
Procrastination is a real challenge that we face at one point or another in our lives: we all struggle with avoiding and delaying things we don’t like to do. We tend to feel satisfied when we figure out how to stop procrastinating (even for a while). So let’s take a more detailed look at how we can turn these rare productive moments into a routine. What is procrastination? What does procrastination mean? Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen answer these and many other questions in their book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. Apart from just describing the problem, the authors offer an excellent program for overcoming this state. We also take up some of their tips below!
Suppose you feel guilty again for not being on top of the timeline. In that case, you should know that this procrastination problem is timeless: even the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle developed a specific connotation for this behavior: Akrasia. Essentially, this means that you are doing certain things when you know you should have done something else. In other words, Greek philosophers indicated the lack of self-control that was associated with akrasia. It corresponds to the modern definition of akrasia, aka procrastination: the act of postponing a task. It also means that you are prevented from doing what you set out to do!
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Here is the most important bit that everyone wants to know: why do we procrastinate? What happens in our brain that completely blinds all the important tasks we have to accomplish and makes us delay our work? The science that can help us understand this matter is called behavioral psychology: the research about “time inconsistency” relates closely to our discussion of procrastination. It refers to the tendency of our brain to get more excited about immediate rewards rather than future rewards. According to scientists, our Self is divided into two parts: our Present Self and our Future Self. So when you set a goal to lose weight by summer or improve your German, it means you set it for your Future Self. It also means that you envision certain actions that will lead you to specific results in the future. Researchers say that when we think about our Future Selves, it is easy for our brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term rewards.
Having said that, only the Present Self can take actions. When you have to make a decision, you are in the present moment and your brain is switched to the Present Self mode which likes instant gratification! No long-term payoff this time! That is why there is always a dilemma between what the Future Self plans and the Present Self does. That is why most people know that eating healthy helps to avoid being overweight but in reality, a small percentage of people take actions to cut down their carbs to arrive at this long-term goal of getting thinner. Which is sad because losing weight today will let you avoid the risk of diabetes or heart failure tomorrow.
Similarly, a lot of people understand that letting money aside in their 20s or 30s for retirement is crucial but since the benefit of doing so will be appreciated in a decades time, it is much easier for our Present Self to gratify itself with a new coat or a trip to Hawaii! If you would like to know more about evolutionary reasons that make us delay taking actions, you can can also read more about the evolution of anxiety.
How Does Procrastination Work?
So if you are one of those people who go to bed every day feeling motivated to begin a new life at 7.30 am the next morning, let’s check how procrastination pulls into our daily life (some people might not even notice it!). Let’s say that you have to submit an assignment. You have known about this and the approaching deadline for weeks, but nevertheless, you continued to put it off day after day. If you work remotely from home, you may get even more distracted by the number of things, from your family to the fridge. So the closer you get to the day of submission, the more anxiety and nagging pain you experience, but still, this does not push you to take immediate action and complete this assignment. Only the day before the deadline, when your anxiety catapults to the necessary level and you realize that you cannot procrastinate any longer, i.e., the future consequences become your present consequences, then you start working on your assignment ASAP. It means that the pain of procrastination escalated and crossed the “Action Line,” dividing the procrastination period from the action period.
It should be taken into consideration that as soon as you cross the “Action Line,” your pain and anxiety start to calm down. Even if it is just one day before the deadline—your pain in the middle of doing work is less than being in the middle of procrastination! You realize that the shame and guilt you feel when procrastinating are worse than the effort and energy you put in when you are working. Therefore, the problem is not about doing the work but actually about starting the work! So you are starting to get an idea here, right? If you want to stop procrastinating, you need to make it as easy as possible for the Present Self to get started, and motivation will come during the working process.
Check how Mel Robbins explains why people working as engineers, scientists, Ph.D. students and entrepreneurs are the ones who suffer most from procrastination:
Mel Robbins is also the person who introduced a game-changing 5-second rule. Learn more about this technique in her book The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage, based on behavioral psychology.
How to Stop Procrastinating
Once you have realized that procrastination is causing you to lose lots of time, you should start thinking of strategies to stop doing it! Here are some concepts that can let you battle this bad habit:
Option 1: Make your rewards for taking actions less long-term but more immediate!
