How to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination can be a nasty enemy. We know we should work out more, eat better, study more, meditate, go to bed earlier, or do any of the other thousands of things we all too often don´t want to do.

It´s so easy to make New Year´s resolutions, set goals, schedule new activities, and then don´t to them anyway. It doesn´t matter how motivated we were when setting the goal, or that we intellectually know what we should be doing, we fail to do what we said we were going to do.

If you struggle with procrastination once in a while, you are not alone. In fact, procrastination has been around for as long as humanity has existed, built in our brains to conserve energy in a world we haven´t lived in anymore for hundreds of years. Back when fighting saber-tooth tigers and mammoths was our main priority in order to stay alive, we didn´t need to pay much attention to the future. It didn´t matter what might happen in a month from now, as long as we were fed today. Tomorrow wasn´t guaranteed, so it only made sense to eat what you could for as long as you could today.

And while our lives have changed massively since then, our brains have not. We still seek to conserve energy and gain pleasure as quickly as possible, no matter what the long-term consequences may be. This effect is called time-inconsistency, a term originating from behavioral economics that describes how we value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. In other words, your brain prefers the muffin now over the healthier body later. That shouldn´t come as much of a surprise.

You can think of it as a fight between your Present Self and your Future Self. Your Future Self is the one that sets goals - to run 5 times a week, lose 20 pounds, or finally finish the project at work. It is the long-term thinker that is motivated by future rewards that may not occur until years later.

However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can decide what to do in any moment of the day. And when the time comes to make this choice, your brain is no longer thinking about the Future Self - it wants immediate gratification, right now!

This is why, no matter how healthy your Future Self wants to be, your Present Self keeps wanting to eat donuts and avoid working out - and often wins. Even though being healthy 10 years from now is a great goal, it is not very inspiring to the Present Self that holds the reigns.
Many research studies have found that the need for immediate gratification almost always overrides the goals of the Future Self.

The ancient problem of Akrasia

The problem isn´t a new one. In fact, as early as in ancient Greece some 2000 years ago, philosophers Socrates and Aristotle were concerned with the issue. They termed it the Akrasia Effect - the state of acting against better judgement. Whenever you do something you know you shouldn´t be doing or you fail to do something that you know you should be doing, you experience the Akrasia Effect.

Over time, humans have taken drastic measures to avoid akrasia. Take Herman Melville for example, the author of the epic novel Moby-Dick. When he was struggling to finish his book, his wife reportedly had to chain him to his desk in order to force him to finish his project.

Another great writer used similar methods: When French poet and novelist Victor Hugo was faced with a nearly impossible deadline caused by his own procrastination, he took drastic measures: Realizing that his social life was distracting him from writing, he told his servant to strip him naked and not return with his clothes until a certain hour so that he could focus on his work. Not surprisingly, Hugo finished the book weeks ahead of schedule.
Now these are two extreme examples of overcoming procrastination, but how can the average person beat akrasia and do the things they set out to do?

How to beat procrastination

As explained above, beating procrastination is a fight between your Future Self and your Present Self. You may have big dreams and aspirations in your life, but your Present Self wants none of that - it craves immediate gratification such as food, video games, and other activities that bring immediate pleasure.

Therefore, overcoming procrastination is about choosing your long-term vision over short-term pleasure. As you probably know, that is easier said than done.
And while it is often hard to finally ditch your procrastination habit, it is far from impossible. Here are some of my favorite ways to get myself to do the things that I don´t feel like doing:

Just get started

In chemistry, there is a concept called activation energy, which is the minimum energy that must be available in order to result in a chemical reaction. Only after that treshold is met can a reaction occur. The more difficult and complex the reaction, the more activation energy is needed in order to get it started.
This works the same when it comes to overcoming procrastination. For any behavior or habit you want to change, whether that is going for a 6-mile run or calling a new client, you need activation energy to get started. The more difficult the behavior, the more motivation and willpower (aka activation energy) you have to spend in order to just get started.

Doing is not the problem, it is starting that scares us.

Have you ever noticed that simply starting what you are afraid or unmotivated to do actually feels good? You managed to finally reach the activation energy to go for a run on a cold and rainy morning when your muscles were sore but it turned out to be one of the best things you did that day? Or maybe you could finally motivate yourself to study for that hard exam and ended up surprised because it really wasn´t that hard to study for several hours?

In almost all cases, it´s not doing the actual work that´s the problem, it´s starting it. Once the activation energy is provided and you start doing something, the reaction energy keeps itself alive, with almost no effort on your side. All you need to do is start. Focus on running just one mile. Then another. You will be surprised at how far you will come. For more advice on how to make working out easier, check out this article.

Creating catalysts for your behaviors

Everyone wants the tools and strategies to make success happen faster and easier. Chemists are no different here, so they developed another trick to decrease the activation energy needed for a reaction to occur: By adding additional substances known as catalysts, chemists decrease the activation energy needed to get started and therefore make it easier for the reaction to start.
When it comes to changing our behaviors, our catalyst is the environment. We can change the environment around us in such a way that taking action requires less motivation and willpower (activation energy), which enables us to take action faster and more effortless.

Let´s say that when you go to bed tonight, you plan on working out first thing tomorrow morning. You are eager and motivated, and can´t wait to get started. Fast-forward 8 hours of sleep, and that motivation isn´t quite there anymore. Let´s imagine (hypothetically) that you have 5 units of willpower when you wake up.

