Need to Conquer Procrastination? Try Working Less.

Arm yourself with behavioral principles to break the cycle of procrastination.

Posted Oct 27, 2015

"Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?"

Source: Stocksnap/CC

Whoever coined that little nugget of wisdom was being deliberately obtuse.  Why put something off?  So many reasons.  So many.

The task is difficult.
It will probably be frustrating.
It will be uncomfortable.
I’m afraid of it.
I don’t feel well.
There are other things I’d rather do.
Does it mean I have to get out of bed?
My horoscope said I should avoid new things today.
Et cetera.

They may not be good reasons, but they are reasonable reasons.  Humans, as a species, typically don’t like to do things that are unpleasant.  We would rather do things that feel good.  Given a choice between playing with kittens or doing long division, most people will choose kittens.  Even people with a cat allergy.  (Because that’s how much we hate long division.)  

The more primitive parts of our brains are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain.   This is generally a smart policy, except when we need to do unpleasant things.  Which as an adult is pretty much always. 

The pleasure/pain principle is an old idea.  Our earliest ancestors lived by it, ancient Greek philosophers donned togas to contemplate it, and religions the world over have spent millennia trying to subvert it.  The idea was expanded in psychology in the 1950s, when a guy named B.F. Skinner put some lab rats in a box and discovered the learning theory we now call Operant Conditioning.

Put simply, he found that the consequences of current behavior impact future behavior.  If our action is followed by something good, we are more likely to do it again.  1) When I put on a costume and knock on a stranger’s door, I receive candy.  I then want to go knock on another door because my behavior was reinforced with delicious treats. 

Alternatively, if our action is followed by something bad, we are less likely to do it again.  2) When I hear a knock and open the front door, I find strangely dressed children at my doorstep begging for food.  The next time someone knocks I want to turn off the lights and hide, because my earlier behavior was punished with pint-sized panhandlers.  That’s operant conditioning in a nutshell.

We use operant conditioning to manage children and pets all the time.  When Fido rolls over we give him a treat, and when little Timmy fails a math test we revoke his Twitter privileges.  Reward what you want to encourage, punish what you want to stop.

Operant conditioning explains why the pattern of procrastination is so hard to break.  Every time we avoid something unpleasant, we reinforce our own avoidance behavior.  We reward ourselves for procrastinating.  The reward is:  I don’t have to do the thing I don’t want to do.  For example: my reward for not unloading the dishwasher is that I don’t have to unload the dishwasher!  Yay!  This is a form of negative reinforcement, or the removal of a negative consequence.

Each time we procrastinate, we strengthen that conditioning.  In other words, the more we avoid, the more we want to avoid.  But that’s only half the story.

When we put something off until the last minute, we end up doing it all at once.  At that point we are usually stressed, frustrated, frazzled, angry with ourselves, and so on — we feel terrible and there’s more to do.  The task becomes much worse than it would have been if we had just done it earlier.  The task is even more punishing as a result of procrastination.  Our brains are conditioned by this punishment, so we are more likely to avoid similar tasks in the future. 

Thus, the snowball of procrastination rolls down the mountainside, growing larger and larger until it’s so big that it demolishes the sleepy village in the valley below.  It’s disruptive, and it’s distressing.

So how do you end this sinister cycle?  Here are 3 easy-ish steps!

1. Break it up

Break the task up into smaller, more manageable parts.  If you’re not sure how to break it up, try breaking it into three even parts.  If a part still feels overwhelming, break that part into three sub-parts.  At some point you get diminishing returns from breaking things up, but the idea is that a smaller task is less overwhelming/more manageable than a larger one.  It’s less punishing, so we’re less likely to avoid it.

2. Use multiple sessions

Don’t do it all at once.  For bigger projects, complete them in multiple sessions over several days, weeks, or months.  For smaller projects or projects that need to be done in one day, take meaningful breaks.  You are teaching yourself through operant conditioning that the task isn’t so bad, after all.  Because you never demand too much of yourself.  Work for 20 minutes then take a 5-minute break, then rinse and repeat.  Or whatever works for you. 

This step is key.  Each time you work, you work less than you would if you waited until the last minute.  And you will also feel less stressed/frustrated/homicidal while you do it.  Overall, the task is less punishing, and similar tasks in the future become less daunting.  This is how you re-condition yourself, transforming yourself from a chronic procrastinator.

3. Find meaning in the task

If you attach meaning or significance to an unpleasant task, it becomes much less punishing.  For example:  I am doing my taxes because I am a proud citizen of the United States who wants to contribute his cash for the greater civic good.  Okay, bad example.  Better example:  I am cleaning my garage because I care about my home and being organized is one of my important life values.  Now, the task isn’t just about dodging cobwebs and wrangling rusted tools, it’s about being the person I want to be. 

So to come full circle, a better question might be: 

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? 

The answer:  To protect your sleepy village from the devastating snowball of procrastination.  Obviously.