If you find a way to make the benefits of your long-term choices appear more immediate, then your Present Self will be able to avoid procrastination. The best strategy to bring forward the feeling of being rewarded is called temptation bundling. This concept came from behavioral economics and was first used by Katy Milkman, who was conducting research at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea is that you bundle a behavior that is good for you in the long run with positive behavior in the short run. In simple terms, this means that you are doing what you love simultaneously with what you procrastinate on. Here are some examples of temptation bundling in real life:
- You only listen to audiobooks that you love while exercising (on which you normally procrastinate).
- Only get a pedicure while sorting out your work emails (procrastination otherwise).
- You only watch your favorite TV series while doing household work (normally procrastinated).
Read more about creating temptation bundling habits that will work for you in the long term.
Option 2: Make the consequences of procrastination more immediate.
There are so many ways to make yourself aware of what is coming if you do not get your work done right now! For instance, if you start exercising with your friend—missing workouts will become harder. If you are exercising alone, skipping a workout next week might not affect your life that much. Your health will not deteriorate immediately because of one missed workout—it will become obvious after weeks and months of such lazy behavior. At the same time, imagine that you are feeling lazy and you want to postpone a 7-am workout with your friend tomorrow—the consequences of delaying are much more painful this time! Another option is to bet money with your friends or family members or use such services as Stickk. Every time you follow a procrastination pattern, the money goes to someone else or to the organization you hate. In such a way, you create an unpleasant consequence associated with procrastinating, which should encourage you to stop these delaying habits.
Option 3: Design Your Future Actions
Psychologists use a tool called a “commitment device” to help people avoid procrastination: the idea is to plan your future actions ahead of time. For example, you can restrain your disorganized eating habits by purchasing food in individual packages rather than in bulk size. You can stop wasting time by blocking certain programs on your computer when working on something. Some other ideas to take action on things that are popular reasons for procrastination: set up a standing order from your bank account to your savings account to build an emergency fund and hide your TV remote to avoid the temptation of Netflix.
Option 4: Make the tasks you set more achievable
Turn your tasks into achievable goals! As we have outlined above, the friction that causes procrastination is caused by the difficulty of starting a certain task. Once you have started, it is so much easier to proceed with actions. The best way to do it is to come up with a certain ritual that you do before beginning a task that you have a tendency to delay. For example, you can use the two-minute rule: when you start a new habit, it should take you less than two minutes to do it. You start doing something, and then momentum will carry you further into the task—this is a solution for laziness and procrastination because it is so easy to start taking action! You will not be able to find an excuse anymore not to do it!
Another useful tip is about breaking big tasks into achievable increments so that you can feel satisfied and accomplished more regularly. Let’s take an example of the writer Anthony Trollope: he was a very prolific writer who published 47 novels and 12 short stories, and he also wrote numerous articles. So how was he able to become so efficient at his work? Well, it is because he measured his progress not by completing chapters or books (which takes a very long time) but in 15-minute intervals. He set a goal to write 250 words every 15 minutes, and he would continue this pattern for three hours every day. It means that the author could enjoy the pleasant feeling of satisfaction every 15 minutes rather than once a month, which stimulated him not to delay his work.
So what can we learn from Anthony Trollope’s example? Making your tasks more achievable is important because:
- It helps you not lose momentum over the long run, and you are much more likely to finish large tasks before the deadline.
- The faster you complete the task, the more productive you feel, and the quicker you adopt the habit of being efficient. This is a very important point because if you adopt a high working speed, it becomes much harder to delay tasks daily.
Other Useful Tips on Productivity Habits
So after you have learned about strategies to beat procrastination, we can have a look at the ways how to turn productivity into your daily habit. For even more productivity habits, turn to the books by Tim Ferriss, in which this business superstar describes his personal principles and habits behind his success.
Daily routine experts have developed an understanding of a system that uses human productivity at its peak. One of the best productivity methods is also one of the most simple ones and is called The Ivy Lee Method. It consists of five steps:
- At the end of each workday, you should write the six most important things you will need to accomplish the next day. Do not write down more than 6 tasks because otherwise, you will struggle to accomplish them all.
- Prioritize these tasks according to their importance to you on that day.
- When you start the new day, concentrate fully on the first task. Do not think about anything else during this time. Work until the first task is finished and only then move to the second one.
