Procrastination is delaying or postponing a task. We all experience it often, but why do we do it? What causes us to avoid things we know we are supposed to do?
Procrastination can pull even the best-intentioned among us in the wrong direction. To be able to explain why, it is important to first explain the phenomenon of “time inconsistency,” used in the field of behavioral psychology to refer to the tendency of our human brain to value immediate rewards over future rewards.
To understand this concept, you must imagine that there are two versions of you: your future self and your present self. When you set goals — or create a life plan for yourself — you do this for your future self. Your brain recognizes the long-term rewards.
Although goals are set for our future self, actions to move toward those goals must be taken by our present self. When we switch from thinking about the future to acting in the present, choices are no longer made for our future self — we’ve switched to thinking about our present self. And our present self likes instant fulfillment, not long-term rewards.
Our future self and present self have some conflicts now and then. Your future self wants a set of six-pack abs to parade around the beach when summer comes, but your present self is craving for a bucket of ice cream. Looking at it rationally, everyone understands the importance of staying fit and eating healthy. But long-term results aren’t always taken into account when we make short-term decisions.
Similar to this, people in their 20s and 30s rationally know that it is smart to start saving for their retirement. But the benefits of doing this are far off in the distance. It is easier and more joyful for the present self to buy a new pair of sneakers.
This is a very recognizable pattern for many. We go to bed with all the best intentions to make changes in our lives, but fall back into old patterns the next day. Our brain values the long-term benefits of our goals — but it simply values immediate gratification more.
How to stop procrastination
Procrastinating is a perfectly natural human behavior — which makes it so hard to stop. There are some strategies to reduce the urge to procrastinate, or even stop it. Three of these strategies are outlined below:
Strategy 1: Make consequences of procrastinating more direct
There are some ways to make yourself “pay the price” for procrastinating. For example, if you exercise alone, skipping one exercise will not greatly affect your daily life. Missing a single session won’t cause your health to crumble immediately. The effects of skipping exercises will only be noticeable after weeks, or even months. But if you find an exercise partner, and commit to a specific date and time, the cost of skipping an exercise is more direct — missing an exercise now makes you seem flakey to your friend.
You can also use external services, like the app Stickk, to make the consequences more direct. When you set a goal on the app, you can add any incentives you want — you can even add an independent referee to your goal to increase chances of success. You can also add a financial stake. For example, you can stipulate that if you do not stick to a goal, you must donate money to charity. This create incentives for you to get things done — and if you don’t, a charity benefits.
Strategy 2: Reduce the size of your first task
Procrastination usually happens because it’s difficult to begin a task. Once you start, it is less difficult to keep going — the problem is getting some momentum. By reducing the size of your first task, you reduce the “friction” of starting, and the odds of procrastination go down.
An excellent example is from author Anthony Trollope, who published 47 fiction novels, 18 non-fiction works, 12 short stories, and two plays. He never set goals to complete a book or a chapter, but rather, measured his progress in blocks of 15 minutes. His goal was to write 250 words every 15 minutes, and continued this pattern if he could keep his productivity high. This method allowed him to get a hit of satisfaction every 15 minutes when he met his mark — and that satisfaction kept his motivation high.
Strategy 3: Temptation bundling
If you can find a way to move up the long-term benefits of your tasks, it gets easier to start working. Bringing future rewards into the present is called “temptation bundling.”
Temptation bundling is a concept developed by Katy Milkman during behavioral research at The University of Pennsylvania. The strategy suggests that you bundle a behavior that is good for you in the long run with a behavior that feels good in the short run. Some examples of temptation bundling are:
- Only listening to your favorite podcast while doing household chores.
- Only watching your favorite TV show while running on the treadmill.
- Only eating at your favorite restaurant while doing a difficult monthly meeting with a colleague.