Humans are plagued by procrastination. We’re always “going to get to it tomorrow” or putting off important tasks because maybe “the timing isn’t right”. Or we allow ourselves to get distracted. Or we simply just don’t want to do it.
I hear you. I’m with you. In fact, we’re ALL with you! If there are over 7 billion people in the world and about 20% of them are “chronic procrastinators”, there are many people feeling just like you. In fact, 95% of procrastinators want to reduce their procrastination habits or at least reduce the impact it makes on their lives, both professionally and personally.
And that’s why I’m here to teach you the science of procrastination and strategies to actually procrastinate less.
First things first, what is procrastination, exactly? I love James Clear’s definition:
Procrastination is acting against your better judgement.
It’s a lack of self control. It’s when you do one thing when you know you should be doing something else. It’s that pestering force that prevents you from following through on what you set out to accomplish.
Procrastination doesn’t only apply to our professional lives. For many people, procrastination has leaked into every aspect of our lives! Whether it’s doing chores around the house, paying taxes, putting gas in the car, signing up for that art class, cleaning out the garage or washing the dog – procrastination pervades everything. To combat this, I have 8 hacks to help you overcome procrastination from both a neurological perspective and a research perspective.
1. Create a NOT To Do List
We are typically very focused on what we need to do: We need to clean out the garage. We need to pay the phone bill. But, we never think of the things that are standing in our way, the things that we should not allow ourselves to do because they feed into procrastination. We all know about and create the world’s best to do lists, but what we really need to do is create a NOT to do list.
So it’s time to clean out the garage. Make your NOT to do list full of things that might hinder your ability to get started:
- Don’t let yourself get sucked into Netflix.
- Don’t check the notifications on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.
- Definitely don’t snack around in the kitchen because it’s on the way to the garage.
- Keep yourself in check by setting up strict and precise NOT to do lists, so you don’t allow yourself to make any more excuses as to why you didn’t get your big project done.
When you’re really clear on what you should NOT be doing, it actually allows for more brain power and space to focus on the tasks at hand that you should be accomplishing. When you sit down for the day or the week, it’s just as important to write down three things you don’t want to do for the day as the three things you do want to do! I challenge you to create this week’s list and see how well you stick to it. You’ll be amazed at how much more productive and energized you’ll feel when you tackle everything you set out to accomplish (and nothing that you weren’t).
BONUS: Create a Break List
Warning: This is advanced and should only be used by those who know they won’t take it for granted.
The US Army Research Institute conducted a study that found people had better focus and more energy for longer periods of time when they worked only for 90 minutes, followed by 15-20 minute breaks. Science has found that “90 minutes is the magic number for productivity because it matches your body’s natural rhythms of rest and alertness.” The key here is knowing that what you do during your breaks is just as important as the work you’re breaking from in order to keep your productivity levels high and keep the urge to procrastinate at bay.
Your break list (within your to do list and not to do list) should consist of just a few short, pleasurable activities. Avoid things that can trap you in a downward spiral of procrastination like checking social media.
While breaking from your big projects, pursue activities like taking your dog for a walk, doing a few yoga stretches or grabbing a small snack. Do not peruse Instagram notifications or that trending Twitter debate. Don’t open your laptop for Netflix or even turn on your TV. Recognize the “breaks” that are dangerously close to the brink of a procrastination gateway and focus on things that keep your brain alert, sharp and ready to dive right back in to your next project.
Researcher Dan Ariely found that when we have deadlines for tasks and when we publicly commit to things, we are much more likely to follow them. There’s this feeling of shame that drives us to complete tasks when we know others are expecting them from us. And everyone hates that sinking feeling of dread that bubbles up when we miss an important deadline. For what?! You were distracted? No excuse is permissible when you pre-commit to getting things done.
If you have a goal, my challenge for you is to announce it as publicly as possible so you’ll be held accountable. For example, you can announce to your Facebook friends, “I’m cleaning my garage this weekend and will post a picture of it Monday morning when it’s complete! If you see me liking or commenting anywhere on Facebook, call me out and make me get back to work!” You’ll be surprised how often people will ping you when they see you online when you shouldn’t be, or who will follow-up with you on Monday asking for the garage picture. Of course, if the social media world is too public and daunting, pre-commit by telling your significant other or a close friend and ask them to help you stay accountable and on track!
3. Set Up and Take Down Barriers
Take some time to actually set up barriers to what blocks you from getting your best work done. These are the little things that get in our way from being productive. Whether the barrier is big or small, don’t take the easy way out of just giving in and not getting work done.
Digitally, a lot of our procrastination happens when we go down the social media wormhole. First, we check-in on Facebook, then we get sucked into playing an online game, then we sort through the junk email that comes in, then we might tweet about said junk email. Next thing you know, you’re on every “fun” app on your phone or computer, and the garage is still a mess!
Here’s the fix: set up barriers for yourself on your NOT to do list. One idea is to set up a different user on your computer. One is a “Play User” where all your games, fun apps and favorite bookmarked pages live; the other is a “Get-It-Done User,” where all distractions are uninstalled, disabled and you’ve set it up to open all the apps and programs that you need to use to get your work done immediately upon logging in. This system actually takes down the barriers and distractions that are keeping you from getting work done, so it’s actually easy to NOT procrastinate!
Another suggestion may be to block certain websites and apps during certain times via parental controls so you can’t procrastinate digitally, even if you tried. If your most productive work happens between 11am-2pm on the weekend, use parental controls on Netflix and the TV so you don’t “accidentally” start watching your favorite show after breakfast and lose the whole day!
Setting up these barriers or taking barriers down will help you focus on what you need to do without any excuses. It may seem like a nuisance at first, but these controls will really keep you focused on the productive big picture. I’ll bet that you’ll even start to like these maximum-productive times, too.
Special Note: If you struggle with online distractions, use an app such as Cold Turkey that prevents you from visiting unproductive sites during your “productive” hours.
4. Get Into Your Groove
Part of taking down procrastination barriers that come in between you and your most productive self is choosing the wrong time of day to get your work done. The time at which you choose to get your tasks done is way more important than you think! When you’re ready to create your To Do and Not To Do Lists, keep in mind your timing:
Jennifer Ackerman dug into the research on our circadian rhythms to see what natural cycles our bodies go through to carry out our daily functions. Her research shows that our brains are most alert 2.5 to 4 hours after waking up. This is the time of day that your body releases the most brain power hormones to help you solve problems, generate ideas and plow through meticulous work.
When we take a step back, how many of us have fallen victim to using up this precious brain power on NON-productive things? We typically take this time to read the newspaper, make breakfast or watch the news when in reality, we should be scheduling out this prime time in our days to be knocking off tasks from our lists.
When you create your lists, I challenge you to specifically schedule out your heavy hitters, or things you are procrastinating on most, during this 2.5 to 4 hour period. Once you and your brain get going, you’ll find that procrastination is a thing of the past!
5. Analysis Paralysis is Real
When we’re talking about procrastination, the hardest thing to overcome is… just getting started. Sound familiar? It’s kind of like option-overload, and our brains just don’t know how to deal.
Researchers have found that there is such a thing as Analysis Paralysis – getting overwhelmed by the options and tasks at hand and simply not knowing where to start. It’s like looking at a blank page when you’re trying to write a story or looking at your dirty kitchen when you’re trying to clean and having no clue where to begin.
The best way to overcome Analysis Paralysis is simply to start your first task for five minutes. Do this either the night before, right before lunch or even the day before – as long as you can start for five minutes, you won’t even want to procrastinate any longer.
For example, if you’re writing a book, try my tip of: opening the word document, titling it and writing down just half a sentence. There’s no need to even finish the sentence (and you’re actually better off if you don’t!). If cleaning out the garage is the task you’re putting off, just open one box and move it to the front so you know where to start later. Don’t try picking out a “special” box or even looking inside at the contents — your five minutes are done once it’s open and moved, and you’re ready to tackle the rest tomorrow. Just these first five minutes of taking action can combat Analysis Paralysis altogether.
It’s also essential to not completely finish one task if the whole project isn’t done yet. You never want to end on an item. Instead, you want to break off in the middle of an item. This way, your brain won’t shut off the project as a whole and will be better able to dive right back in later to complete the job for good.
When I was writing Captivate, I would never end my day by finishing a chapter. Instead, I would finish mid-sentence in the middle of a chapter – this way, when I returned to write the next day, I would re-read the sentence I had started, be able to get back in my writing mindset and pick up right where I left off. No more writer’s block!
This can be applied to any project or task – once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize procrastination is not even an option.