- Approach other tasks on your list with the same attitude. At the end of the day, if you do not accomplish all the tasks, move them to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
So what makes this method so effective?
- It is simple to make you start working: it does not account for all the complexities of life and emergencies that can suddenly pop up. This means that it is not hard to get back on track and prioritize the things that you really have to accomplish.
- It forces you to make decisions: it limits you to only 6 tasks per day, making you work harder to accomplish them in order to feel satisfied at the end of the day. When you have too many ideas and get overwhelmed about what you have to do, this is the first step to procrastination! Warren Buffet, who is the most successful investor of our time, uses a similar 25-5 method in his daily life, which helps to prioritize the tasks you really need to do during the day. Constraints make you perform better!
- It minimizes the friction to start working. The biggest procrastination problem is to actually start doing your work. It is much more difficult to start working out when you are still sitting on the sofa. Once you get up and start getting dressed, the idea of running seems not that hard. Moreover, according to Lee’s method, when you plan your tasks the day before, it means you are forced to decide on the tasks that really deserve your attention—this releases the stress and gives clarity for the direction of your next day.
- It requires you to avoid multitasking. According to the latest scientific research, multitasking is one of the main enemies of being efficient at work and capable of meeting deadlines. If you study the profiles of world-class athletes, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, you will discover one common trait that unites them: the ability to focus completely on the task. True mastery requires true dedication and consistency; remember it when you are trying to speak on the phone, eat your lunch and organize your overdue work emails—all at the same time!
Visual Cues to Avoid Chronic Procrastination
By this, we mean to use visual reminders that will trigger your productivity habits and overcome the tendency to procrastinate.
- Visual cues should remind you to start actions: how many times do we promise to ourselves and others to develop a new habit and stay consistent with it? The most popular example is, “I am going to eat healthier. Really, once and for all, I will begin from Monday.” And do you know what happens next? This Monday never starts! The motivation fades as the momentum of busy life takes a toll on you. That is why a visual stimulus is helpful—write down a list of products you will never consume again! Print the photos of people you would like to resemble… and start acting healthier!
- Visual cues should display the gradual progress of your new behavior. It is a way to stimulate consistency with your new habits. It is an essential component of your long-term success: try to find a calendar with an in-built measurement system that tracks your progress every 3 days or every week. If you feel like eating a hamburger or skipping your morning training session, look at the calendar: it should get you back on track because it indicates what result you will have in a certain amount of time. So you will have to keep going!
- Visual cues have a cumulative effect on motivation. Once you see visual progress (you check your calendar) and the results you have already achieved, you will have more motivation and power to continue your efforts further. In behavioral economics, this refers to the Endowed Progress Effect: your previous progress triggers your next productive action.
Now more about the visual cues strategies:
1. The Paper Clip Strategy
This method was developed by a twenty-three-year-old rookie stockbroker Trent Dyrsmid in 1993. He was hired for a small Canadian bank on the outskirts of Vancouver, and nobody expected too much of him. However, he was able to make impressive progress thanks to one simple daily habit: every morning, he would put two jars on his table—one with 120 paper clips, another one empty. He would start his day at 8 am every morning, and every time he made a sales call, he would move one paper clip from the full jar to the empty one. He would keep dialing the phone until he moved all the paper clips to the second jar. That is the way to start the process and take immediate action—no time for procrastination! No wonder that within 18 months, Dyrsmid was bringing $5 million to his firm, and he was making annually the equivalent of $125,000 today!
2. The Seinfeld Strategy
This strategy is great for maintaining the consistency of work over long periods of time. It is named after Jerry Seinfeld, who is one of the most successful comedians of all time in America. His peak popularity came in 1998 when he was able to earn a whopping $286 million just in one year! Today his earnings are still impressive and accumulate to $85 million per year! Still not bad! So how does he achieve remarkable consistency in everything he does? Show after show, performance after performance, he continues to entertain people and draw interest in what he is doing.
