Why We Procrastinate and Nine Ways to Kick the Habit

by Diane Berenbaum

Many (or most) of us avoid doing things we know we "should" or "need" to do, even when it's clear they're actually good for us. Two Harvard professors, Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman, decided to research the "why" behind our propensity to procrastinate. In their study, participants were asked whether they would enroll in a savings plan that automatically placed two percent of their paycheck in a savings account. Nearly every participant agreed that saving money was "a good idea." But, their behavior said otherwise:

  • When asked to enroll in the savings plan immediately, only 30 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan. 

  • When asked to enroll in a savings plan in the distant future (e.g., a year from today), 77 percent of people said they would agree to enroll in the plan. 

Why did the timeframe make such a difference? According to James Clear, a writer on habits and performance and author of Transform Your Habits, "We have a tendency to care too much about our present selves, and not enough about our future selves." 

What is Procrastination?

Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. In fact, ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe the behavior; "Akrasia." It is the state of acting against your better judgment, and it occurs when you do something even though you know you'd be better off doing something else. It is a form of procrastination. And in some cases, it can prevent you from following through on what you set out to do or what you really need to do.

It turns out that our brain loves immediate action and immediate gratification. We do care more about our present selves than our future selves. Isn't it true that we'd rather eat that donut or those onion rings now, and think about the consequences later; or in some cases, not at all? James Clear notes that we like to enjoy the benefits in the present, especially if the costs won't be apparent until far into the future. Doesn't it taste so much better now? And, the payoff seems greater now too. For example:

  • The payoff of eating a donut is immediate (mmm…powdered sugar or jelly), but the cost of skipping exercise won't show up for months.

  • The payoff of spending money today is immediate (we get something we want for ourselves or others), and the cost of not saving for retirement won't show up until you're years behind.

However, if we consider the costs of our choices up front, we might make very different choices. 

And, procrastination has become a habit for a lot of us. According to researchers at Duke University and their book, Habits: A Repeat Performance, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day. So, procrastination is a habit that you might want to break!

We all make poor choices against our better judgment. We're human. That ice cream sundae with fudge sauce sounded like a really good idea at first, but you may feel "stuffed" after eating it. Reading that romance novel was a great escape, but you may have been better off preparing for next week's presentation. Why do we do those things? We tell ourselves NOT to repeat those unproductive behaviors, but we do them anyway. It is human nature; however, we can change by making different choices.

Nine Ways to Kick the Procrastination Habit

1.    Make the rewards of long-term behavior more immediate
The reason we procrastinate is because our mind wants an immediate benefit; in other words, immediate gratification. If you can make the benefits of long-term choices more near-term, then it's easier to avoid procrastination. 

One way to do that is to imagine the benefits your future self will enjoy. Picture yourself presenting at a conference and the audience is engaged and enthralled with your message. Visualize what your life will be like (or what you'll look like) if you lose those 10 pounds you've been talking about. Or, think about how saving money now will be important to your future self and help you pay your children's college tuitions. Keep that payoff in the present moment in your mind's eye. 

2.   Make the costs of procrastination more immediate
There are many ways to force you to pay the costs of procrastination sooner rather than later. For example, if you are exercising alone, skipping your workout next week won't impact your life much at all. Your health won't deteriorate immediately because you missed that one workout. The cost of procrastinating on exercise becomes very apparent after weeks and months. However, if you commit to working out with a friend at 8:30 a.m. next Saturday, then the cost of skipping that workout becomes more immediate. Miss more than one workout and you might lose a friend.

3.   Remove procrastination triggers from your environment
The most powerful way to change your behavior is to change your environment. Common sense, but we don't always do it. For example, in a normal situation, you might choose to eat a cookie, or two, rather than eat vegetables. But, what if the cookie wasn't there to begin with? It is much easier to make the right choice if you're surrounded by "better" choices. Remove the distractions from your environment and create a space with better choice architecture.

4.   Add triggers to your environment to prompt productive behaviors
Consider the "Paper Clip Strategy" as an example. It was the brainstorm of stockbroker, Trent Dyrsmid, who worked at a bank in Abbotsford, Canada in 1993, and had a quota of 120 calls each day. So, he kept two jars on his desk. One contained 120 different paper clips; the other was empty. Every morning, Dyrsmid would start with 120 paper clips in his jar. When he made a phone call, he'd move one of the paper clips to the empty jar. He kept doing that until every paper clip was moved.  After 18 months, he booked over $5 million dollars' worth of business.  

You can substitute paper clips with jelly beans, or coins to motivate you to model the desired behaviors. See what this strategy can do for you. Plus, you might end up with some extra change and satisfy your sweet tooth too!
5.  Make a public announcement about a new action
There's nothing like a public declaration to ensure you commit to the action you've announced; e.g.  "I will stop procrastinating when it comes time to prepare the monthly report!" When you make your commitment known, you put your reputation on the line. Commitments are powerful because they influence how you think, how you act and how you sound. It may also mean you'll work harder to achieve your goals/objectives and meet deadlines. But, avoid setting an overly ambitious timeframe; that may only discourage you from doing it all.

6.  Determine a cost of NOT procrastinating
For example, if you miss your usual Saturday AM workout, which you promised to attend, you'll buy your friend coffee or breakfast after your next workout together. Or, say to yourself, "If I don't wash my massive pile of laundry by tomorrow night, I'll do 25 sit-ups." Think of a cost that would be meaningful for you; and one that would encourage you to do what you really need or "should" do.

7. Set a deadline for your behavior and stick to it
Choose a goal or activity that's important to you. Then set a timeframe for completing that task and commit to that schedule. Be sure to tell others about it; you'll be far more likely to do it (for they may hold you to it!)  For example, you might announce, "I'm going to clean my office by end of day Friday".  If so, you better be ready to do what you've declared in the timeframe you stated. You'll really regret it, if you don't meet that goal. Be sure you can actually accomplish the task, or else be ready to deal with the consequences. Some may never let you forget it!

8. Adopt a Productivity System that works for you

Whatever system you choose, it needs to be simple to use. We all know that if it's not simple, we're not going to use it! Clear recommends The Ivy Lee Method, which has five steps:

  • At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish the next day.  Resist the temptation to get carried away, given your workload and "good intentions," No need for more than six; chances are, you won't accomplish any more than that. And you don't want to thwart your best efforts.

  • Prioritize those six items in order of their importance, in relation to your goals and objectives.

  • Start by concentrating only on the first task. Finish that task before moving on to the next task.

  • Approach the rest of your list in the same way. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

  • Repeat this process every working day.

9. Use Visual Cues to Trigger your Habits and Measure your Progress  

Here are three ways to use visual cues: 

  • Visual cues remind you to start a behavior. We often aim to convince ourselves and remember to perform a new habit. ("I'm going to start eating healthier, and I really mean it this time!"). A few days later, however, our motivation may fade and "life" takes over. And, "hoping" or "thinking about starting that new habit" may end up being a recipe for failure. But, a visual stimulus can make it easier to stick with good habits, especially when you're surrounded by better choices, when your environment nudges you in the right direction.

  • Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Everyone knows consistency is an essential component of success, but few people actually measure how consistent they are in real life. Having a visual cue—like a calendar that tracks your progress—avoids that pitfall because it is a built-in measuring system. One look at your calendar and you immediately have a measure of your progress; or lack of progress!

  • Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation. The more visual progress you see, the more motivated you will be to finish the task. Seeing your improvement, even in incremental steps, is a great way to trigger your next productive action.

The things we measure are the things we improve. What are you measuring in your life? 

The key to success is to commit completely. What will you do, or stop doing?
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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