The Psychology of Procrastination, and 12 Ways to Kick the Habit

Minute Read

Procrastination is truly one of the most costly issues that affect society today. An estimated 20% of American Adults admin to being a chronic procrastinator. Some procrastinate for hours each day, barely making a dent in real work activities sometimes. Most of us first encounter this issue in school. From doing homework last minute, to figuring out what tests you need to study, and what tests you don’t.

I’ve been a chronic procrastinator my whole life, despite what I’ve been able to accomplish – I still do it. I dread certain types of work, like things like writing this post, and starting big projects.

What is Procrastination?

It’s not surprising to know that in a recent study an estimated 80-85% of college students procrastinate on a regular basis. Whether it’s studying, turning in homework; we’ve all done it. It’s even more difficult when you work for yourself, and you have nobody to be accountable to. At it’s core problem, our brains are making an assumption on the task at hand. Say it’s a project that you’re starting, you may think it’s going to take days or weeks to get done, and as a result never start it. Or, how about thinking that it’s too difficult and that you don’t have the skills.

In fact, the human brain is chronologically wired to procrastinate.Whenever you have a distasteful activity in front of you, you’re limbic system, otherwise known as the unconscious part, has an argument with the prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as the planner. Quite often the limbic system wins the battles and your end up putting the task off until tomorrow. The limbic system is quite fascinatingly, one of the oldest and more dominant areas of the brain. It’s what stops you from putting your hand in a fire, and also has some influence over your motivation and emotions too.. It’s always in automatic mode to make sure you’re a happy camper. If you find something to be unsatisfying, it immediately steps in to distract you to something more pleasant. It has no knowledge about our future goals or ambitions.The part that usually loses the game, prefrontal cortex is not only newer, but the weaker part too. This not only controls our behavior, but decision making, social interaction, and how we monitor our own personality. Don’t despair though – because there’s likely still hope if you’re prefrontal cortex was strong enough to get you to read this article.

Most procrastination is done due to the all too convenient amount of distractions around us, and on the internet. These are recurring habits that we naturally gravitate to, and in some sense – become addicted to. If we can block out that distracting activity, you can literally change the way your brain is wired to accommodate for more long term thinking. Say your working on a project and you like to open up Facebook just to check if there are any new posts. There are many options out there, like the use of the StayFocused chrome extension, or Pomodori chrome extension, both of which help eliminate these distractions. Initially, you may find yourself opening a tab for Facebook, or Reddit but the blocked site will remind you to get back to work. According to a recent WSJ article, there’s a growing body of evidence pointing to procrastination as in fact a mood disorder. One in which procrastinators try to stay in a good mood by doing something they want to do over something they have to do. The good news, is that with a little bit of practice, procrastination can be reduced, if not eliminated entirely.

Why do we Procrastinate?

At the top of the hierarchy, procrastination is an avoidance of pain. No matter whether it’s fear, vulnerability or shame, they’re all forms of pain. Imagine starting that next task you despise. You’re going to feel something unpleasant. Doing, let alone thinking about it, causes wants of doing or thinking about something else. We need to learn how to overcome this pain and focus on our long term goals.

Without even thinking about it, most of us retreat to our comfort zone, of doing busy-work. Perhaps you’re waiting for the next email to come on, or co-worker to reply to your chat. There are many tasks we do on a daily basis which we consider to be work, but don’t find to be unpleasant. It’s understanding what these tasks are and how to get over them that is a challenge for many.

We restrict our comfort zone to a certain amount of activities. In turn, this means avoiding behaviors and goals that could very well define ourselves as a human being. Nothing ever worthy of recognition was easy to do. Worst of all, procrastinators lose the most precious resource of all – time.

How can I stop Procrastinating?

I researched many available methods to solve procrastination. In the end there’s really no “magic pill” to like what you need to do. In the end, you’ll just have to face the challenge head-on and do it. I’ve listed 12 techniques below which have been known to make this process of conquering our procrastination a little easier.

1. Break down the task into chunks

A big part of procrastination involves how we view the task. If you have to write an essay, you’re probably thinking it’s going to take like 3 hours of research, hours of writing, and perhaps days or weeks to complete. Take a sandwich for example, you think of 2 slices of bread with some items in the middle. If I mention Bread, you just might think of those same slices of bread. Point is, in life we tend to look at certain areas on whatever we tend to be focusing on. The problem is we don’t view tasks the same way. So stop seeing that project as a loaf of bread, and think in terms of slices. If you have a big project due, just commit to 20 or 30 minutes of work. This will decrease the workload, while at the same time tricking your brain into doing the task since it’s much smaller to start with.

2. Reward Yourself

Doing unrewarding tasks is never any fun, sometimes we end up dragging our feet throughout the whole process because we know we simply need to get it done. Creating a physical reward for yourself can help motivate you to complete the task at hand. Something as simple as telling yourself you’ll be able to enjoy some candy, or watch some tv. The self-indulgence motivator will help change your brain to accommodate more distasteful activities with dopamine releasing fun rewards.

