The science behind procrastination and how you can beat it.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but when it comes to procrastination, freedom is your enemy.
Procrastination has been around since the start of modern civilization.
Historical figures like Herodotus, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and hundreds of others have talked about how procrastination is the enemy of results.
One of my favorite quotes about procrastination is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
The funny thing about procrastination is that we all know that it’s harmful.
Who actually likes to procrastinate? No one enjoys doing that. Me neither.
And yet, procrastination was the story of my life. When I was in college, this would happen every semester:
In the beginning of each semester, I was the coolest mofo on the planet. Relaxing, going out, enjoying myself. Big time.
I experienced no stress whatsoever. However, about a week before my exams, I would freak out. "Dude, why didn’t you begin earlier?" I would tell myself.
And what would follow is an ugly sight of me, with a bunch of Red Bull cans, locked up in my room, freaking out while I was studying.
Research shows exactly that: When you procrastinate, you might feel better in the short-term, but you will suffer in the long-term.
It doesn’t really matter why you procrastinate. Some love the pressure of deadlines. Some are afraid to fail so they put it off until the very last moment. But one thing that all procrastinators have in common is that procrastination has a price.
A highly cited study from the American Psychological Society journal, by Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister, discusses the cost of procrastination. They found that it is related to:
- Irrational beliefs
- Low self-esteem
So when it comes down to the research, procrastination is not innocent behavior. Scientists believe it’s a sign of poor self-regulation — and they even compare procrastination to alcohol and drug abuse.
Why do we procrastinate anyway? Most people who procrastinate will tell you that it’s a habit that just sneaks into your system.
The years after I got out of college were again a struggle in terms of starting and finishing work. It’s not something you can shake easily. Every time I had a business idea or wanted to start something, it went like this:
Every time I had an idea or a goal, I would start, but along the way, things would go wrong. I went from start to total chaos.
Distractions, other ideas, other opportunities, failure, negative self-talk, etc., would get in the way.
And the results are always the same: I never get anything done.
To me, the key finding from that study I mentioned before is this:
"The present evidence suggests that procrastinators enjoy themselves rather than working at assigned tasks, until the rising pressure of imminent deadlines forces them to get to work. In this view, procrastination may derive from a lack of self-regulation and hence a dependency on externally imposed forces to motivate work."
Self-regulation, self-control, and willpower are all things that we overestimate. We think: "Yeah sure, I will write a novel in three weeks." In our minds, we’re all geniuses and mentally strong. But when the work comes, we cop out.
Sure, everybody fears to step outside of their comfort zone — that’s why we call them comfort zones. It takes courage to make a bold move. But it sure doesn’t take any courage to complete small tasks like paying bills, printing out something for your boss, doing taxes, etc.
The truth is, procrastination has nothing to do with the actual task either.
For me, completing tasks — any tasks — while procrastinating went like this:
There comes a moment, I call it "the slope of procrastination," when you give into one distraction and you give up being productive.
And it always starts with just one thing. You think: Let’s watch the news for a second.
Then you think: I might as well watch one episode of "Game of Thrones." Then, a Casey Neistat vlog. And then another YouTube video. Then, a little bit of Facebook. And so forth.
It ends with a bang: "This is the last time I’ll waste my time!" Yeah, right.
What we really need, according to all of this research, is a system for doing work.
A lot of people shy away from routines, systems and frameworks because they want to have "freedom."
But I’m sorry to disappoint you: When it comes to procrastinating, freedom is your enemy! If you want to get things done, you need rules.
What are some things that research proved to be effective?
- Self-imposed deadlines
- Accountability systems (commitment with friends or a coach)
- Working/studying in intervals
- Exercising 30 minutes a day
- A healthy diet
- Eliminating distractions
- And most importantly: internal motivation
If you combine all of those things, you'll have a system.
The deadlines create urgency, accountability will create responsibility, working in intervals improves your focus, exercising will give you more energy, so does a healthy diet, and eliminating distractions will take away the temptations.
But there’s no system that can help you if you don’t have an inner drive. People overcomplicate that concept, but it’s simple: Why do you do what you do? If you don’t know. Make something up. That's your motivation.
If you know why you’re doing something, even the most annoying tasks might become bearable.
Those tasks will become a part of the bigger picture.
So, instead of diving into work, take a step back and think about why you do what you do. Then create a system that supports that. It’s not rocket science. Just science. And maybe it’ll help you become more productive!