Most of us wish to achieve the same level of consistent determination in our daily lives. Let’s look at how we spend our days: we want to create and set goals but struggle to achieve them. The strategy elaborated by Jerry Seinfeld should help us produce high-quality work more consistently. His main idea about becoming a better performer and a better comedian consists of writing better jokes. And the way to create better jokes is to write every day! And to make sure he does this task on a regular basis, he uses a big wall calendar that he places on a prominent wall. Then he sets a writing task for the day—once he completes this task, he crosses the date in the calendar with a big red marker. After a few days of successful accomplishment of these tasks, he will see a chain of big red X. The more he makes an effort to achieve his everyday goal, the longer this chain becomes. If you follow his routine, you get to feel satisfaction from seeing this chain getting longer and longer every day. Your only task becomes not to break the chain! Simple as that!
So you see, sometimes achieving results does not require extreme willpower—t is enough to find a stimulus that works for you. Using visual cues might be one of them!
10 Reasons to Avoid Procrastination
Once we have outlined what procrastination is and what are the best methods to curb this behavioral pattern, let’s discuss what are the disadvantages of procrastination. Here are more ideas on why procrastination is bad for you:
You can run out of time.
Every time procrastination starts, you have a deadline to meet. If we are talking about college, procrastinating bears a high risk of you missing a deadline. Normally, professors are unwilling to give extensions (unless you have very special circumstances), and this means that you will get a lower grade than you could have gotten if you started your work on time and worked consistently till the end. Procrastination can simply cost you money—if you don’t sell your textbooks on time, you might lose some cash. So it is crucial to plan ahead and follow your schedule, not yielding to procrastination.
It takes time to formulate ideas.
Do not expect to start at the very last minute and to have all the ideas ready for you in your head. Most college papers require you to spend some time thinking about it, doing your research, coming up with arguments, and refining them over time. So you should allow sufficient time for ideas to jell in your head!
You can underestimate the difficulty of the task you have to accomplish.
Another issue that many students have to deal with when procrastinating is underestimating the task’s difficulty! You cannot predict exactly how much time it will take you to do certain parts of your assignment. So if you procrastinate for too long, you may end up not completing all the tasks because they are more difficult than you originally thought, and therefore they take longer to complete.
You can underestimate the painful consequences.
We procrastinate because we do not want to feel the pain of actually doing the work. How often have we postponed writing a 10-page-long assignment or reading a 400-page long book just because this sheer size of work sounds insurmountable? When you actually get going with the task, you realize that it is not that much of an issue to pull this forward. Before you start, the pain is 100 %, but the more you move forward, the less your pain becomes. This pain is much less than not meeting your deadlines or completing work poorly. So it is all not worth wasting time.
Something can pop up and ruin your original plan.
If you leave the task one or two days before the deadline, you suppose that you will dedicate 100% of your time and effort to this task. But have you ever thought if something happens and you can no longer dedicate that time and effort? For example, your computer crashes, your internet breaks down, and you have some family issues that you have to resolve—all this will steal the time you have already planned to use to get your task done. This means that you will struggle to complete it, or at least you will have an insurmountable amount of stress to deal with, which is not great either.
You blow off your chance to ask for help on the way.
It is a similar reason if you are underestimating the complexity of the task that you have to accomplish. The earlier you start, the earlier you formulate your action plan, and the better your thoughts are formulated. For example, if you have a very difficult college paper to write, and you have some time left before the deadline, you have the chance to ask for help on the way—your friends and your professors, which give will you a higher chance of succeeding in the work you have to do.
The quality of work deteriorates under time pressure.
This is common knowledge that if you keep putting off your work day after day, you have a higher stress level. The panic due to time constraints is one of the worst ones: you will have to spend time calming yourself down, which makes you less focused on the work you are doing and, as a result, less productive.
You might not have time to improve your work.
When you start your work at the last minute, and even if you complete it before the deadline, you will most likely run out of time to check and polish it. This brings “rushed” quality to your finished work.
You put yourself at a strategic disadvantage.
If you put yourself in a disadvantaged position due to procrastination: some of your classmates will start early, and they will be able to submit their good quality proofread work. You should remember that professors mark your paper against the best-written work in your class, so you will lose points to your fellow classmates who were more organized.
The task will not get easier.
And the last point to stress is that the task will stay the same: it will not get easier with time. On the opposite, you will feel more stressed and anxious, and it will be harder to fully dedicate yourself to getting this work done. Therefore, pull yourself together today (if you have not done it yet) and get going! It will get better on the way!