3 science-backed ways to fend off procrastination

Increase your immediate rewards, make the future more real, and force yourself to start. Go ahead and eat that cookie, too.

How to fend off procrastination

I am a professional writer, which means as soon as I get an assignment, I sit right down and reorganize my desk.

Then I clean my apartment and make myself a snack. Then I do all that again.

I take my job so seriously that I conducted exhaustive research for this article about procrastination by putting it off until the absolute last minute. You’re welcome.

There are several valid explanations for why we procrastinate, but let’s focus on one key aspect: self-control. We lack self-control because our unconscious decision-making mechanisms prefer the tangible, emotionally satisfying rewards of doing something right now. Who cares about two future marshmallows when you can have one right now?

This is what makes exercise, dieting and saving for retirement so difficult. When rewards are months, years or decades away, it takes a measure of willpower not many can muster. Unfortunately, the same pain of procrastination applies to writers of all stripes.

How to be more productive

We can’t change human nature, but by understanding human nature—and the science behind why we do things—we can create systems, environments and tools to use our human nature to our own benefit.

Try these three tips to boost self-control, increase willpower, and get more work done:

1. Increase immediate rewards. Because the benefits of the project you’re putting off won’t be felt for a long time—and there are so many other more mindless or relaxing things you could be doing—it’s crucial to increase immediate emotional rewards of the long-term project. You can do this through “reward substitution.” Instead of fighting to overcome lack of self-control or present temptations, give yourself a small treat for progress, such as:

  • Reward yourself for starting. You spent 10 minutes entering data without checking Twitter? Have a cookie. Now get back to work.
  • Articulate and focus on the immediate benefits of the long-term work to increase motivation. “My supervisor isn’t asking me if I’ve started the project anymore.” “It feels good to get going.” “I’m beating Gil in accounting.” “I don’t hide my computer screen whenever I hear footsteps.” Whatever little benefit you can find, focus on those.
  • Break your big project into smaller, simpler jobs. Ticking tasks off a to-do list feels good, doesn’t it? Getting stuff done provides a jolt of adrenaline, and it helps us engage the principle of endowed progress—which states that we’re more likely to complete a task once we’ve made tangible progress.
  • Outline the specific steps to get the job done. When you make concrete plans, science shows, you’re more likely to achieve your goals.

2. Make the future more real. Think about yourself in the future. Does it seem like a separate person? This disconnect can make it feel as though you’re working for a stranger rather than reaping (eventual) rewards for yourself. One antidote is to strengthen your connection to your future self.

This sort of abstract thinking is tricky, but try imagining your future self more vividly, in specific, relatable ways. It can be as simple as having an imaginary conversation with yourself once you’ve finished a task. You can also write a letter to future you, or you can think about the specific emotions you’ll feel once that big project is finished.

The more you can make the future defined, vivid and detailed, the more you’ll care and connect.

Another tip is to use a specific completion time. One study found that people discounted the future less when it was described with a specific calendar date rather than an amount of time. We’re more likely to save for a retirement that begins “Sept. 6, 2039” than for one occurring “in 20 years.”

3. Make yourself do it. Making a concrete, tangible and specific commitment—a precommitment—to completing a task forces us to get it done.

There are also plenty of apps and tools to help you avoid procrastination—either by locking or blocking certain websites or by triggering other emotions. For instance, StickK.com automatically donates money to a loathed “anti-charity” if you don’t hit your goal.

Let’s turn it over to you, readers. How do you stay productive and avoid procrastination? Please leave your tips in the comments below. (Feel free to give yourself a cookie first—or reward yourself with two cookies afterward.)

Jeff Kreisler is editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com. A former stand-up comedian, he’s now a behavioral economics expert, financial columnist and author.


One Response to “3 science-backed ways to fend off procrastination”

    Bill Spaniel says:

    Put a picture of your family on the wall above your computer with the following words underneath: If you don’t write, they’ll starve.

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