4 Foolproof Procrastination Hacks for Getting Work Started and Finished Even If You’re a Chronic Procrastinator
In survey after survey of entrepreneurs and crazy-busy professionals – even people who consider themselves successful and effective and “pursuers” who are actively seeking to do and be more – one of the top productivity issues is how to overcome procrastination.
Just take a look at your own to-do list. In it, you’ll find countless tasks that you had intended to have banged out by now. Yet there they sit, taunting you (and even draining your mental energy, via a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect).
And this, despite that fact that most of us have heard all the typical advice on how to overcome procrastination: “Bite off one small piece at a time” (chunking), “Get a partner,” “Set up a reward system,” “Set a deadline,” and my favorite, “Just DO it!” (The equivalent to telling a clinically depressed person to “Just cheer up!”)
As a productivity coach, author and speaker, I have a keen interest in all aspects of how to overcome procrastination. Maybe you’re like me – a “metathinker” – someone who thinks a lot about thoughts, how we think, and how our thinking impacts our outcomes. If you also happen to be a “pursuer” – someone who’s not content with the status quo, then you have much to gain from this definitive guide to overcoming procrastination.
I’ll share the psychological insights on why we procrastinate, ways to leverage them to help you break the procrastination habit, and 4 Foolproof Hacks to Overcome Procrastination. But we begin with…
What Procrastination Is and Is Not
It’s important to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates. The famed economist George Ainslie said, it is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called a basic impulse.” Samuel Johnson, a man of towering accomplishment while also an admitted procrastinator, said it is “one of the general weaknesses [that] prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind.”
The question of course is, how are some able to overcome procrastination – if only when it really counts – and others not?
We should first clearly define what’s been called “the thief of time”: Procrastination is the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we will suffer as a result.
Let me repeat that: Despite knowing we’ll suffer as a result!
And that’s a key distinction: In order for the putting off of some task to fully qualify as procrastination, it must result in some downside by its non-doing. For instance, if you delay one task because you have legitimately calculated that another task is of greater priority or utility, that’s not procrastination, since the delaying may in fact be in your self interest.
But avoiding your difficult top priority and “escaping” into an easier, low-priority activity like checking/deleting emails is not in one’s best interest. And needless to say, blowing off an important task’s on-time completion to lollygag on YouTube for 45 minutes – that’s classic shooting-yourself-in-the-foot.
Another characteristic of true procrastination: it might feel good in the moment (“Ya, it sure is nice NOT having to do the laundry right now…”); but it never feels good when it’s time to pay the bill.
So why do we procrastinate when it so clearly is not in our own self interest? That question’s been asked all the way back to Socrates – and it’s why the psychology of procrastination is so important to understand if we want to overcome it…
What Causes Procrastination?
There’s been much research into the psychology of procrastination. There are even annual academic conferences on the topic. But there are three psychological insights most relevant to our ultimate goal of overcoming it.
Psychology of Procrastination Insight #1
The main culprit in procrastination is what’s called temporal discounting. Temporal refers to time, and discounting refers to how we discount, or care less, about things that are further out into the future. I.e., we tend to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
For example, the perceived pain of blowing your deadline that is three weeks away has much less weight than if that deadline were three hours away. “Ah, I’ve still got three weeks…” vs. “Holy @#$%! I’ve only got three hours!”
Same goes for rewards. The reward (and therefore the incentive) for saving for retirement that’s 20 years away feels much less rewarding than if you were retiring in five years.
In sum, time horizon alters our perception of punishment for procrastination, and reward for action.
Temporal discounting is often explained in terms of one’s Present Self and Future Self. Your Present Self makes plans for your Future Self. But it’s your Present Self that must take the action – and Present Self is more inclined to act on behalf of Present Self, thanks to that temporal discounting.
How to Leverage This Insight to Help Overcome Procrastination: Next time you catch yourself kicking back and saying, “I don’t feel like doing that right now and besides, I still have plenty of time,” invoke your awareness of temporal discounting to ask your Present Self: “How will the future me feel about the present me blowing this off?”
You can also ask, “Will the quality of my work on this task be better now, or better at the 11th hour when I finally throw myself into gear?”
Your Present and Future Selves will always be battling, but research shows that the more you think about your Future Self, the more responsibly your Present Self will act.