You are still tired, it´s cold outside, and your mind starts thinking about all the things you need to do: Get up and from your cozy bed into the cold room (1 unit), find your running clothes (1 unit), decide how long and fast you will run (1 unit), and then go run 7 miles in the cold (3 units). As all the math geniuses probably noticed, that makes 6 units of willpower. But since we only have 5 units available this morning, we likely won´t go and instead just stay in bed and sleep in.

That´s where catalysts come into play. You can decrease the activation energy needed to go run by simply changing your environment. For example, you can set the room temperature high enough that you won´t be freezing in the morning when you get out of bed (I´ve found this to be huge, especially in the winter), prepare your running clothes the night before, and decide in advance how many miles you will run. According to our hypothetical calculation from above, this would save 3 units of willpower, leaving 5 units for the actual run.

Instead of depleting our willpower before you even start your run, you can shape your environment in such a way that it promotes the exact activities you want to do (here are 8 great habits to start with).

  • Want to eat healthier? Only keep healthy foods in your house and throw out the cookies to prevent any temptations. 
  • Want to wake up earlier? Make sure to turn up the heat in the room, play your favorite song, or watch some motivational videos as soon as the alarm clock sounds. 
  • Want to read a book as part of your morning routine? Open it up on the page you want to read and place it somewhere you will see it.
  • Fail to work out consistently? Start by signing up for the gym and finding a workout partner that will hold you accountable. It is easy to find excuses when you are on your own, but much harder to ditch your training partner when you have committed to working out with him.
    Whatever you want to do, make sure to first create the environmental conditions necessary to make the right choices easier.

You don´t have to like what you do to love what you do

This may sound like a contradiction at first, but it actually makes perfect sense. On your journey towards your biggest goals and dreams, there will be many things you don´t like to do or even hate to do. Most people want a better body but hate to work out. Their solution? They quit and never reach their true potential.

Our dreams, no matter how big and amazing they are, always require us to do things that we don´t want to do. Even if you love your job, I am sure there are things that you hate about it. For me, writing about kicking procrastination and building a stronger mindset is a dream come true, but it also requires me to do the things that I hate.

In high school, I failed every single computer science test I took. Not because of lack of effort (I once wrote 3 full pages describing a program) but lack of any skill or talent (my teacher took a fat red marker and crossed out everything I wrote). In other words, I had no idea what I was doing and hated every single minute of it.

That hasn´t changed in the slightest bit now that I am running my own website. I still don´t understand a single word of computer language and have to google the simplest code in order to even get my website running, but that doesn´t stop me from doing what I love. And it can´t stop you either. Every dream you pursue also has its downsides, so it´s your job to figure out which ones you are willing to suffer for. At the end of the day, success is all about disciplining yourself to a few simple habits and never giving up on what you want until you get it.

Plan for failure

Anyone can follow through on the good days, it´s the bad ones that make or break you. When you feel sick, tired, stressed out, or frustrated, it is hard to stick to your positive routines. On the days where you don´t even want to get out of bed, it is extremely challenging to motivate yourself to go for a run or work on that big project. But these are also the days when you need it the most. To help you keep moving forward on even the worst days, you can use this simple tool:

If X happens, I do Y.
If I feel too tired to go for a run, I just run for one mile and then see if I feel better.
If I don´t feel motivated to work on my book, I watch inspirational videos.
If I am mad at my partner, I think of all the great times we had together.
If I am stressed out, I meditate and then make a plan to tackle my tasks one by one.
If I can´t meditate for 20 minutes today, I meditate for 5 minutes.
You get the point.

What this allows you to do is plan for failure. There will be times where you feel overwhelmed or don´t have time for all the things you want to do, but it´s still important to follow through. Stick to your habits, even in the smallest ways, to keep the momentum alive and create stronger habits.

Breaking your goal into small parts

There is no more reliable way to get a lazy person to do something quickly than through deadlines. I see this every semester at my University. All semester long, students procrastinate and do nothing at all about their projects until a few days before the deadline, when they realize the very real consequence of failing. All of the sudden, even the laziest student becomes a workaholic and works day and night to submit that paper on time, usually with much stress and missed sleep.

Deadlines are great, if you know how to use them correctly. Instead of setting one giant project deadline that will result in much stress at the last minute, space it out! Set milestones along the way to make sure that you actually use the whole time that is available. What needs to be done this Thursday? And what is due next weekend? What are the action steps you have to take over the next 4 weeks? Which milestones do you want to reach and when?

By breaking up a big project into many smaller ones, you are doing two things: First, you decrease the activation energy needed to take action. As explained before, big tasks take much more motivation than many smaller ones. Oftentimes, we procrastinate simply because we get overwhelmed. Start with the first small step, and then build momentum.

When your goal is to run a marathon, you don´t start there. You don´t say “uhh, I feel like running a marathon next weekend, let´s start training for it.” Instead, you systematically plan out every training run for the next few months and set specific milestones. On June 1st, you run a 10k to test your form. On July 12th, you run a half-marathon. On August 8th, you finish your first 20-mile long run.

By doing this, you know exactly where you are and what you need to do at every step. You constantly build on your successes and increase your confidence as you attack increasingly bigger tasks. As you see yourself succeeding, your motivation increases, causing you to work even harder. One success breeds another, and it all starts with the first step.