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Reducing My Habitual Procrastination

| April 16, 2019

by Jim Bruce

As I wrote in last week’s Tuesday Reading, “Procrastinators Anonymous: Yes, both I and you are most likely members of this club,”1 procrastination is “willingly deferring something though you expect the delay to make you worse off.”2 I like this definition as it explicitly calls to our minds the fact that procrastination requires a decision to procrastinate and that a cost is always incurred.

I also noted in the Tuesday Reading that research in behavioral psychology has shown that we are not designed on the neural level to think into the future. Psychologist Hal Hershfield, professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management says it this way: “We really were not designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.”His research has shown that “on a neural level we perceive our ‘future selves’ more like strangers than as parts of ourselves. When we procrastinate, parts of our brains actually think that the tasks we’re putting off – and the accompanying negative feelings that await us on the other side – are somebody else’s problem.”

”Behavioral psychology research,” according to James Clear,4 “has revealed a phenomenon called ‘time inconsistency,’ which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. … [I]magine that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself … you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future. Researchers have found that when you think about your Future Self it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.” The Future Self values longer-term rewards.
However, those longer-term rewards seen by the Future Self may not be valued in-the-moment by the Present Self. In order to reduce my and your procrastination, we need to find a way to move the future rewards, and punishments, into the present. The consequences have to become present consequences and the rewards, present rewards. That’s what happens when we stop procrastinating and begin to act.  James Clear calls this crossing the Action Line. You’ve gotten to the point where the consequences of not acting far outweigh any benefit you’ve been accruing from not acting.
So, if we want to stop our procrastinating, we need to make it as easy as we can for the Present Self to get started, to cross the Action Line, trusting that motivation, momentum, and initial results will keep us moving.
How might we do that? Charlotte Lieberman3 suggests that we might begin by being kind to ourselves, that we not mentally berate ourselves when the desire to procrastinate begins to arise, but rather we actively forgive ourselves (rather, for example, than berating ourselves for “doing” it again) and show compassion to ourselves, treating ourselves with kindness and understanding. Together these actions let us move beyond our past behavior without examining the details of the incident and enable us to commit to “meeting our challenges with greater acceptance and kindness rather than rumination and regret.”
Here are some additional approaches we might take:

Here are some additional approaches we might take:

  1. Look for opportunities to reframe the task by thinking about the beneficial outcomes – to yourself, to others – of completing the task. 
  2. Cultivate curiosity. If you feel tempted to procrastinate, stop and examine what you are thinking and feeling and how your meeting your commitment impacts others. What does it remind you of? What happens as you think about procrastinating? How does examining your feelings, change them?
  3. Make the rewards from working on the task more immediate. (This is particularly helpful for longer tasks/projects.) James Clearcalls this temptation bundling, the linking of a task that you need to do with one that you want to do. For example, Mary Thérèse Durr, Leaders Program alumnus from Boston College, says that she rewards herself with small easier “NOW” tasks, often things she really wants to do, only after she has finished the hard “FUTURE” tasks.
  4. As you contemplate the task that you are considering procrastinating, think of other ways to do the work. In particular, focus on the “next action.” Tim Pychul,3 psychology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University says that by focusing only on that next action, you reduce your anxiety about the task by creating a “layer of self-deception.” “What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it, even though I’m not.” He goes on to say that you should not wait to get in the mood to do the task, noting that motivation follows action.  If you get started your motivation will follow. James Clear talks about this more generally suggesting that you break larger tasks into more manageable “chunks.” He notes that Anthony Trollope, who has published 47 novels plus plays, short stories and works of non-fiction always writes with a target of 250 words every 15 minutes. This allows him to enjoy feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction every 15 minutes while continuing with the larger task of writing a book.
  5. Make your temptation to procrastinate more inconvenient. Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits,” suggests that you place obstacles between yourself and your temptations in order to induce a certain degree of frustration and/or anxiety.  If you compulsively interrupt your self by checking email, shut that app down after you use it so that it is less available. If you are compulsively checking your smartphone, silence it and put it physically out of sight and reach. Take the time to identify your “inconveniencies” so you can have them at hand for when they are needed.
  6. Rubin also suggests that you can also make changes to promote the tasks that you really wish to do. One coachee from a few years ago, wanted to instill the habit of developing his daily plan when he arrived at the office each morning. However, he was “sucked in” every morning by the beckoning computer screen on his desk and all it invoked and typically he didn’t get to planning his day. The intervention was, each night, to cover the screen with a sheet of paper to serve as a reminder to focus first on planning his day. And, it worked.
  7. Clear argues that you can make the consequences of procrastination more immediate. One way you might do this is by way of a commitment. For example, you commit to completing a task by a date certain so that a colleague may make her plans based on your commitment. For example, I might make a commitment to review and comment on a document before a colleague needs it for a meeting. Since I don’t want to let my colleague down, I will complete the task by the agreed upon time.
  8. Be consistent. Find a behavior, or a set of behaviors, that you can use to reduce your proclivity to procrastinate.  Then be consistent in your use of them. Clear argues that you have a system that you use each day to decide what’s important and what you work on first. (He proposed the Ivy Lee Method as a simple, workable system that forces you to make tough decisions, and requires you to single-task.)
  9. Use visual cues to prompt you to take action that moves you forward.  Clear suggest that you have cues to remind you to begin a task (e.g., a visible entry on your calendar that indicates clearly your goal for that segment of work) and your progress on the task. He notes that seeing an indicator of your progress increases your motivation to continue.

Each of these nine approaches represents a tool that you can use to decrease your tendency to procrastinate. I urge you to give several of them a test run in the coming weeks. I believe that if you do, you’ll find that your effectiveness, your satisfaction, and your sense of accomplishment will all increase.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  . .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jim Bruce, “Procrastinators Anonymous: Yes, both I and you are most likely members of this club,” Tuesday Reading, April 2, 2019.
  2. Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business as quoted by James Surowiecki in “Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?,” The New Yorker, October 2010.
  3. Charlotte Lieberman, “Why You Procrastinate. (It Has Nothing to do With Self-Control.)” New York Times, March 25, 2019.
  4. James Clear, Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop
  5. James Clear, How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using Temptation