[Ultimate Guide] Procrastination: How to Stop Procrastinating for Good Using Science
Procrastination is a ubiquitous part of the human experience.
Although the challenges of modern life–hyper-connectedness, endless distractions, and overstimulation–have exacerbated the problem, human beings have struggled to “get stuff done” since time immemorial.
The most sinister element of procrastination is that it is largely unintentional and often feels uncontrollable.
No one wakes up and says to themselves, “Today is a great day to sabotage my chances of success and heap a few extra helpings of anxiety onto my plate!”
We all want to beat procrastination. We want to get more done, be more proactive, and make progress toward the vision we’ve set. But when it comes time to actually do the work, we find ourselves incapable of getting it done.
But there is a solution and you can beat procrastination.
And in this guide, I’m going to help you kill your inner procrastinator once and for all…using science.
I. What is Procrastination?
At the most basic level, procrastination is simply the act of delaying a task(s) that needs to be completed.
And many time management “experts” suggest that procrastination is simply the act of going against your better judgment. Of losing self-control. Of doing (or more often not doing) something in the present moment that you will regret in the future.
But when you peel back the curtain and look at what is really going on, you will quickly realize that the real definition of procrastination goes so much deeper.
The assumption that “procrastination = lack of self-control” can be true under certain circumstances. But this definition ignores the numerous biases and faulty strings of logic to which your brain falls victim (we’ll talk about these in just a moment).
A more cogent definition is this.
Procrastination is the act of either intentionally or unintentionally delaying a task that must be accomplished.
While this might seem like a trivial difference, it’s essential to understand that procrastination does not always stem from a lack of willpower.
Because, to find the appropriate cure to procrastination, you must first understand its various forms and sources.
II. The “Three Kings of Mediocrity”: Why We Really Procrastinate
Accepting this updated definition of procrastination is great. But what do we actually do about it? Why is it that we procrastinate and, more importantly, how can we stop?
According to both anecdotal evidence and psychological research, there are three primary reasons why humans procrastinate.
1. Time Inconsistency
Time inconsistency, a term derived from behavioral psychology, refers to the tendency of the human brain to value instant gratification more than delayed gratification. Even when the latter is more significant.
As James Clear put it, “The best way to understand this is by imagining that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self.”
When you set a goal or write down a plan, you are imagining what you want your life to be like in the future. You are looking after “future you” and, in that moment, it’s easy to see the positive benefits of working toward that goal or carrying out that plan.
But there’s a problem.
When your planning and goal setting are complete and you find yourself back in the present moment you’re no longer looking after “Future You.” You are living and caring for “Present You.” And research has shown that present you really likes instant gratification.
Almost as much as Kayne West likes Kayne West (almost…)
And so, you enter into a war between your two selves. Future You and Present You.
- Future You wants to live a long and healthy life free from cancer and respiratory disease. Present You really wants “just one more” cigarette to help take the edge off of the day.
- Future You wants the safety and security of a well-funded retirement account and cash flow generating assets. Present You really wants that new BMW or swanky apartment.
- Future You wants to be fit, athletic, and sculpted like a Greek god. Present You wants to hit the snooze button, skip the gym, and eat cake for breakfast.
The challenge is that the consequences of smoking, overspending, sleeping in, and skipping the gym are not immediate. They are often years away. After all, you won’t get lung cancer, go bankrupt, or gain 30 lbs. because of one bad decision.
But the reward for indulging in your vices and giving into procrastination? Those are immediate. You get your fix and you get it now.
You feel good in the moment and the negative consequences of your actions are deferred for months or even years.
2. The Planning Fallacy
The second, and perhaps most insidious reason why we procrastinate is something known as “The Planning Fallacy“, first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.
The planning fallacy simply states that human beings consistently underestimate the amount of time required to achieve a specific task.
An article that we thought would take two hours requires an entire day of focused effort. That meeting we thought would be over by lunchtime runs until 3 pm. The new lead magnet that was supposed to take a few days takes two weeks.
If you take an objective look at your performance over the past twelve months, I can all but guarantee that you can point to several instances where you fell prey to this fallacy.
The most damning part of the planning fallacy is that we fall prey to it unintentionally. When planning our weeks, we genuinely believe that projects will only take X number of hours and we prioritize our tasks and create a schedule to reflect this belief.
When you went out for drinks with a friend or came home early from work to enjoy a lazy afternoon, you didn’t know that you were procrastinating. You thought you had enough time to get everything done!
We unwittingly procrastinate because we have underestimated the effort required to complete a specific task and overestimate our ability to sustain focus on that task.
And the end result is always the same.
3. The Energy Paradox
The final reason for procrastination, for which I have no scientific evidence whatsoever, is something I call “The Energy Paradox.” And despite my lack of peer-reviewed research, I’ve experienced this paradox enough in my own life to warrant sharing it here.
In the same way that we underestimate the amount of time it will require us to complete a certain task, we often overestimate the energy we will have available to complete that task.
