The blog, Wait But Why, has a popular article on why procrastinators procrastinate. The summary of it is that people procrastinate because the long-term thinking part of your brain gets overtaken by the “Instant gratification monkey.”
This monkey plays in the “Dark playground” of unproductive activities, like watching pranks on YouTube, until you’re up against a deadline. Then, the “Panic Monster” arrives, which forces you to get back on track.
I loved the fun characters used to illustrate this, but I think it misses the mark on the core of why we procrastinate. The playful story may even be diverting your attention from the main cause of procrastination.
The truth about why we procrastinate
It’s not rocket science. We procrastinate because what we’re forced to do is un-enjoyable or boring.
But someone told you that you need to do this activity for some future pay-off that’s supposedly worth it.
We find ways of delaying the pain of toiling through this until we must by finding other fun activities we’d rather do, sometimes productive but less important activities, to ease our guilt.
It’s okay to suck at defeating procrastination because it’s normal. We’re genetically wired to be short-term thinkers because most of human civilization didn’t live that long. It was natural be dead from disease or illness by your twenties or thirties.
It’s only due to recent developments in antibiotics and medicine in the last century that we have extended our lives by so much. Yet our genetic wiring can’t keep up with the changes. We evolve a lot slower than technology, so we still think short-term if we don’t employ our willpower and planning.
There’s no point wasting time explaining why procrastination is bad. I’m preaching to the choir. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already know all the reasons procrastination sucks.
The common response to trying to defeat procrastination comes down to using the brute strength of willpower you have. Chances are this didn’t work for you. You tried to will your way to concentrating but your mind always trailed off. So how do you actually defeat it? By setting up systems that work with your psychology.
We all have things we want to do or commit to do that we don’t do. Some of these things could really change our lives in the long run but for whatever reason, they don’t get accomplished. I want you to channel that motivation by using some of the anti-procrastination tips I’m going to drop here…
You’re not alone
Many of us write New Years goals that never get accomplished, including successful people. I’ve seen entrepreneurs such as Warren Buffett and Pat Flynn admit to procrastinating.
Stop beating yourself up. Everyone procrastinates, but successful people have created systems to defeat it more often or stay in the procrastination zone less. Negative self-talk is only holding you back.
Think positive and celebrate your wins because it will build momentum to keep finishing what you’ve been putting off. The more wins you see and the more you celebrate, the less you’ll procrastinate.
Master the conflict that is playing out
There is a battle playing out between two motives when you procrastinate. Short-term pleasure or long-term pay off at the cost of present pain. As Tony Robbins says, we’re always running away from pain and towards pleasure. But which pleasure will win out today?
Sometimes, it’s short-term pleasure that wins (e.g., eating pizza daily because it tastes good at the cost of an early death and bad health). Sometimes, it’s the long-term pleasure that wins (e.g., suffering through workouts to get a beautiful body and long lifespan). Defining all the consequences of your choices will help you strengthen your willpower, decide which choice is better, and move forward.
Here are some examples:
- You want to go to the gym but you don’t. There is a battle between the long-term motivation to be healthy, attractive, stronger, stay more focused, and have more energy versus the short-term motivation to seek the pleasure and relaxation of Netflix while avoiding the displeasure of sweating and exercise.
- You want to delegate responsibilities as a leader. You don’t because one side of motivations has won out: you have to micromanage because you believe no one can do it right without you or there is a deep-seated psychological element of wanting the credit. This side has won out over the motivation of wanting to do a better job, making more money for the business, or achieving greater results for the company.
- You want to stop wasting hours every night on the computer watching videos and entertaining yourself. But for years, you fail. There are 2 sides fighting: one consists of the urge to relax after a tough day at work, a psychological escape from your boring life, a time to enjoy yourself and have fun, and/or the only period where you enjoy your life which you must have versus the motivation to lift yourself out of your situation, do more productive things, make more money, wake up early for once, experience the morning sun, get up on time and see people you don’t see because you sleep in, and/or the motivation to set yourself up for a better, more fun future and career.
With these examples, you may have only some of the motivations listed on each side. In fact, you might have motivations not listed. There’s a large variety of possible psychological urges and motivation for why we do things.
Recognizing this can be the first step to truly remedying the problem. There are other forces that can be at play such as a biological addiction or an exhaustion of willpower. We will not be covering these in detail as I’ve talked about some of these in the past. In a nutshell: For willpower, it’s fairly straightforward: science has shown it’s like a muscle that can be exhausted from overuse, thus putting yourself in a potentially vulnerable situation. Set up your life so that this muscle doesn’t get exhausted when you need it most to do a certain task.
A psychologist or psychiatrist can help you unearth deeper motives that you can’t identify yourself because of bias. For many people, a number of good friends who can be brutally honest with how they perceive you can be good enough too sometimes. You must take away pride and ego to be able to accept their criticism.