Psychology of Procrastination Insight #2
…is irrational avoidance. The sense of dread in the face of many of our to-dos is a big reason why our long to-do lists stay so long.
Of course we avoid tasks we dread. But most of the time, the avoidance is irrational. For instance, some irrational fear of the doing (e.g., confrontation, failure, frustration); or an irrational hope that if you wait long enough, some magic bullet solution will appear to you that makes easy the swift completion of the task; or, even more irrationally, the subconscious hope that, if we ignore it long enough, it might somehow just go away.
When it comes to particularly dreaded tasks – those I call The Hateables – there is a unique procrastination hack that I share in my free video series, The Productivity Accelerator. Click Here to get it free right now.
How to Leverage This Insight to Help Overcome Procrastination: Next time you catch yourself avoiding a task out of some fear, ask yourself, “How painful will this actually be? Is my fear real, or am I inflating the fear to give myself permission not to begin right now?”
Psychology of Procrastination Insight #3
…is thinking that we have to finish it now. In his book The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore says, “Never look at a big project and say, ‘I have to finish that dang thing’. Because the thought of having to finish is the surest way to invoke all the mental and physical chemistry that supports continued procrastination.”
The more painful or perceived-to-be painful a given task is, the more we will avoid it, right? And the notion of having to finish something is almost always painful or threatening.
Another quote from Fiore illuminates how that fear-of-having-to-finish works to gum up the works: “Worrying about finishing is a form of perfectionism. Your failed attempts at finishing when you do take up the task reinforce your belief that such tasks are…unfinishable! You will then wait for that 11th hour jolt to drag you – kicking and screaming – into the finishing, which will surely yield a less-than-perfect end product.”
How to Leverage This Insight to Help Overcome Procrastination: When staring at a tricky or jumbo-size to-do, never think about finishing. Instead, just schedule a time to start. Put it in your calendar. And when the time comes, set a timer for five minutes. Then start, with no expectation of working beyond those five minutes.
“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.” Eliezer Yudkowsky TWEET THIS
And that segues us into our…
4 Foolproof Hacks to Overcome Procrastination
Imagine if, on a day-to-day basis, you were able to slay procrastination at a fairly high rate. Get more stuff started…get more stuff re-started…get more stuff done.
While those three Psychology of Procrastination Insights will definitely help you overcome procrastination, they really only “loosen the lid” a little. To totally bust open a can of @ss-whoop on your procrastination, you’ll need some procrastination power tools.
An important distinction to be made in thinking about and applying these hacks is that there are two types of things with which we might have a procrastination problem:
Big, one-off things like major projects, tricky emails or POVs, garage cleaning or other major home projects, term papers, etc.
And then there are things we need or hope to do on a more routine, ongoing basis. Exercise, cleaning up the house, studying or researching for work, etc. The first of these hacks is designed for just such routine-based things. The other two are ideal for major one-off tasks and projects.
Foolproof Procrastination Hack #1
…is called temptation bundling – a way to, as author James Clear puts it, “make the rewards of taking action more immediate” — thus disarming temporal discounting.
The idea is simply to “bundle” a pleasurable activity with something you’d prefer not to have to do. Put another way; combine a behavior that’s good for you in the long term with one that feels good right now.
A few examples from Clear: “Only treat yourself to a pedicure while processing overdue work emails. Only watch your favorite TV show while doing housework. Only eat at your favorite restaurant when conducting your monthly meeting with a difficult colleague.”
I use this almost every day: I only listen to my favorite podcasts when I run, and I only watch motorcycle races on TV when I’m on my stationary cycle. (A typical grand prix motorcycle race takes 45 minutes – and I’m not allowed to stop pedaling until the winner crosses the finish line – ensuring that I get a 45-minute cardio workout every time.)
I like this handy format from Clear: “Only do [THING YOU LOVE] while doing [THING YOU PROCRASTINATE ON].” TWEET THIS
This approach is much more powerful than the often-touted rewards system whereby, e.g., “If you work out three times this week you get to go to a movie,” because the pleasurable and unpleasant tasks are bundled in the present.
Foolproof Procrastination Hack #2
Think back to Dr. Neil Fiore’s wise advice (not to worry about finishing – and instead, setting a time to just start). This is itself a great procrastination hack. But it’s not always so easy to “just start” when there’s a powerful sense of overwhelm and dread; or when we’re reluctant to begin because we know we’ll just get bogged down soon after starting; or when we just don’t know where to start.