6. Follow Your Thinking Brain
Did you know that we have two brains? Well, we really have one, but there is a war inside our brains that is keeping us from being our best, most productive and successful selves.
Our responsible, action-taking self who gets things done is driven by our Thinking Brain. Our Thinking Brain is where we execute our lives based on our goals, values and principles. Basically, our thinking brain is the one doing all the hard work like cleaning the garage or paying the bills. Then we have our Feeling Brain, the sneaky part of us that seeks pleasure and avoids pain (or in this case, hard work).
What happens in our brains when we give in to procrastination and follow our Feeling Brain instead of our Thinking Brain is that we end up trading what we want MOST (a clean garage) for what we want RIGHT NOW (Netflix, snacks, any and all distractions). When we keep giving in to procrastination and begin avoiding responsibilities, we’re giving up our goals and accomplishments for trivial “pleasures” that just aren’t worth it. And this has a drastic long-term effect on our productivity and success.
In the 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments testing the willpower of 4-year-old children. The children were sat down in front of a marshmallow and told they could eat it right now, or they could wait 15 minutes and they’d get two marshmallows. Only 30% were able to wait. The interesting part came years later: the 30% of children who were able to wait 15 minutes had more success later in life as adults.
What this means is, when we are able to have strong willpower to get what we need done, instead of giving in to easy pleasures, we’ll be far more rewarded and more successful in the future. Use those 15 minutes of intensely strong willpower (that I know you have) to be productive. Then you’ll be able to treat yourself tenfold as a reward for all your hard work.
Won’t you enjoy watching your favorite show while eating ice cream even more knowing that the garage is clean and your bills are paid? Pay it forward by following your Thinking Brain.
7. Stay True to Your Future Self
Similar to your Thinking Brain and your Feeling Brain, you also have two selves: A Present Self and a Future Self. When you make a plan or set a goal, you’re creating something for your Future Self, envisioning what your life will be like in the future once you accomplish it. When you think about this Future Self of yours, it’s easy to imagine the value and long-term benefits that will one-day be present in your life.
But, as James Clear describes, your Future Self can only set goals… it’s your Present Self that must take action to get there. Unfortunately, we are plagued by a phenomenon that behavioral psychology research has termed “time inconsistency.” Time inconsistency explains why our brains value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards, which makes our Present, Action-Taking Self, follow pursuit of immediate gratification.
This helps explain why we’ve kept telling ourselves that after we clean the garage, we’ll have so much more room and time on our hands to pursue that new hobby, but our brains keep putting it off in favor of that new Netflix documentary. Our brains value the long-term benefits when they are in the future, but when it boils down to the here-and-now, it will follow immediate gratification almost every time.
8. Dream Big
Researchers from the Journal of Social Psychology have found that thinking abstractly about what your goal is can actually help you find the motivation to do it. If you find yourself bogged down in bills, thinking about your long to do list or are distracted while you clean, you never really think about the end, about what will happen when you finally finish that task. But, by abstractly thinking, “Oh, it will feel SO good once I get this done,” it actually gives you that extra motivation and pep in your step to accomplish the task!
Even better, is if you actually engage in self-talk, along with abstract thinking. Recent research indicates that self-talk, or saying things such as “I will be successful today” or “I am ready for this,” has proven to be an extremely powerful motivational technique. This mindset is associated with faster performance and higher arousal, and there’s no doubt telling yourself, “I am ready to clean the garage today, and it will feel incredible once I’ve successfully gotten it done” will help you combat any feelings of procrastination and nip them in the bud.
Science says that when you truly believe that you are going to succeed and get what you need done, you will. This all boils down to a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll clean the garage, and you’ll do it well — we believe it, now how about you?
As fellow Science of Peeps, I know you love quirky science as much as we do, which is exactly why I know you’ll love this science hack: studies have shown that chewing gum can increase productivity!
That’s right, folks. Not only will popping in a piece of gum before hitting your to do list help you combat your laziness, but chewing gum has also been linked to increased performance, boosted cognitive abilities and a tool to combat sleepiness!
With the help of these procrastination hacks, it’s my hope that you’ll never be plagued by procrastination again.
To your productivity,
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
Join Over 500,000 Students
Are you looking to kickstart your career? Level up your leadership? Join thousands of students learning to master their people skills and make an impact on the world. And for joining today I'm giving away a free one hour audio training to help you jump start your learning!