On your best day, you really can write that guide in 90-minutes or record your new VSL in a few hours.
But we are quick to forget that our energy levels are not static. They are constantly in a state of fluctuation and, more often than we care to admit, outside of our control.
Even if you do everything right–going to bed on time, hitting the gym, eating the right foods, and taking all the right supplements–some days, you just feel like crap.
And when these days happen (and trust me, they do happen), our ability to GSD diminishes dramatically.
Tasks drag on for hours. Fatigue makes it all but impossible to stay focused for more than 3.5 seconds (wait, what was I saying?). And we find ourselves, despite our best intentions, unable to do the things we know we should do.
III. How to Beat Procrastination for Good
Now that you have a greater understanding of why you procrastinate, let’s go over a few proven strategies to overcome each of the three procrastination causes.
1. Become a “Time Traveler” to Beat Time Inconsistency at Its Own Game
If we know that we procrastinate because the immediate rewards of procrastinating outweigh the long term consequences, the obvious solution is to find a way to make procrastination more painful and action more pleasurable.
And there are a few simple and easy ways to do this.
The first is a tactic known as “Temptation Bundling” which comes from researcher Katy Milkman at the University of Pennslyvania.
The premise is simple.
To beat procrastination, you combine an activity that is painful in the short term (but beneficial in the long term) with something that is pleasurable in the short term.
The key to maximizing this strategy is to ONLY do the pleasurable activity while engaged in something you normally procrastinate on.
For example, if you find yourself unable to consistently go to the gym no matter how hard you try, you could leverage temptation bundling by:
- ONLY watching your favorite TV show while running on the treadmill
- ONLY listening to your favorite podcast while lifting weights
- ONLY eating your favorite dessert after a workout
Or, if you are procrastinating on quitting a habit, say compulsively checking Instagram (instead of using it to grow your business), you can modify this strategy to make your bad habit work for Future You. For example…
- ONLY check Instagram after doing 20 pushups
- ONLY check Instagram after writing 100 words for your blog
- ONLY check Instagram after meditating for 1 minute
By using temptation bundling, you can make undesirable tasks more enjoyable and make it less likely that you will delay doing the things you need to do to achieve the future you want.
But sometimes, you need an extra kick to stop procrastinating.
And this is where the second strategy comes in.
Painful consequences through ruthless accountability.
If temptation bundling in and of itself is insufficient to help you beat your procrastination, you can make the pain of procrastination more immediate by enlisting the help of an accountability partner and creating painful consequences for failure.
For example, if you’re struggling to acquire new clients because you hate cold calls (as if anyone likes these) and continually procrastinate on picking up the phone…
…Hire a coach, give them your credit card, and tell them to donate $500 (or 10% of your monthly income) to a charity you hate if you haven’t acquired at least one new client by the end of the week.
If you’re struggling to consistently workout, find a gym buddy, give them your Facebook password, and tell them to share an embarrassing picture or post if you miss a training session.
By understanding and consciously manipulating the power of pain and pleasure, you can quickly overcome your procrastination and get back on track to achieve your big goals.
2. Bring Future You to the Present Moment to Eradicate Temptations Now
Another way to beat time inconsistency is by bringing the “afterglow” of Future You (the feeling you have after setting a big goal or spending time visualizing a better future) into the present moment.
Right now, as you’re thinking about your goals and vision, you probably aren’t feeling tempted by the Sirens of junk food, social media, Netflix, or cigarettes.
But tomorrow, when faced with the challenges of daily life, those temptations will be just as strong as ever.
So leverage your motivation in the moment to make it easier for ‘Immediate Future You’ to make the right decision.
During your next “motivational wave” take 15 minutes and remove every distraction and temptation that you can:
- Delete social media and mindless games from your phone…and let your friend set a new app store password so you can’t download them again in a moment of weakness.
- Throw out your cigarettes, junk food, booze, and edibles now so that tomorrow, you have to face the pain of paying to indulge in your temptations.
- Unplug the TV, give the power cable to an accountability partner, and instruct them only to return it once you’ve hit a big goal.
These examples might sound extreme (and they are), but they work.
If you’re serious about beating procrastination you must pull out all the stops and do whatever it takes to put yourself back on track and make progress towards the life that you–aka Future You–really want.
3. Treat Your Calendar Like an Old Macbook
If you’ve ever tried browsing the internet from your grandmother’s dusty old Macbook, then you’re familiar with the dreaded rainbow wheel.
The little icon that says, “I’m trying to fulfill your request, but I’m going to need about 30-minutes of buffer time before I even pull up your internet browser.”
To beat the planning fallacy and overcome your “stupid human trick” of inaccurate estimation, you need to learn from that wheel.
Most high-performers and entrepreneurs fall into the trap that Craig calls, “Putting 10 lbs of potatoes in a 5 lbs sack.”
Or as I like to call it, “Doing too damn much!”
