Followup to: How to Generally Reduce Procrastination
As I said earlier, defeating procrastination and increasing our motivation is probably the most useful life skill we can learn.
Are there specific things we can do the instant we notice we’re procrastinating? (If you’re impatient, jump right to the advice!)
Hopefully you’ve already read and started implementing some of the stuff in How to Generally Reduce Procrastination. There, suggestions are given – based on The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel – for making general life changes that will help reduce procrastination tendencies. Some of the tools in this post build off of those suggestions.
This post is for the other side of the procrastination coin: things we can do right now to stop procrastinating.
For example, the instant you notice procrastination you could commit to doing a short “dash” of work – just five minutes – as a way of getting started immediately.
What follows are the things we can do right now when we notice procrastination as it happens, separated by the part of the procrastination equation they fall under. Note that there is overlap; setting goals, for example, while primarily a means of decreasing impulsiveness, will clearly also help with increasing the value of the task by injecting some meaning into it.
Take a look at How to Generally Reduce Procrastination if you forget what each part of the procrastination equation means.
How to Use This Advice
Just as in the previous post, there is a lot of advice here, and it can be overwhelming.
My suggestion is to try the following. Once you’re read through all the advice, consider what methods you think will work best for you, and set yourself up for using them. Then, when you notice procrastination happening, implement them as quickly as possible.
For example, here’s my typical thought process over the last few days:
I’m just sitting here doing nothing… wait, what’s going on? Oh crap, I’m totally avoiding doing ___. Let’s see….
a. I’ll review what my major goals are and how this is related (decrease impulsiveness).
b. Oh yeah, that’s why I want to do this (increase value).
c. There’s no reason to think I shouldn’t be able to finish this if I put in the effort (increase expectancy).
d. Okay, I’ll just start by work on this for only five minutes (decrease impulsiveness).
And now, the advice!
Jump to a Specific Section
- How to Increase Expectancy Right Now
- How to Increase Value Right Now
- How to Decrease Impulsiveness Right Now
- How to Decrease Delay Right Now
How to Increase Expectancy Right Now
We want a healthy amount of optimism and a pinch of pessimism. What can we do, right now, to increase (or decrease it, if needed) our expectancy of success?
Use Vicarious Victory
Review your inspirations (hopefully you’ve already spent the time to figure out what they are. Do things that increase your optimism, such as watching an inspiring movie, reading inspirational biographies, listening to motivational speakers, or turning on some pump-up music.
Note that some of these may just be more ways of procrastinating, depending on when you do them!
Use Success Spirals
A success spiral is a situation in which you achieve one goal after another, and pay attention to your success. By achieving one challenging, meaningful, and achievable goal after another, you gain confidence in your ability to succeed.
Break your task down into smaller, manageable chunks (see Advanced Goal Setting under How to Decrease Impulsiveness Right Now), and congratulate yourself as you achieve them.
For example, congratulate yourself for every paragraph you finish on your essay; clean small parts of the house at a time, and build off the success; review what small achievements you have made to date on this task.
Do Some Mental Contrasting
What is the ideal state that you’re aiming for? A completed project? A perfect score? A clean house? A mastered skill?
Popular self-help literature loves promoting creative visualization – regularly and vividly imagining what you want to achieve – but this can actually drain motivation if it is not paired with some mental contrasting.
Mental contrasting is when you contrast what you want to achieve with where you are now. This presents the current situation as an obstacle to be overcome to achieve your goals, and jumpstarts planning and effort.
So, spend some time visualizing and contrasting your ideal state with where you are right now to increase your motivation to go get started.
Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best
What could go wrong? What could distract or interrupt you on your way to your goal? Draw on your past experiences, and ask others who have gone through similar difficulties. Be sure to have a backup plan.
Beware the planning fallacy, which is the tendency to underestimate how long tasks will take by imagining each step in the process occurring perfectly, without interruption or delay.
Track and Accept Your Delay Addiction
Accept that procrastination is normal; don’t pretend you’re not tempted by it right now! Of course, now that you’ve accepted it, remember that you want to defeat it! If your brain is saying, “just this once,” don’t be fooled!
Also, log your procrastination habit right now and put it somewhere visible.
(Note, if this visibility results in, “Hmm, oh yeah, I often get distracted by chocolate milk… mmmm… chocolate milk, I’ll go grab a class right now and watch some TV,” then maybe don’t make it too visible.)
Kill Learned Helplessness
Are you thinking, “Success is impossible, so what’s the point?” Remember that putting in zero effort guarantees you won’t succeed.
Check Your Mindset
Your qualities, characteristics, and skills are not carved in stone; they can be cultivated through effort. Watch out for thoughts like, “I’m not good at this sort of thing.” Skills can always be improved.
How to Increase Value Right Now
We want to increase a task’s value by making it more pleasant and rewarding. What can we do, right now, to increase the value of a task?
Review your major goals. Does this task connect to any of those major goals, even if it’s through a long chain?
For example, working on an assignment may be dull, but remind yourself why your goal of becoming an industry leader in this field is important to you. You want that. Presumably, a better assignment means better knowledge and grades, which means better job prospects, which means better opportunities to become a leader.
