Browsing social media, playing games, watching Netflix.
Just 3 examples of things you never procrastinate on. No need to rely on motivation or willpower to watch The Office. You just… do.
So it’s easy to assume we only procrastinate on things that aren’t fun.
Like cleaning your room.
But when I was in college, cleaning seemed like a wonderful thing during exam season. Like, seriously, the best thing ever. College Dan be ready to Kondo the entire apartment instead of studying Algebra.
It wasn’t because cleaning was suddenly fun. You wouldn’t see a broom in my hand until the next exam season. But give me the choice of studying or cleaning, and I’ll be Chuck Norris with a broom.
A few minutes of hard work and boom, one task completed. Check and check. I felt productive. I felt progress.
And this is a feeling we often overlook.
Of course, fun is better than boring.
But that’s not the only thing that’s driving you.
The Instant Gratification Monkey
In his Ted Talk about the mind of a procrastinator, Tim Urban explains that inside each one of our brains, lives an instant-gratification monkey:
It’s the part of your brain that LOVES scrolling social media, watching Netflix, or leveling up a Charizard.
It’s also the one luring you to the fridge to get a piece of chocolate in the middle of the night.
Every time you have to make a decision, you have to deal with the instant-gratification monkey in your brain. Nothing gets done if he doesn’t want to.
So it might seem that the monkey is only willing to do fun things. But that’s not true.
The monkey also loves to hand in reports, complete master’s thesis, and finish YouTube videos.
To him, they are the same. In fact, difficult tasks stimulate the monkey more than playing video games.
He doesn’t want to waste time on fun activities.
He just wants to feel progress.
So let’s get sciency for a moment.
The Science of Procrastination
This is the brain.
The brain has two systems.
The prefrontal cortex is the rational side. It’s the part that makes you, well, smart. You can count on it to save part of your income for your retirement or know how much is 24 times 13 (it’s 312, by the way).
Then there’s the limbic system, the unconscious zone that includes your pleasure center. Instant-gratification monkey is renting this space, for life.
And these two systems are constantly fighting each other.
- The prefrontal cortex wants to study for finals. But the limbic wants to have drinks with friends and catch the sunset
- You have a great plan of doing a HIIT workout followed by a healthy dinner. But the limbic lures you in with a single frozen pizza
- The prefrontal cortex wants to save money to buy a house. But the limbic wants LED lights with colors you can change with your phone
So here’s the thing:
Despite being the rational thing to do, no amount of convincing makes your monkey brain work if you don’t reward it.
To Stop Procrastinating, Reward the Instant Gratification Monkey
And it needs to be constantly rewarded with dopamine. It craves this “feel good” hormone… like a real monkey craves bananas.
Every time you feel a sense of accomplishment, of progress, you get a dopamine hit and the monkey is fed.
But here’s the kicker:
Starve the monkey and he’s going to grab the first thing that gives him that quick dopamine hit.
And at that moment… boom, procrastination happens.
At the very core, it’s a simple equation:
If what you need to do is not rewarding enough right now, you procrastinate.
You want your efforts to be rewarded now, not 10 years down the line.
So given a choice, you’ll settle for a smaller present reward than to wait for a larger future reward (behavioral scientists call this Present Bias).
But the problem is that most things worth achieving take months (if not years) to see any reward.
And so to stop procrastinating, you need to rebalance this cost-benefit analysis.
You can do so in two ways.
Make the benefits of action feel bigger
Katy Milkman, a researcher at the Wharton School of Business, stumbled on an ingenious way to provide short-term benefits to unattractive tasks.
Milkman loved to listen to addictive fiction novels, like The Hunger Games.
At the same time, she was having trouble making it to the gym on a regular basis.
She decided to only allow herself to listen to the audiobooks when she was exercising.
The result? Milkman began hitting the gym five days a week.
This strategy was so effective, she gave it a name: temptation bundling.