One issue is that one of the motives could be ego, vanity, and pride. You could be doing a task because you want the credit or because you want to be right even when you’re not. It can be a tough thing to let go of.
Identify and test false assumptions
Someone once told me that they admire my exercise routine and my physique. He followed this remark up with explaining how he avoided exercise even though he wanted to be more fit and attractive because lifting weights felt so painful.
While it may not be pleasurable, there are HUNDREDS of experiences much more painful than lifting weights. Needles. Torture. Constipation.
I restrained myself from blowing up in outrage and looking at him with condescension. I wondered if how he accomplished anything in life if he was complaining about a little displeasure of exercise. Successful people do what unsuccessful people are unwilling to do, and I was shocked he had gone so far in life without having to face some struggle to get what he wanted.
Holding my judgment aside, I used empathy to understand his perspective. I was there too. I was introduced to lifting weights over a decade ago. For the first nine years, I exercises sporadically and couldn’t maintain a consistent schedule. I would go months without returning to the gym.
Eventually, I found the secret to a daily, strenuous exercise routine. The secret to consistency was starting slow, celebrating your small wins, and gradually increasing the frequency and duration until it didn’t seem so hard.
By changing your attitude and perspective, you can also start to enjoy the pain over the years. Arnold Schwarzenegger loved lifting weights so much that the pain felt better than an orgasm because he knew every step he took moved him closer to becoming Mr. Olympia. I haven’t reached that level, but I get more enjoyment from my pain at times because I can see improvements in my athleticism and realize the investment I’m making in my health and fitness.
That begs the question of what limiting beliefs and assumptions you have in your head that are holding you back. In my example, the man assumed that exercise was torture. The truth is that it doesn’t feel like it if you’re introduced to it gradually, if you look at it with a fresh attitude, or you find activities that are fun, like cycling or swimming. Once you have acknowledged and identified the motives behind your internal battle, identify assumptions that aren’t true.
Here are some examples:
- You assume that people can’t do as great a job as you if you don’t micromanage them. After testing many times, it turns out that people can do a BETTER job than you consistently if you let them.
- You assume you can only get fun out of the last 2 hours of a day because you hate your job. After testing the assumption, you learned that you can have a lot more fun at work and throughout your day if you have a different attitude and work towards making your job more fun.
- You assume that you are doomed forever to stay at a job and thus a life you hate. You question this assumption and realize that you might be able to work towards a better career path through further education, networking, and a career transition.
As you can see, some of these assumptions cannot be fully tested while others can. Sometimes, you cannot figure it out yourself. Sometimes, you can question them and think. Other times, studying successful people and their histories can lead the way.
After reading a ton of stories about successful people and the tough times they had, I learned from their real stories that you can make radical career changes or go from dirt poor to wealthy beyond belief if you follow the Laws of Success. It’s not going to be easy but it’s possible. You can achieve your dreams.
The point is that you couldn’t have learned this myself if you stayed in my head with my limited experiences and tried questioning the belief.
Master your “why”
Let’s be frank. If you’re always doing something you hate. You’re going to be fighting an uphill battle against people who are passionate about what they do for the rest of your life.
While it may not seem like work for them most of the time, you’re going to be toiling and procrastinating away.
Find a career or activity that you love and pays the bills. It’s the best solution.
Now, I know some of you are forced to do what you don’t enjoy in the short-term to get good grades or put food on the table. We all do. Use the procrastination tips I’ve mentioned to find ways of chunking out your tasks and making it as fun as possible for the time being. But always be doing work on the side to set yourself up for a career you love.
Psychology affects our decisions. Come to terms with what holds you back.
Many people’s motivation date back to childhood. They never got validation or credit from their parents so they overcompensated by taking other people’s credit or looked for validation constantly.
Some people just develop big egos for some reason. Perhaps, they were never truly recognized or acknowledged while they were young. This could play out in them making terrible decisions for a business despite tons of evidence or facts because they were too stubborn to change their mind since they always had to be right.
A great example would be a person using the last 2 hours of the workday to escape with video games or entertainment. They may be using this as a necessary crutch to get by each day. It’s the only thing they look forward to since they hate their job. It makes sense that they can’t quit this habit to be more productive because deep down it’s what keeps them from going insane during the workday.
After they have realized this, they can acknowledge it. Maybe the smart route would not be to try to eliminate this in the short-term. The best solution might be to slowly change his or her lifestyle and career to one they love more and more until they don’t need to depend on video games for fun anymore since their whole day is fun.
These may be more extreme examples but are good models to see if you have any psychology holding you back.
Come to terms with your past. Realize it’s unchangeable. Realize you are enough as is to be happy, joyous, and thankful.