The solution to this challenge will first require that you ruthlessly eliminate everything nonessential from your calendar (if you need help with this, click here to check out an amazing article that will teach you how), and it will not be easy.
But it will be worth it.
To beat the planning fallacy, you’re going to flip the script and intentionally overestimate the amount of time required to complete a given task (with the exception of meetings that have a set start and end time).
If you think something will take you an hour, schedule three. If you think it will take one day, schedule two.
Make more time in your calendar to account for unexpected setbacks and speed bumps.
To take this tactic even further, I recommend that you schedule blocks of “buffer time” into your calendar each week.
Don’t schedule anything during these blocks. Instead, plan to use this time to catch up or get ahead.
Personally, I recommend that you schedule 90 minutes of buffer time every day and an entire afternoon of buffer time (4+ hours) once a week.
By building these “fail-safes” into your week, you prevent the planning fallacy from tricking you into unintentional procrastination.
And if you do have a hyper-productive week where everything goes according to plan? You can use the extra time to get ahead or enjoy some well-earned r&r.
4. Make Your Psychology Work for You with “The Rule of One”
When I sat down to write my first book, I was overwhelmed. The prospect of transforming a blank word doc into a valuable 200-page guide was daunting, to say the least.
And, at the time, I didn’t know the anti-procrastination strategies I know today.
For more than nine months, I didn’t write a single word. Somehow, with only three weeks until my deadline, my hyperfocus kicked in and I was able to finish the project on time.
It required three weeks of 14-hour days, nonexistent weekends, and a ton of coffee (so, so, sooo much coffee).
The reason for my procrastination was simple.
I was so focused on writing a BOOK that I became overwhelmed and forgot the simple truth that every book is written the same way…one word at a time.
When faced with a daunting, boring, or unfamiliar task, the challenge ahead of you can feel so overwhelming that you get trapped into procrastination by paralysis
And when this happens the solution is simple.
Remember the “rule of one” and just do the first thing.
- Don’t try to write the entire article. Just write one sentence.
- Don’t try to build the entire website. Just pick the background image.
- Don’t try to go for your entire workout. Just put on your gym shoes.
- Don’t try to give up all of your favorite foods forever, just eat a healthy breakfast.
By tricking yourself into taking the first action, you will build positive momentum by releasing the mental burden of trying to do “the whole thing”.
Once you write one sentence, you’ll want to write another. Once you make one call you’ll want to make ten more. Once you put on your gym shoes you’ll want to get in the car.
Create the wave of momentum, and then ride it until you achieve your goal.
5. Apply the “Drucker Method” to Your Energy Levels to GMSD
What gets measured gets managed.Peter Drucker
I could write an entire book about optimizing your energy levels (and maybe I will), but the inconvenient truth about energy and the human body is this:
Every body is different.
What works for one person and gives them the all-day energy they need to dominate their inner procrastinator will leave another person exhausted and sound asleep at their desk.
While there are certain immutable principles of energy optimization (get 8 hours of sleep each night, eat whole foods, drink plenty of water, get in the sunlight, and break a sweat every day), the application of these principles vary from person to person.
Instead of giving you a dogmatic “do this, do that” prescription for maximum energy, I encourage you to apply the “Drucker Method” to find out what works for you.
The “Drucker Method” is, quite simply, the act of measuring your energy levels throughout the day to determine what “triggers” lead to low energy (and procrastination).
For the next two weeks, I want you to try something.
Setup a recurring 30-minute timer on your phone that starts half an hour after you wake up and ends half an hour before you go to sleep.
Whenever the alarm goes off, take 10-seconds to record your subjective energy levels (on a scale from 1-10) and what you did, ate, and drank over the past 30-minutes.
This might sound tedious–and it is–but if you will do this for 1-2 weeks, you can quickly spot the patterns resulting in less than optimal energy levels.
For example, you might notice that every time you each dairy, you go into a two-hour mini coma (like me) and are unable to focus on your work and GSD.
Or, you might notice that every day, no matter what you do, you experience a one hour slump from 2 pm to 3 pm.
By using this data, you can create routines and habits that will allow you to better manage your energy and ensure that you are never unwillingly forced into procrastination due to fatigue and burnout.
I hope that you enjoyed this guide and found valuable insights into why you procrastinate and how you can stop.
If you’re looking for more resources to help you get stuff done and make massive progress toward your biggest goals, be sure to check out the articles, guides, and free downloads below.
- 5 Research Backed Tips to Improve Your Productivity by 176%
- 9 Ways to Be More Disciplined and Become an Unstoppable Operator
- 7 Simple Tricks to Supercharge Your Success and Dominate Your Weeks
- Are These Five “Morning Myths” DESTROYING Your Productivity? (Read this to find out)
- The Tactical Time Management Blueprint that Will Save You 12.5+ Hours Each Week
- The 90-Day “Reality Maker Blueprint” to Compress Time and Achieve Your 12 Month Goals in 12 Weeks