Why It's Easy to Procrastinate—and 7 Ways to Break the Habit
Practicing a few simple behaviors can make you happier and more productive.
Posted Dec 12, 2016
I should warn you: There are no "silver bullets" in this post. Changing behavior is hard work, especially if you're trying to break the habit of procrastinating. But if you're willing to invest in the work, there are several tools at your disposal.
First, let's think about the word "procrastinate." For most of us, it carries a negative connotation: You're not doing what you should be doing. It might be easy to imagine our parents using the word, or a boss, or an academic advisor.
However, I use the word simply as a description of behavior: to put off doing something. There may be many good reasons to delay a task, including giving ourselves more time to make a decision and the possibility that the problem will resolve on its own. In fact, some writers even encourage forms of procrastination, such as Adam Grant, who ties it to productivity.
Besides, I'm not your parent or your boss, so this post is not designed to convince you to stop procrastinating. But if you've realized that you're putting things off so much that it's costing you more than it's worth, there are several ways to increase your odds of breaking the habit.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
There are two things we tell ourselves that tend to drive procrastination:
- "It's going to be a pain." If we expect a task to be unpleasant, it's no wonder we put it off. We might imagine the time it will take, the difficulty of figuring out exactly what we need to do, or maybe we just prefer to keep doing whatever else we're doing. In some way we believe that we'll be less happy doing the thing we're avoiding.
- "I might not do a good job." Not doing something also means never failing at it, and nobody likes to fail. If we try and don't succeed, we've sacrificed the potential we thought we might have had, like scratching off a lottery ticket and finding out we didn't win. Fear of doing badly is often tied to not knowing exactly how to complete the task, like writing a term paper or doing our taxes (as opposed to simpler tasks like cleaning the kitchen).
You might think about tasks you're putting off and see which of these factors (or both) applies. You'll probably notice a common denominator—a sense of discomfort that arises when we imagine doing the task.
No matter what the cause of our avoidance is, it tends to reinforce itself. It can be surprising that procrastination is "rewarding," because it generally gives us neither the satisfaction of finishing something nor a sense of ease while we put it off. How can something that's often unrewarding—even punishing—be so persistent?
If I have a dirty kitchen and I'm feeling overwhelmed by the job of cleaning it, every time I think about it I'm likely to feel a wave of dread, imagining how annoying and difficult it will be. If I choose to continue reading or watching TV or whatever else I'm doing, I'll probably feel a sense of relief from not having to tackle something I view as unpleasant. So I experience: Delay → Relief.
Psychologists call this phenomenon negative reinforcement. "Negative" because the reward comes from not having an aversive experience and "reinforcement" because it makes the behavior (in this case, delaying) more likely in the future.
When I go into the kitchen to get a snack, I'll remember that I have to clean the kitchen and may very well re-experience that cycle of Delay → Relief. If I'm in the habit of putting things off, I will have experienced that cycle thousands of times. As a result, I'll be more likely to avoid tasks in the future.
The more we experience the negative reinforcement of procrastination, the less we experience the competing process of Task Completion → Satisfaction.
By tackling our tasks more immediately, we not only stop reinforcing avoidance but also strengthen the pathway from Task Completion → Satisfaction. Therefore, in the future, we’ll be more likely to complete our tasks.
Breaking the Habit of Procrastination
How can we increase our odds of completing tasks? In my book, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks, I offer seven strategies to help break the habit of procrastination:
- Create manageable pieces. A mammoth task can feel daunting because of the amount work involved and because we're not sure how to go about it. The first part of the task is actually making your plan for how to do it, because it's exponentially easier to take the first step when it's modest and clearly defined.
- Decide to start. We often delay starting a task because we're not exactly sure how to. Sometimes I delay responding to an email, for example, because I'm not sure what I to say. As with creating a plan of attack, figuring out how to do the task is part of the work. We may never get started if we put off a task until we know how to do it, but we can generally find a way to complete it once we decide to jump in.
- Make space. Think about the conditions you work best in, then aim to create those conditions. Most likely this includes having a suitable physical space in which to work, such as a comfortable desk for reading. It probably also includes creating the necessary mental space by removing unnecessary distractions (e.g., email notifications, text messages).
- Set alarms and reminders. When we're avoiding a task, it's easy to forget to do it. We're much more likely to do something when we've set aside a specific time to do it and have put it in our calendar with an alarm. Notice the little lies the brain tells us, such as, "I'll do that in five minutes," after an alarm goes off. Aim to complete the task right away; if you have to finish something else first, make sure you set another alarm so you'll come back to it.
- Build in accountability. Telling at least one person about our plan to complete a specific task by a certain date can raise our odds of doing it, if only to avoid the discomfort of being asked why we haven't. We can also be more accountable to ourselves by writing down our plans and checking things off as we complete them.
- Reward yourself. In addition to feeling the satisfaction of having completed something, we can also motivate ourselves with small rewards for meeting a goal. The specifics will depend on the individual and might include snacks, entertainment, or socializing. And take care not to choose a reward with a high likelihood of further distracting you (e.g., surfing the web, playing video games).
- Practice acceptance. It's difficult to change our habits, and accepting that it's hard work can go a long way toward increasing your willingness to do it. Remind yourself why you wanted to procrastinate less, and how uncomfortable you're willing to be in the short term to feel better in the long term.
We're often not very good at predicting what's going to make us happy; we typically lack the imagination to know just how satisfying it will feel to complete something. So the next time you finish a task, notice how you feel.
You might also pay attention to how much you enjoy your leisure activities when you're not avoiding something vs. when you're procrastinating. By reinforcing our awareness of the upsides of task completion, we make it easier to continue taking care of things.
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Gillihan, S. J. (2016). Retrain your brain: Cognitive behavioral therapy in 7 weeks—a workbook for managing depression and anxiety. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.