#1 Temptation Bundling
“Bundling” behaviors you are tempted to do with behaviors you should do, but often neglect.
Simple, right? But why does it work?
Because you’re not neglecting the monkey in your brain. He’s looking for dopamine, and you’re giving it to him. And as a result, what was once an unattractive task suddenly becomes a desirable one.
So here’s how to figure out your own temptation building stack:
- Grab a pen and a piece of paper
- Name the left column “Wants“. Now, list down the pleasures you enjoy and the temptations that you want to do
- Name the right column “Shoulds“. And list down the tasks and behaviors you should be doing, but often procrastinate on. Take a few minutes and write as much as you can in both columns
- Now, for the magic. Browse your list and see if you can link one of your instantly gratifying “want” behaviors with something you “should” be doing. Draw an arrow to link them together
A few years ago, I tore my right-knee ACL playing soccer. Rehab after surgery was 45 minutes on a bike followed by 15 minutes of ice. Repeat as many times per day as you can.
This is something I wasn’t looking forward to. I never had any intention to compete in the Tour de France.
So I found a hack. I turned my bicycle to the TV, put a soccer game on, and went cycling. Half time—the players got instructions, I got ice. Ready for the second half.
And it was… nice. I felt like I was on the pitch, running alongside the players.
So what I’m trying to say is, yeah, you can use temptation bundling to stop procrastinating procrastination. And, you know, repair your knee.
What about long-term behaviors?
But what about getting feedback on your long-term behaviors?
The truth is, for some types of tasks, you’ll need to rely on your discipline to stop procrastinating on a daily basis.
Because that’s the difference between a professional and an amateur. The pro shows up and delivers every day, no matter what. The pro is consistent.
Look at Jerry Seinfeld.
Jerry is one of the most successful comedians, writers, and actors ever.
One thing that stands out from Jerry’s career is his consistency in producing quality work.
Brad Isaac, a young comedian just starting out, once asked Jerry Seinfeld for his advice on how to become a better comic.
“Create better jokes. To create better jokes, write every day.”
Jerry had a simple system to follow through:
“Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. Get a big red magic marker. For each day that you do my task of writing, put a big red X over that day.
After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
#2 Don’t Break the Chain
Writing a funny punchline is no joke. And writing a good one every day is even harder.
But with the calendar, the reward when you do it is much bigger than completing a single joke. You are making sure a big chain does not die today.
That extra bit of context increases the pleasure you get when you eventually complete the task, making your instant gratification monkey very happy.
Now, I’ve gotta come clean here. That story is a myth.
Even Jerry himself admitted it on a Reddit AMA a while back:
But I didn’t know that when I discovered it a few years ago. I gave it a go when I started writing for my blog. My goal? Just 500 words per day.
It didn’t matter if the words were good. It didn’t matter if I was motivated. All it mattered was getting 500 words on the screen.
Making that cross and seeing a slightly bigger chain makes the instant gratification monkey so happy that he gives you extra leg-room for boring tasks.
And my blog—which has been read by millions of people over the last few years—was born.
And if for some reason you miss a day, don’t worry. It happens to all of us. Pick up the next day where you left off.
But don’t ever miss twice in a row or your monkey brain will know your commitment is not serious and he can negotiate 3 hours of Netflix whenever he wants.
Make the costs of action feel smaller
A second way to rebalance the cost-benefit analysis is by making the costs of action feel smaller.
Sometimes we avoid tasks because we’re intimidated by the sheer magnitude of effort necessary. I’m talking about things that are going to take a long time to complete.
Yeah, you can write “learn how to code” in your to-do list, but you know you can’t complete that in the average afternoon. So you procrastinate.
#3 Break Things Down
One trick that works for me is breaking down big ambitious goals into small steps. To think of it as a project, a series of small tasks linked together.
In other words, turning a daunting item into a series of small, clear, actionable tasks. Deconstructing a long-term goal into an action you can do now.
