Work Smarter//

Why We Procrastinate, and How We Can Finally Stop

It starts by gradually understanding our own habits.

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Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

I am a professional writer, which means as soon as I get an assignment, I sit right down and reorganize my desk. Then I clean my apartment and make myself a snack. Then I do that all again. In fact, I take my job so seriously that I conducted exhaustive research for this article about procrastination by putting it off until the last minute. You’re welcome.

There are several valid explanations for why we procrastinate, but let’s focus on one aspect: self-control.

We lack self-control because our unconscious decision-making mechanisms – the system of irrationality upon which behavioral science is based – prefers the tangible, emotionally satisfying rewards of doing something right now, in the present, to the immediate work and discomfort which might lead to – often greater – distant, vague, uncertain and disconnected rewards in the future. Whether it’s exercise, diet or saving for retirement, it feels good to do something now – stay in bed, eat some cake, buy a boat – especially when the reward for the long-term action is months, years and decades away. I can’t really relate to Jeff-in-30-Years, but I do know what Jeff-Right-Now wants: cake, in bed, on a boat. Whatever pleasure or pain I might feel later – after a hard task is done – just isn’t as tangible nor as powerful a motivator as whatever pleasure or pain I might feel right now.

This lack of emotional connection with our future selves makes for a powerful cocktail of no self control … which is why we eat one marshmallow instead of waiting for two, have no retirement savings and why we put off unpleasant work for the emotional rewards of procrastination. 

Eventually finishing the big report I haven’t even started doesn’t feel nearly as good as the dopamine rush I get from one more retweet, Facebook like, email notification, clean countertop or heartily devoured last Oreo.

So if our lack of self-control – our preference for the temptations of the present over the benefits of the future – is a driving force behind procrastination, what can we do? 

Well, we cannot change human nature, but by understanding human nature – why we do things – we can create systems and environments and tools to use our human nature to our own benefit (complete the project!) rather than having it be used against us (write a Facebook post and vacuum up cookie crumbs).

That’s where behavioral science comes in, providing three basic ways to overcome our self-control problems and stop procrastinating. We can 1. Increase the immediate rewards of working long term, 2. Make the future consequences of action more tangible and/or 3. Lock ourselves into doing the right thing.

Increase Immediate Rewards

Since the benefits of the project we’re putting off won’t be felt for a long time – and they’re overwhelmed by the emotional rewards of avoiding it – we need to increase immediate emotion rewards of the long-term project. We can do this through “reward substitution.” Instead of fighting to overcome our lack of self-control or fighting to be motivated by the future benefits or fighting to overcome present temptations … we can just give ourselves kudos and prizes for present action in the right direction. Rather than trying to convince ourselves to care about our future, we can just give ourselves less important, but far more immediate and tangible reasons to make a sacrifice today. How?

  1. Literally reward yourself for starting. You spent 10 minutes entering data without checking Twitter? Have a cookie. Now get back to work. 
  2. Articulate and focus on the immediate benefits of the long-term work to increase motivation. “Feels good to get going.” “I’m beating Gil in accounting.” “I don’t hide my computer screen whenever I hear footsteps.” Whatever little benefit you can find to actually working instead of procrastinating … focus on those.
  3. Break your big project down into smaller, easy to accomplish tasks. This way we can turn completion bias – our (normally bad) tendency to do quick things at the expense of longer term projects – on its head, giving ourselves a little adrenaline rush each time we check off one little step of the project. This also will help us engage the principle of endowed progress, whereby we’re more likely to complete a task once we’ve made tangible progress. 
  4. We should also outline the specific steps to get the job done. When we make concrete plans, science shows we’re more likely to achieve our goals.

Make the future more real

We think of our future self as a somewhat separate person, so working now for the future can feel like doing something for a stranger rather than giving it to ourselves. One antidote is to strengthen our connection to our future selves. 

In general, scientific findings about doing so amount to one powerful idea: Use simple tools to help us imagine our future self in more vivid, specific and relatable ways. It can be as simple as having an imaginary conversation with ourselves once we’ve finished a task. Or we can write a letter to that version of ourselves. We can also simply think about the specific emotions we’ll feel once that future comes. Sit and think about how good you’ll feel, the pride, the sense of completion and purpose, the praise you’ll get, the relief, the free time and, if necessary, the drink and/or sweet treat you’ll give yourself as a reward. The more we can make the future defined, vivid and detailed, the more relatable it becomes, and the more we’ll care, connect and act in our future selves’ interests, too.

One tweak is to use a very specific completion time. One study found that people discounted the future less when it was described with a specific calendar date rather than an amount of time. We are more likely to save for a retirement that happens on “September 18, 2039” than for one that happens “in 20 years.” That simple change makes the future more vivid, concrete, real and relatable.  Imagine handing in your assignment “at 2 p.m. on October 2” instead of “in a couple weeks” and then work to make that moment real.

Make yourself do it

If you can’t start that looming project, you can basically force yourself to get going. Sometimes referred to as Ulysses Contracts, in honor of the hero who tied himself to the mast but had his sailors clog their ears and ignore his pleas – so he could hear the temptation of the Sirens but not crash his ship – these tools minimize the emotional challenge decision-making. 

Making a concrete, tangible and specific commitment – a pre-commitment – to completing a task forces us to get it done. Publicly announcing that pre-commitment – to friends, colleagues or even social media networks – then enlists the power of accountability and social pressure to counteract the emotional temptations of procrastination.

If social media or email checking is your fatal flaw, have a trusted source change your password for you … and don’t let them tell you what it is until you’re done working, Ulysses. 

There are also plenty of apps and tools to help you lock in … sometimes by literally locking certain websites and apps, and sometimes by triggering other emotions. For instance StickK.com automatically donates our money to an “anti-charity” we hate if we don’t hit our goal. Use your belief that the world is being ruined by (insert rival political party or sports team here) to your advantage!

Finally, we could even create a literal Ulysses contract: If we don’t get to work right now, we have to read Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem about Ulysses … in the original Greek.

Phew!

That’s it. I can now say with authority that finishing a project you’ve put off – like this article – feels really good. I just wish I’d remembered that before I vacuumed my office seven times today.

Jeff Kreisler is a behavioral scientist, best-selling author of “Get Rich Cheating” and “Dollars And Sense: How We Misthink Money and How To Spend Smarter,” which he co-wrote with Dan Ariely. He is editor-in-chief of peoplescience.com.

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