Procrastination is a challenge that we all have faced at one point in our lives. It probably went something like this:
You wake up on Monday morning only to find an email from your boss about a huge project with your name attached to the “CC” slot.
At the end, it reads “due Friday.” You take a sigh of relief and mark it down on your calendar.
I’ll start it on Tuesday. I’m tired from the weekend and will have more energy tomorrow.
Tuesday arrives. You pretend not to notice. Wednesday comes, and with two days left until the project is due, yet, you still decide to push it to Thursday.
Thursday arrives, and you’re rushing out the door, spilling coffee on your crisp, white button-up, and flying through yellow lights. You begin to wonder how life got so stressful so soon as you try to cram four days of work into ten hours.
Sound like you? Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. Even our ancestors struggled with procrastination!
The “Hateful” Trait
For as long as humans have been around, we have been struggling with delaying issues that matter to us. Funny enough, people think that the internet gave rise to procrastination.
When in reality, it’s been written that it’s something that individuals have struggled with going back to ancient civilization.
The Roman Consul Cicero called procrastination “hateful” in the conduct of affairs. He found this trait to be quite loathsome, actually.
Joseph Ferrari, who is a popular psychologist that pioneered the research of procrastination, had this to say:
“Procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation, self-control, and willpower; it is the voluntary delay of an intended action despite the knowledge that this delay may harm the individual in terms of the task performance or even just how the individual feels about the task or him or herself.”
Ferrari’s statement wasn’t pulled from thin air or sheer personal experience. There is also more scientific research on procrastination.
What the Research Says
When I think of procrastination, a few questions come to my mind.
Why are people reluctant to act on things that are important to them? How are people content with becoming their own worst enemy?
Why do people spend their entire workday surfing social media and news sites instead of writing their report that is overdue?
Why do people talk to their friends for hours when they know they have a paper due?
According to behavioral psychology research, humans are not born with procrastination or laziness, but they are taught by their family and society.
Thankfully what is learned can always be unlearned!
The research has also revealed that procrastination can be caused by “time inconsistency.” This refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
What exactly does all this mean in simpler terms?
Present Self Vs. Future Self
Think of it this way. You exist in two realms – the present and the future.
Let’s look at the example of losing weight. When you set the goal to lose weight, you are making plans for your Future Self. It feels easy. You feel motivated.
Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self, it is relatively easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. The Future Self values long-term rewards.
The Future Self can set goals, but only the present self can take action. This is where the problem lies.
When the time comes to make a decision, your Future Self is no longer the one being affected. Now, you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self.
Psychology researchers have discovered that the Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff. This explains why the Present Self and the Future Self are always at odds with each other.
The Future Self wants to be slim and sexy, but the Present Self wants to eat cake, donuts, and sleep in.
Everyone knows they should eat healthy today to avoid being overweight or even falling sick in the future. But the consequences seem like they are years away.
So, it’s much easier for the brain to tell the Present Self to see more value in eating the cake and donuts than in looking good and being healthy.
But before we blame our brains for this sneaky habit. We need to look at other reasons we might be procrastinating.
Other Causes of Procrastination
1. Fear of failure; This fear makes an individual lazy to begin a task he or she believes there is a possibility they might fail in.
2. Fear of rejection: This fear makes people lazy to start a task that might lead to criticism and rejection from friends and family.
3. Perfectionism: The fear of losing control or not having control of the outcome of a task.
How to Stop Procrastination
Now that you know the causes of procrastination, how can you break the habit?
Make the rewards of taking action more immediately by using temptation bundling.
According to behavioral economist Katy Milkman, temptation bundling is the act of bundling a behavior that is good for you in the long-run with a behavior that feels good in the short-run. Simply put, only do the things you love while doing the things you procrastinate on.
For example, listen to music or audiobooks you love while exercising. Only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails. Only watch your favorite shows while doing household chores.
Make the consequences of procrastination more immediate.
For example, the cost of skipping your workout for a week will not really impact your life or health. But if you commit to working out with a friend and you cancel, then the cost of skipping the workout becomes more immediate. If you miss the workout, you look flaky and noncommittal.
This is one of the reasons why I love group coaching, the accountability is immensely powerful.
Design your future actions by using a commitment device.
Commitment devices are ways to design your future actions ahead of time. For example, you can stop wasting time on your phone by deleting games and social media apps. You can build an emergency fund by setting up an automatic transfer of funds to your savings account.
Make the Task more Achievable.
The leading cause of procrastination is usually centered around starting a task. However, once you begin, it quickly becomes easier to continue. For this reason, it is advisable to reduce the size of your task to smaller achievable sizes.
Take the 2-minute rule, for example. This rule states that when you start a new habit or task, it should take less than two minutes to do. The idea here is to make it as easy as possible to get started and then trust that momentum will carry you further into the task after you begin.
For example, if you want to write a book instead of measuring your progress based on the chapters completed, you measure your progress in 15-minute increments. You set a goal of 250 words every 15 minutes and continue this pattern for three hours each day until the book is completed.
This approach will give you a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment every 15 minutes while continuing to work on the enormous task of writing a book.
Bonus Tip from the Man Who Helped Charles Schwab
Charles Schwab sought help from a consultant named Ivy Lee. He needed help being more productive to continue growing his business. Lee came up with a method of productivity that will still work for you today.
Here is The Ivy Lee Method of productivity:
1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
Picture this. You’re given an assignment on Monday that’s due Friday. You don’t feel like working on it all, but you decide it’s better not to wait until the last minute.
You start working in small chunks while listening to your favorite podcast during the week.
Days fly by, and it’s Thursday already. But you aren’t rushing to finish the project because it’s already completed. You’ve already checked for errors and made any adjustments.
Now you can a stress-free workday and peace of mind heading into the weekend!
Procrastination is a trait us humans have been succumbing to for centuries. But we have the power to change our mindset and change our outcome.