What is Procrastination? As with all things in life, we can only find solutions to a problem once we know what the problem actually is. So to begin with, let's break it down.
Procrastination: The act or habit of procrastination is putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.
As a species this has been an issue for centuries. Ancient philosophers actually came up with a word to describe this behavior: Akrasia. It is when you do one thing when you know that you should be doing something else.
Now that we know what it is let's move on to the why... Why Do We Procrastinate? What science has actually found recently is that there are two forms of mental environment that the world lives in- Immediate Return Environment and Delayed Return Environment.
Most animals live in the Immediate Return Environment. Humans live in what is known as Delayed Return. Essentially, most of what we actually do day to day is designed to have an impact on our environment later on in life!
For example, you might be trying to lose weight (future return) and to do so you know that you shouldn't be eating that donut (Right Now). This is where our brains divert from our goals. The immediate return of eating that donut will make me feel good, even though it is not good for our future selves.
The above is only one small sample, taking it further you can see that almost everything you do in your daily life, like going to work for someone else, is all about Delayed Returns. I show up today, do a good job, (hopefully) not get fired or retrenched and then get a pay check sometime in the future.
The problem with this is as we are always in the Delayed Return Environment, as humans this has led to chronic stress, worry and anxiety. Our brains have not evolved naturally into this kind of state. In fact or brains are essentially hard-wired as they have been for the past 200,000 years.
Immediate Returns is what we crave.
Stress, as we know it today, is still governed by the laws that we had about 200,000 years ago.
Have you ever heard of 'Flight or Fight'? It's a natural process when stress is introduced into our environment. Ignoring the last 500 years or so of 'modern'ish evolution, stress and anxiety were hard-hired into us to help us survive. A hunter finds a lion coming across his path, gets stressed and then he either fights the lion or runs away.
This is a scenario on how stress is supposed to help us. It was designed to solve short-term high pressure problems and once the problem was solved, the stress went away. Unfortunately, stress is now a common thing in today's' society - or more accurately chronic stress.
We continually find ourselves facing different problems -
How will I pay the bills next month?
Will I still have a job next week?
Do I have enough money to survive retirement?
Will I make up with my wife tomorrow?
All our issues these days come from the Delayed Return environment, they are rarely able to be solved right this minute.
So, how does knowing this help us?
Having this information known to us is key in understanding the 'why' of what we do. We are constantly at odds with ourselves about future rewards vs immediate. What we need to do is find a way to bring those future consequences (whether they are good or bad) into the immediate phase.
There is actually more pain associated with procrastination than actually doing the work, whatever it might be. The issue that we have is not in doing the work but rather in starting the work. Motivation comes after we get started not before.
So let's move on to the 'How' of this article.
How to Stop?
Knowing what we know about Immediate vs Delayed rewards, there is a variety of strategies that we can put in place. Here's a few.
1: Bring the Rewards to the Immediate One of the best ways to make future rewards move into the present is with something known as 'Temptation Bundling'. Essentially it is bundling the future goodies in with something that is beneficial now. - Listen to audio books you love while exercising. - Watch your favorite shows while ironing. - Get your hair done while answering emails.
2: Bring the Consequence to the Immediate This is a simple strategy that might help. It won't be for everyone. Make a deal with yourself to get things done and stick to it. For example, if you know you should be going to the gym every morning at 7AM then make a deal with yourself that if you don't go to the gym, you will give $1 or $5 or $10 to charity. Make the consequence of missing the task immediate.
3: Make the Task Achievable Since we already know that it's not the task itself but getting started that is a big issue then making that task achievable will make you less likely to procrastinate. Once started, momentum itself will keep propelling you forwards.
1. Small measures of progress help to maintain momentum over the long-run, which means you're more likely to finish large tasks.
2. The faster you complete a productive task, the more quickly your day develops an attitude of productivity and effectiveness.