Your Life By Design
Steps to Overcoming Procrastination
April 11, 2019
The secrets to getting off your butt and getting things done.
1. Make getting started ridiculously easy

To overcome our psychological aversion to uncomfortable tasks, one way is to make the threshold for getting started quite low” and just getting started. Often starting a task is the biggest hurdle.

For example, “A real mood boost comes from doing what we intend to do—the things that are important to us”. Knowing this, we can reason that although getting started might feel uncomfortable, we’re likely to feel much better once the task is done. Compare the mood boost of having done what you intended to do, to the disappointment and frustration of dealing with the consequences of procrastination later.

In fact, research shows that progress—no matter how small—can be a huge motivator to help us keep going.

My favorite trick for getting into a task I’m dreading, is to start with the mindset. I start by just thinking about the task for a while, until I’m drawn in and can’t help working on it.

If it’s a writing task, I might pull up the draft I need to edit and just sit and read over it. Soon I’ll find myself changing a word here and there, or fixing typos. Then I’ll think of a whole sentence I want to add. And suddenly I’m well into the task, without really pushing myself to do so.

2. Do the right thing for the wrong reason

Since negative emotions are the cause of our procrastination, what if we could manage our negative emotions while working? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls this method reward substitution, while Katherine Milkman, also a behavioral economist, calls it temptation bundling.

Reward substitution, as described by Ariely, is essentially getting yourself to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The reason this works is because, according to Ariely, humans aren’t wired to care about things that will happen far into the future. While it would be in our best interests to think about the future, we’re focused on what makes us feel good now. This makes it hard to do unpleasant things which would benefit us in the future.

3. Ask for help

When my work directly affects others, I find it much harder to accept the consequences of procrastinating.

To put this into practice, you could ask a friend or colleague to help you get started on something you’ve been putting off. Having someone else work with you can stave off the boredom and loneliness that make working alone a drag. And having someone else invested in the work can give you extra motivation to get it finished, even if they’re not around the whole time you’re working on it.

This can be particularly helpful when you’re stressed. Research has shown discussing your feelings of stress with someone else in a similar emotional state can ease your feelings of stress. So if you’re working with other people and you’re all worried about an upcoming deadline, try discussing the situation rather than internalizing your own concerns.

4. Imagine the future

Although Ariely says we’re geared to think about now, and not the future, some studies have shown encouraging people to imagine the future can help them make better decisions now.

You can also think of it as  “time travel”. Consider imagining as vividly as possible the idea of living on your current retirement savings, if saving for retirement is something you’ve been putting off.

Unfortunately, we may procrastinate on this task itself, which is called second-order procrastination—procrastinating on tasks that would help us overcome our procrastination. There are also concerns that the emotional reaction of the time travel method, which helps spur us into action, may wear off over time.

Making the task of time travel more concrete can help its effectiveness. you can look  at a digitally aged photograph which can help you more effectively imagine yourself in the future, thus helping you make better decisions.

Another way to use this method is to realistically imagine how you’ll feel tomorrow, if you’re trying the old “I’ll feel like doing this tomorrow” excuse. It’s highly unlikely we will feel more motivated tomorrow so time traveling may help us realise this, and stop relying on the “tomorrow” excuse.

5. Reframe your task and its deadline

Have you ever tried to trick yourself to get your work done? I tried this many times—my favorite approach was to pretend my deadline was actually today, not tomorrow, so I’d get started earlier.

Science backs me up here. Researchers found external deadlines work better than deadlines we impose on ourselves.

Another study of procrastination found reframing the task itself, rather than adjusting its deadline, was effective in helping procrastinators get to work. Participants in this study were asked to complete a puzzle, but were allowed to play Tetris for a while first.

When the puzzle was described as “cognitive evaluation”, procrastinators spent more time playing Tetris and avoiding the puzzle. When the puzzle was introduced as a game, however, the chronic procrastinators in the study got sucked into the puzzle as quickly as anyone else.

You might not always be able to convince yourself that your work is a game, but look for ways to reframe it.

6. Let yourself avoid uncomfortable tasks

If you can’t stop procrastinating, the good news is you can use this “bad” habit to your advantage. “Structured procrastination” is a clever way to stay productive even while you procrastinate.

John Perry wrote about this technique at, calling it “an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time”.  According to Perry, the key to understanding structured procrastination is recognising “that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing”.

Here’s how it works: next time you feel the urge to procrastinate, go for it. Avoid that Big Scary Task that makes you feel really uncomfortable. But instead of spending time on Reddit or watching Netflix, work on something else productive. Choose anything else from your task list, and spend your time procrastinating by working on a less important or urgent task that makes you feel less uncomfortable.

Although this doesn’t stop the Big Scary Task from needing to be done, it does assuage some of the guilt that comes from procrastination, because you’re actually spending your time productively.

Perry also makes an important note: as self-aware procrastinators, we tend to cut down our to do lists. We know we’re not good at getting things done, so we think having fewer things to do will help. According to Perry, this goes against our nature as procrastinators. “The few tasks on [your] list will be by definition the most important,” he says, “and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being”.

7. Use a timer

Some people  uses timers when they struggling with procrastination.

Sets a timer for 30 minutes. During that time you stay focused on your work. When the timer goes off, you set it again for 10 minutes, and reward yourself with a fun activity like blogging, reading emails, or checking RSS feeds. You could substitute YouTube videos, chatting with friends, or reading a book.

After 10 minutes, you reset your 30-minute timer and get back to work.

This method only works if you’re willing to stick to the timer schedule, so try to be really strict when you first try it out. And make that reward something you really look forward to, so you’re willing to stay focused in-between the 10-minute breaks.

8. Forgive yourself

A 2010 study of university freshman found that participants who forgave themselves after procrastinating on studying for the first exam in a course were less likely to procrastinate on studying for later exams. The researchers believe forgiving yourself for procrastinating can help you overcome negative feelings about the work you’ve put off in the past, so you can more easily approach future tasks.

Researchers involved in the study , found self-forgiveness is “typically accompanied by a vow to change one’s behavior in the future,” which makes it more likely that we’ll procrastinate less after forgiving ourselves for procrastinating in the past. They also noted that the self-forgiveness effect is most noticeable in students who reported high levels of procrastination on their first exam. This is probably because “low levels of procrastination are unlikely to be perceived as having had much of an effect on one’s performance,” and therefore require less self-forgiveness.

When your confronting a daunting task, procrastination can seem almost inevitable. It’s not something most people can just decide to stop doing through sheer force of will. But understanding why we’re prone to procrastination and how to work with that habit, or around it, can help us avoid the worst consequences of avoiding work.

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