You limit the investment you’re asking for, making tasks small enough that you can’t help but score a victory.
Because here’s the truth:
Any remarkable achievement is a matter of completing a series of unremarkable tasks.
Think of it this way: no one just “builds a house”.
To build a house, you need to methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.
Each brick is a unit of progress.
In the same way, each task gets closer to your goal of learning how to code.
So instead of “learn to code” you might decide to “email Josh—your friend who’s a programmer—to ask advice on learning how to code.”
Achieve that small goal, and you’ll feel more motivated to take the next small step than if you’d continued to.
Brick by brick, that’s how you build a house.
Small tasks aren’t scary. But you do have to make time to actually do them. And so the final step to beat procrastination is to block time in your calendar to actually do your small task.
You can’t start learning to code “this month.” But you can email Josh asking for help tomorrow at 5 pm.
By using smaller units of progress, you shorten the feedback loop and reward your instant-gratification monkey more frequently.
#4 Clear to Neutral
And you also wanna make life easy for “future you” to get started. When there’s a lot of friction to get started, “present you” tends to procrastinate.
Imagine walking into the kitchen and seeing lots of dishes in the sink from last night. Now imagine everything is clean.
In which scenario do you think it’s more likely you’ll be cooking?
What about going to your desk to start working in the morning and finding a pile of stuff that you need to clean?
You’re going to spend precious productive minutes cleaning up everything before you get to the actual work.
To stop procrastinating and help “future you” get started, remove friction from your environment. And the best time to do it is immediately after completing a task. This is the idea behind clearing to neutral.
It’s simple but effective: whenever you finish a task, move everything to its neutral position.
Identify your rituals, the tasks you do every day, and think of ways to make it easy for “future you” to get started.
This could mean:
- Emptying the physical trash when it’s full
- The digital trash just before lunch
- Washing the dishes or putting them in the dishwasher after a meal
- Closing all 543 tabs open when you finish a task
- Cleaning your desk at the end of the day
These things only take a couple of seconds but save you a lot of headaches down the road.
Oh, and you’ll also become more organized in general. It’s a 2-for-1 deal. Win!
The Procrastination Doom Loop
As procrastinators, we spend hours— if not days— avoiding work.
And afterward, an incredible sense of guilt creeps in and you start to worry that you won’t have time to do everything you need to do.
All procrastinators know this loop:
- You don’t feel in the mood to work, so you don’t work. You open up your phone and give yourself 15 minutes of distraction
- Eventually, you notice how much time has passed and the anxiety of not doing anything starts to get to you. And so you decide it’s time to start working
- But now something is different. Somehow you can’t focus. You feel like you are wasting your time. And you are not being productive enough. Self-doubt starts to creep in and you start telling yourself “I just can’t do it right now”
- And that brings you right to where you started
The truth is: the most difficult part of leaving the Procrastination Doom Loop is deciding to work.
Once you are set on working and you start, you don’t need any extra motivation to do the job.
And you encounter the most resistance at the beginning of a task. However, that doesn’t mean it will always be like that.
By following the simple steps in this article, you’ll be able to get started consistently and stop procrastinating once and for all.
It’s Newton’s first law:
“A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion.”
Your job first and foremost is to get moving. As soon as you move, everything else becomes easier.
And you might even find that you’ll like to work.
Because you feel progress.
The Motivation Myth
All our lives, we’ve been told that we need motivation in order to act.
But this is just another myth.
Action is what leads to Motivation:
Action feeds motivation and not the other way around. You are not motivated because you are not creating something of value. As strange as it seems, you feel the most motivated after you complete a great work session on your most important project.
And as you do more work consistently, you build up momentum, which makes you less likely to deviate and procrastinate.
So go ahead and start.
Because you see, the secret of getting ahead is getting started.
I didn’t say that.
Mark Twain said that.
I just wanted to sound smarter.
Thanks for reading. Have a great day.