Make sure you are matching the difficulty of the current task with your ability. If it’s too easy, you’ll be bored. If it’s too hard, you’ll run out of steam or get frustrated. The goal is to find that state of ‘flow’ where you are in a perfect balance.
Can you turn this into a game or a competition? Can you compete against a friend? How about racing to see who can finish their assignment first, with the loser treating the winner to lunch? Can you compete against yourself?
Get Some Energy
Feeling tired or sluggish? Right now might not be a good time to catch up on your sleep or do an hour long workout, but at least get your blood moving. Do a few jumping jacks or splash some cold water on your face. Listen to some pump-up music to get you energized.
Are you taking genuine breaks from your work? Willpower is a limited resource that needs replenishment! Plan around your energy and willpower, now around your time.
Also be sure you are drinking enough water and eating enough nutritious food (maybe have a quick snack right now?).
Is there a way you can make the situation more rewarding? Review the ways you enjoy rewarding yourself. What exactly are you trying to accomplish, and how can you reward yourself when you finish?
Hopefully you’ve already figured out what you’re passionate about. Is this task somehow connected to your passion? Can you frame it in such a way as to be intrinsically motivated by it?
Procrastinating by doing less-important work is better than procrastinating by doing nothing. Motivation can come easy when we’re avoiding something. It’s not a coincidence that my bedroom was always cleanest during exams.
Is there something else, still important, but not as pressing, that you could work on right now instead?
Who else knows about what you’re working on? Can you let a friend in on your work, and promise them you’ll finish it?
Public commitment and accountability, such as on a blog or social media, may be an excellent way to keep yourself motivated.
Bitter & Sweet
Try combining a long-term interest with a short-term impulse. For example, could you only let yourself listen to your new albums while exercising?
How to Decrease Impulsiveness Right Now
We want to decrease our impulsiveness so we can maintain focus on a task. What can we do, right now, to decrease our impulsiveness?
Set Advanced Goals
Steel calls goal setting the smartest thing you can do to battle procrastination.
What are your current goals? If you haven’t already, write them out, being sure to make them specific, challenging, and meaningful. Make them approach (positive) goals. Focus on process (input) rather than product (output) goals, depending on what you prefer.
Break down larger goals into sub-goals. Too many sub-goals is tedious, but at least have a sub-goal for what you can work on immediately.
Run a Dash
Sometimes what keeps us from starting is the huge mountain of work in front of us. Try running a dash by committing to just a small duration or amount. For example, only commit to writing for five minutes, or the next paragraph. If you want to stop after that, you may.
Throw Away the Keys
Recognize what is luring you away from your work. Now eliminate it, or at least put it as far away as possible. Block distracting website. Unplug the internet. Disconnect the satellite. Lock up the junk food and give the key to someone else. Uninstall your games.
Make Failure Painful
How will failure be painful? If it won’t be, can you make it painful?
Abstract Your Distractions
Take a moment to focus on the abstract aspects of your temptations. This helps you mentally distance yourself from your temptation. For example, triple chocolate cheesecake is a large fat and sugar combination. A movie is two hours of moving pictures, time that could be spent on something else.
Don’t limit your thoughts to, “I want!” Recognize the other aspects of your temptation.
Try pairing your temptations with negative images. Can you imagine a potential disastrous outcome from your temptation? What if that girl got pregnant? What if your delay working on your presentation, get sick, show up for work empty-handed, and get fired?
This can be done using covert sensitization, which involves vividly imagining a scenario where you give in to your temptation and things to wrong.
As an example, if tempted by chocolate cake you could vividly imagine the following: You’re eating some chocolate cake. Suddenly, a queazy feeling starts in your stomach. The pain grows until you think you’ll vomit. You attempt to excuse yourself from the table and your guests, but it’s too late. You throw up all over you partner’s mother. How embarrassing!
External Goal Reminders
Are your goals – both your major life goals and current goals – somewhere visible and accessible. If not, make them visible! If yes, take a moment to look at them and remember what they are.
Try visually tracking your progress. If you’re aiming to write every day, or exercise five times a week, or floss every day, find a place to visually track it, such as with ticks on a calendar or graph paper stuck to the fridge.
If you’re already doing this, review your progress so far. You’ve flossed every day this month so far, wouldn’t it suck to miss today and a perfect record!
Avoid Thought Suppression
Suppressing thoughts works about as well as trying to avoid thinking about pink elephants. You just thought about a pink elephant.
Don’t attempt to bury or suppress your temptations and distractions, you’ll just end up thinking about them more!
Routines and Habits
Can part of your current task be turned into a habit, or added to an existing routine? Make a mental or visible note somewhere to put your research on habits to use, and then start off by doing the current task right now.
How to Decrease Delay Right Now
What can we do, right now, to decrease the delay of a task?
Unfortunately this is hard to change; there is often little we can do about a task’s deadline. Goal setting, however, allows us to set intermediate deadlines, which will decrease the effects of delay if they are specific enough. See Advanced Goal Setting under How to Decrease Impulsiveness Right Now.
What works best for you? Just as in the previous post on general life changes to make for defeating procrastination, all of the above suggestions are based on what will work for most people. Some may work much better or worse for you.
After you’ve been using the above actions for some time, assess what works best, and focus on those.
‘Stop’ image by Peter Kaminski.