Hack #2 solves this. It is simply to give yourself permission to fail.
Not only give yourself permission to start – but give yourself permission to completely fail.
That’s right. Drop all expectations of any success, let alone finishing. The only thing you need to do is start, with no demand on yourself other than to give it a few minutes’ effort.
If you start and bang away for 45 seconds then give up? That’s a victory. If you re-start and bang away for 5 more minutes but then get stuck? Victory! Twelve minutes? VICTORY!!
Why a victory? Because you’ve started — which is the opposite of procrastination. Procrastinating is not starting. But you’ve just started — even if you didn’t finish. Even if you totally flopped.
Research shows that once you make even a 10-second effort to start on the thing you don’t want to do, you’re over the hump, on your way to completing it. TWEET THIS
More often than not, before you know it, you’ve been “in it” for 20 minutes or more. And guess what. Once you’re “in it”, you have a way better chance of seeing how to get it done.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” –Dr. Martin Luther King TWEET THIS
This is the gift that accrues to you when you just give yourself permission to start…and fail.
Weird, right? Get weird with me and try it. I bet you’ll find it works.
As I mentioned earlier, in my free video series called The Productivity Accelerator, I share another killer hack for the toughest tasks – The Hateables – along with simple tips on how to “Plan and Run Your Day Like a Badass.” Click Here to get the videos free right now.
OK, let’s say you for some reason still have a tough time with just starting. Which in many circumstances is perfectly understandable, often the case with a super-complex task or a major project. There’s the hack for that, too…
Foolproof Procrastination Hack #3
What is hard about this? Not knowing where to start it up again? Trouble scheduling time to work on it? A component you need someone else’s help with? By just dimensionalizing that, you start to break down the barriers to action. Just ask, “What is hard?”
The reason this is so powerful is that we rarely ask this question of ourselves. Ask it next time you’re stuck.
Foolproof Procrastination Hack #4
Separate the setup from the task. This is a favorite of my friend and uber-coach Beth Main. You make setting up for an unpleasant activity a task of its own, and only focus on getting that done first.
Say you’ve been avoiding painting the dining room for months because it’s gonna be such a nightmare. Just do the set-up: cover the floor and furniture, and get the paint and equipment out. And that’s all.
Two things are now working in your favor: 1) You’ll not likely allow yourself to be tripping over paint cans and drop cloths for another month; and 2) it will now be much easier to get started since the setup is done.
Overcome Procrastination with This Action Step
You can see how these four hacks kind of overlap in helping you overcome procrastination, and that’s because they all work in some way against the psychology of procrastination.
And they can be “stacked.” Meaning that you can work one, two, or all of these into your daily doings. And I emphasize the “do.”
“Knowing is not enough. We must apply. Willing is not enough. We must do.” –Bruce Lee TWEET THIS
This is one of my favorite quotes. I try to live by it and help others do the same. That’s why I’m all about “action steps.” It’s one thing to read a blog about procrastination – kudos for reading this. But without some concrete action, we may as well be reading a comic book.
The Action Step on this is to take a moment, right now, to find one, just one, of the things you’ve been procrastinating on…ideally, one of the bigger, badder to-do’s that you know will take a lot of effort to FINISH. Or maybe there’s a to-do that you’ve started but is stalled.
Whatever you pick, circle it. And then make an entry in your calendar or set an alarm for later today or tomorrow, for the time you will START it.
And when you DO start it, what you’ll do is set a timer for five minutes.
Because remember: all you have to do to make it a huge success is to start it. If you bang away on it for five minutes…you’re a rock star. Twenty minutes and you’re Zeus!
And also remember this: Whatever’s in your way…it is yours to crush.
P.S. If you’re a meta-thinking pursuer as I suspect you are, you’ll want to get my free video series, the Productivity Accelerator, in which I share how the most productive, successful people on the planet plan and run their days, plus how to overcome procrastination on even the most hateable tasks. Click Here to get them right now.]
Who Is Alan Brown? Alan has helped thousands get more done in less time with less stress. A #1 Best Selling author and “mess-to-success” entrepreneur, he overcame a learning disability and drug addiction using his “practical Zen brain hacks”. As host of Crusher™TV, Alan will teach you these and other evidence-based productivity hacks from top performers.