How to Overcome Procrastination and Do What Truly Matters
The key to eliminating procrastination lies in understanding the "why" behind your inability to start.
Let me start with the truth. I’m still a procrastinator at heart.
In the last ten years or so, I would have read countless articles on procrastination and listened to numerous podcasts and I’ve tried all the tricks possible including literally trying to trick myself.
Sometimes the hacks worked and sometimes they did not and most of the time the hacks were short-lived. Yes, it never lasts. I have never ever fully kicked procrastination to the curb even when I was at my peak of productivity.
The reason? My emotions.Naked, unpredictable emotions.
Human emotions are unpredictable, volatile, and can never be fully understood even by the best of minds. And procrastination is more about our emotions than our tendencies for laziness or just being “bad at time management.
At its core, we procrastinate to keep ourselves happy in the moment —which makes complete sense as we are human beings and we are not perfect. Makes sense; right?
That said, the problem is nothing new. Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. The problem is so timeless that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe it called Akrasia.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. In other words, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.
That brings us to an all-important question.
Why do we procrastinate?
Tim Pychyl, author of the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle calls the phenomenon as “a purely visceral, emotional reaction to something we don’t want to do,”. The more averse you find a task, the more likely you are to procrastinate. And in his research, Pychyl identifies a set of seven triggers that make a task seem more averse.
• Not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find the process fun)
• Lacking in personal meaning
And the key to overcoming procrastination is to just reverse the procrastination triggers. Whenever you plan to do a task just consider which of Pychyl’s seven procrastination triggers are set off it. Then try to think differently about the task, making the idea of completing it more attractive.
And here are some techniques that I have used in my own journey to address the root cause of my procrastination.
Prioritize tasks using the Ivy Lee method
Prioritizing your tasks not only helps you figure out which tasks are most important but also ensures that you don’t end up procrastinating on important ones while wasting time on trivial ones.
And one of the simplest ways to do so is the Ivy Lee method. This method involves preparing a to-do list at the end of each day and writing down a list of six tasks that you want to complete tomorrow, ranked in order of importance. You need to basically just focus on these six tasks and ignore everything else.
The method is simple. Every day, start working on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task. Continue with the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished tasks to the list for the next day and so on…
The method is effective because of its simplicity. The biggest reason for procrastination is starting something. Lee’s method forces you to think about the first task to be started the next day and when the next morning comes, all that you need to do is to start the task. There is no deliberation, no excuses, and absolutely no reason for you not to start the task.
It is simple and it works, and you don’t waste time in over-optimizing your prioritization or figuring out what to do first.
Bundle your tasks with temptations
The method involves incentivizing ourselves to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls this method reward substitution, while Katherine Milkman, also a behavioral economist, calls it temptation bundling. The method works because according to Ariely, humans do not much care about things that happen in the future.
We are more tuned for immediate gratification and need something which makes us feel good now. This makes it hard to do unpleasant things which would benefit us in the future.
For example, if I need to write 1000 words a day as a writer, I simply connect it to chocolate donuts as a reward. I reward myself a donut at the completion of every 1000 words. That said, I very well know that eating too many donuts is bad for my health but the instant gratification of getting a donut eggs me on to complete my task.
And because my action is rewarded in the now every time, I continue to do the right thing (write 1000 words a day) for the wrong reason (so that I get a donut).
Use the 2-minute rule to make a task more achievable
One of my favorite ways to make any task achievable is to use the 2-Minute Rule. The rule involves the following steps.
Step 1: If it can be done in two minutes, just do it. If a task takes less than two minutes of your time, do it right away. Don’t add it to your to-do list. Don’t put it aside for later. Just do it.
Some examples of tasks you can do in two minutes or less can be.
• Answer an email from your boss
• Come up with a few blog ideas
• Send an update to a colleague
• Taking out the trash
Remember there are tons of tasks every day that you can do in less than two minutes of time. Once you take an action on any 2-minute task, you will feel better motivated and can build on the momentum to finish bigger tasks.
Step 2: If it takes more than 2 minutes, just start it. A few examples can be.
• I want to write 1000 words a day. OK, write 50 words in two minutes.
• I want to jog for 1 hour every day. OK, start with two minutes of warmup exercise.
• I want to devote 2 hours and complete that complex code. OK, open the IDE and type the program variable declarations for two minutes.
Remember the key here is action. Once you start acting on the small tasks, you can set the ball rolling.
Lastly, ascertain your most productive period using attention management
Lydia K., an MIT master’s student who blogs for MIT Admissions rightly says.
“Attention, not time or money, is your most potent (and often most limited) resource. You have limited attention and the biggest challenge is deciding what to do with it.”
So when do you pay the most attention? Graham Alcott answers this question in his book How to be a Productivity Ninja where he describes three types of attention.
• Proactive Attention: You’re in your productive best, feeling good, and working steadily on priority tasks. Work on your biggest, most important, and scariest tasks at this time.
• Active Attention: You’re trying to stay focused and get some work done, but you can easily become distracted. Use this time to attend to short, easy, and repetitive tasks that don’t require your best attention.
• Inactive Attention: You are either taking a break or just pretending to work Use this time for mindless tasks like cleaning out your desk, refilling your printer paper, or even just puttering around doing nothing. This task might not be the best use of your time, but it’s better than nothing.
That said, it is a bad idea to push yourself to work when you are unproductive. You just end up wasting time, producing crap, and incurring stress leading to you questioning your very ability. Zeroing in on the times, you’re most focused not only produces the best results but also keeps procrastination at bay.
Remember, beating procrastination is no less than a science and you need to adopter smarter strategies to overcome it rather than leaving it at the whims and fancies of your emotions.
As Charles Dickens has rightly said.
“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed and learned something new from this article. If so, leave a like and a tip if you super-liked what you have read just now. See you - Mythili