3. Blackmail Yourself

Every week, I set a weekly goal of a big project or task I would like to complete. Without having anybody monitoring or telling me what to do, I have to constantly think of new things to do, and then get myself to do them. What if there was a way to blackmail yourself into completing tasks? There are several programs out there, like the BetterMe Iphone app. You must commit to a certain activity and it will basically humiliate you on Facebook if you don’t get it done. There’s also web app called Aherk! (Unfortunately, the site has closed). This web application requires you to upload am embarrassing photo of yourself. If you don’t complete the goal by the deadline, then your social network will see that horrible photo of yourself with grandma. Sure, there are ways defeat the tasks, like deleting the photo on your wall. However, the very act of creating this as a cue to get going will more than likely pressure you enough to complete the task before the deadline.

4. Cue your environment

When we try our best at certain tasks, we can’t always rely on our willpower alone. Our mind tries to establish as many barriers between us and what we want to accomplish. One way to stop this is by minimizing the number of actions we have to perform in order to complete the task. If you’re trying to go to the gym, this could mean dedicating your top clothes drawer to your gym clothes. Or maybe even sleeping in your gym clothes with your shoes right next to your bed. Maybe you’re trying to cook more for yourself. After you finish cooking, cleanup immediately so that next time you’re more inclined to cook since there is no pre-cleaning required. Take some time to analyze your most important tasks and figure out how you can setup your environment and action cues to obtain your goal.

5. Analyze why you’re procrastinating

Sometimes we don’t even realize we are procrastinating. We know that we need to have that report finished but we have a boatload of emails to get through or articles to read. Take a moment to ask yourself just how you are procrastinating, and then figure out how to eliminate those items. Commit to doing the report before doing anything else. If the report is too tedious then just do the research first, take a break and then start writing on it later.

6. Eliminate Distractions

If you’re using a Mac, check our applications like  Freedom or HeyFocus. If you’re on windows you can look at TimeDoctor to help you manage your tasks better. These configure your computer to block distracting programs and websites depending on the activity you are performing. Heck, even create a recurring reminder for yourself in applications like the Due mac app or daily habit tracker. These can remind you to setup your Skype or other messaging client as “Do Not Disturb” or “invisible”. It takes on average 25 minutes to return back to the original task after an interruption. So the less interruptions you can have, the more focused you will be at getting the task completed.

7. Just get Started

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you do, as long as you start it. The task may not always be easy or fun, but just getting started can do a great deal. There is something called the Zeigarnik Effect. In one study, they gave a group of participants a puzzle to solve but not enough time to complete it. When the time ran up, a surprising 90% of participants went on to complete the puzzle. The applies to almost anything, whether we’re watching a TV Show, or waiting to see the end of a movie. Point being, once you’ve started something, your brain naturally gravitates to completing the task.

8. Create Mini Goals

It’s better to start something, even if you don’t want to do the whole task. Analyze the task and break it down into chunks. Then only commit yourself to doing that small habit. It could be as simple as writing just 50 words a day, quite often you might write more but you won’t feel guilty if you only complete the minimum amount of effort to inch further to completing the goal.

9. Time Travel

Imagine the good feelings you will experience by completing the task. Imagine the end result, the happiness, and the good things that will come as a result. Imagining how we will feel after a task is completed is quite often much more motivating than thinking how long the task will take to complete.

10. Ignore your motivations

Understand that your motivations will never fall in line with finding the right time. You may never feel like you want to complete the task, or are in “optimal state” to get it done. The truth is though that we never get anything done in an optimal state. If we continue to wait for that right moment, it may never come. In some ways, procrastination is an emotional feeling. We think to ourselves that we will feel like doing it tomorrow. When tomorrow never comes, we get stuck in an infinite loop.

11. Stop Assuming

Stop assuming how long the task is going to take. Often I find myself procrastinating over the smallest tasks because I feel like they are going to require much more time and effort than it really ends up taking. A safe I have for example, I swore it was broke because the handle wouldn’t turn when I entered the key code (electronic safe). I basically resorted to simply using the backup key to open it whenever I needed to for many weeks. Anyway, I finally got around to going to get the warranty information. About 30 seconds into the task, I realized the batteries simply needed to be replaced.

12. Forgive and forget

Don’t keep beating yourself up over the failed goals of the past. Life is a learning experience and we all have our fair share of experiences. To continue feeling remorse over your non-accomplishments only adds to the problem. In a study led by Michael Wohl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, Freshman who forgave themselves for procrastinating on studying for their first exam experienced less trouble with procrastination on future exams.

Using some of these methods will help propel you to accomplish your dreams, and aspirations. So take a moment and ask yourself “What kind of life do I want to live?” Do you want to be forever suppressed by your pain? It is entirely up to you to move forward, and stop wasting the precious time that each one of us is granted with. So go out there and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead.