Why should you read this article?
Did you ever find yourself wasting time before starting an important task? Bouncing endlessly between your favorite apps or just reading one more article before getting started? Doing “short” cleanups? Or starting a boring chat with someone at work for no good reason?
Then you might as well, have one or two little problems with procrastination.
Learning this the hard way, I was wondering why I wasn´t that productive, even though I cut my Internet usage back to a minimum. Because of this, I began to track how I spent every hour of my day. The result: I was wasting 1-3hours a day on unnecessary household work.
In reality, I still was a massively procrastinating – constantly searching for a more interesting stimulus than what I wanted to do. Just because one associates this behavior with Facebook, Twitter and News Websites, doesn´t mean you can´t fall victim to it without. You can interchange those services with other tasks as well.
What can you get out of this overview?
Concrete steps against procrastination, which you can instantly implement into your life. Be sure that this article isn´t one that creates enormous expectations and can`t live up to them. Just remember that I´m going to use those techniques on myself as well.
Which behavior to look for?
First, let´s define what procrastination is. “Turning your attention to something less uncomfortable than your current task.” Everything culminates on this one word: less. That explains why we even engage in normally rather unpleasant activities. In the moment they, are less aversive than what we have intended to do.
What can you do against it?
Breaking a bad habit.
The simplest form of procrastination is a bad habit. Something you do while being on autopilot. This includes using your smartphone every time you want to start working on something difficult. Important: you always switch to that same behavior in those situations. In theory they can be offset very easily. Since a habit consists of a 1. Cue 2. Routine 3. Reward (4. Belief), the solution is to avoid the cue. Do so at all costs!
It´s much easier to leave your phone at home when you are going to meet someone, then resisting the urge to check for new messages when it´s in front of you. A quick example how I integrated this into my life: A habit of mine is to chat whenever a family member is around. To avoid the cue, I try to never work at home when someone else is there.
- If you find you procrastinate for the same reason over and over again, avoid what triggers that behavior.
Planning in general is a massive tool for productivity. Whenever you set yourself an intention, make it concrete. Don´t write, “I want to do more sport”. Instead write, “I want to go into the gym, before work at 7:00 am, for 45 minutes, on every monday”. (It shouldn´t be necessary to say that the goals must be feasible for you.) The more detailed you make your commitment the more likely it is that you act accordingly. To give you some science backed numbers: it´s 2-3 times more likely to achieve what you have intended to do, if you planned it out concretely. Try this out for one of your intentions. Noticed the mental resistance to map it out that exactly? Your brain already fears the consequences if you do so.
- The next time you have an intention, plan the time, the date, the location, the duration and the circumstances and write them down. Where?-Read on.
Write a Journal
Now document every goal you´ve set yourself. You can use an excel spreadsheet, a sheet of paper or an app/ program like Beeminder or Habitica. Review your list once a day and report whether you´ve been successful or not.
If you´ve done what you intended to, make a mark. All you have to do now, is to not break the streak. In contrast, if you failed your goal, erase the last mark and comment on it. Write down what it was that prevented you from succeeding. Now you can recognize wheter it´s usually the same thing that caused you to fail or always something different. (Maybe it was a bad habit) The guys who wrote the “4 Principles of execution”, a lot of high level students and productivity experts know this truth: collecting data lays the groundwork for your further steps.
- Keep a list with your specific goals and monitorize your progress.
Identify the procrastination trigger
There are certain qualities of a task that can cause procrastination. I summarized the essential: The task is: 1. difficult/frustrating 2. unstructured 3. boring/ no fun to do 4. without any personal meaning to you. This knowledge will help us in the following situation: You get aware that you don´t want to do a task before you start. Think which trigger it is that upsets you about it and counteract on it. Here are some suggestions how to do this. If something feels aversive to you because it is:
work on them when you have the most energy (formost people that means in the morning)/consume caffeine (not more then 100mg per day on a regular basis! / ask someone proficient for help
unstructured: Plan how you are going to tackle the task step by step
no fun/boring: hear music while doing them/ do them together with someone to chat/ reward yourself afterwards
without any personal meaning to you: ask yourself why you are doing them in the first place, if there´s no appropriate answer: maybe you should quit
- If you feel resistance to a task or you frequently procrastinate on the same goal (and it´s no bad habit), identify the procrastination trigger and mitigate it.
“Nice tricks, but what about the big guns?,” you might say.
Let´s see what i´ve got for you…
Timer techniques/Just get started
For sure you´ve already heard about the pomodoro technique. If not: sigh… Anyway, that doesn´t matter that much, because all techniques involving a timer work the same way. They lower the resistance you feel towards a task by shrinking it´s duration. Hence, every procrastination trigger shrinks as well. It´s not important if you only feel comfortable to work on something for just 5 minutes. This study found that once you started to do a task it takes less willpower to continue. Likely you have experienced this yourself. It´s paramount to begin a task, (even for 5 minutes) because the mental resistance will eventually fade away.
- Shrink the time you will work on a task until you are comfortable to do it.
Optionally, if you feel like continuing -do so.
Free yourself from distractions
This one works wonders. Go somewhere quiet, without anything except the materials required to conduct the job. Also block any notifications and make sure that there´s no Internet access within your reach. The brain hates one thing even more than hard work: boredom. On a neuronal level, we constantly seek attracting stimuli. By isolating ourselves the most interesting “distraction” becomes our work.
Ok, maybe there´s no need to lock you up in an empty room for hours (even though noting feels more badass). Research has shown that it´s enough to place a reward in a distance that would require 20 seconds to reach. You can apply this tactic in your diet as well by placing unhealthy foods where it would take serious effort to get to it. (At best: just don´t buy it in the first place). Arguably the 20 second rule is no magic number and the more unpleasant your duty becomes, the farther away you should get from distractions. As a side note: friends, co-workers and family are also ridiculously efficient in tempting you to procrastinate.
- Isolate yourself without anything except your material.
Burn your ships
This last idea got an TEDx talk banned. Even the censored talk was the most motivational thing I´ve ever heard about productivity. So be reasonable while using this method. It´s called commitment contracts. By signing such contracts, you agree that if you fail to reach your goal, you have to pay money. For example: I want to finish this article this week and therefore I´ve created a commitment at the website Stickk. In the case that I shouldn´t make it in time, a self chosen referee will report this and I will lose an amount of money I´ve set previously.
Sure, for a lot of people this feels too extreme. Nevertheless, there are still ways to make use of the underlying principle. All you need is an external stressor. This stressor could also be friends and family, who you told about your goals. Likewise, a post on a social media platform has the same effect. Be creative with your motivational inconvenience. Maybe this story can inspire you a little: To make sure that his men would conquer the island, the general ordered to burn their boats after the arrival. So, have fun lighting up your own.
- Force yourself to work on something by using an external stressor (e.g. a commitment contract).
Finally, you know yourself what comes next:
Get your ass up, use those techniques and nail that goddam work!
Coursera, “Learning How to Learn,” by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.
 Ibid. (from the same source)
Book, “Hyperfocus,” from Chris Bailey. Chapter 3
 This methodology got emphazised by Cal Newport in his books “Deep Work” and “How to become a straight A student”.
Books, “The Productivity Project“ and “Hyperfocus,” from Chris Bailey
 Bayesian Bodybuilding, “Caffeine is a Femme Fatal,” by Menno Henselmans. Additionally, I´m planning to write something about cognitive enhancing drugs in the future as well (Caffeine included).
 Research Digest, „Another blow for ego-depletion theory – practice counteracts the effects of diminished willpower,” written by Alex Fradera
 Book, „The Productivity Project,“ from Chris Bailey
 This is one of the essential strategies, proposed by Stephan Guyenet in his book “The Hungry Brain”.
 TEDxTalk, „Enter the cult of extreme productivity,” by Mark Adams.