Procrastination, Part 3 – Beat It! (With Science)

Published November 6, 2009 in productivity , Psychology and Mind Hacks - 1 Comments

Procrastination, Part 3

Original image by blakie

In my first two posts about procrastination, I suggested a simple reframe and one unusual method that can help you become more aware of your procrastination habits. Even just this awareness can be a great help in overcoming procrastination. In part three of the series, I look at some of the research that has been done on the subject of putting things off and, more importantly, what methods for beating procrastination have been proven to work.

Let me first introduce a very essential concept that can often be the key to what causes procrastination in the first place:

Learned Helplessness and Learned Industriousness

If you set a task for yourself, do it and complete it successfully, that will make you feel good. It will make you feel even better if you get approval and praise from others. As a kid, this could have been your parents or teachers giving you positive feedback. As an adult, it’s more likely to be your peers, your superiors, your partner and perhaps your blog-readers. Pleasant feelings such as those you experience when you’ve successfully completed a task are referred to as “positive stimuli” in psychology.
Every time you experience a positive stimulus, you become a little more motivated to do a task similar to the one that triggered the stimulus. For example, if you write a blog post and get a lot of positive feedback, you’ll feel pumped to write another one.

This can lead to an upwards spiral of success and positive experiences since the motivation gained from each positive stimulus will give you a slight performance boost, which in turn affects the quality of your work, which again increases the likelihood that you will experience more positive stimuli upon completing the task and so on and so forth.

This upwards spiral is also known as “learned industriousness”.

The opposite of this effect is “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is simply a downwards spiral, caused by feelings of failure, negative feedback, feeling stuck,… in short: Negative stimuli. Of course, when you experience negative stimuli, you feel less motivated and less capable and this will make you reluctant to repeat any given task. Sooner or later, you will want to completely avoid the type of activity that is causing the negative feelings.

Remember that this all happens unconsciously. If there is a certain type of tasks that you just can’t get yourself to do, that you keep putting off again and again, it’s possibly because your brain has filed it away under “avoid” due to negative past experiences.

What Can We Learn From This?

The take-home message from the concept of learned helplessness and learned industriousness is this: Taking small, manageable steps will make an upwards spiral of success more likely. Trying to take huge leaps all at once will more likely lead to experiencing a downwards spiral of failure.

If you try to change your entire life from one moment to the next, you will probably trip up on something or other. Unless you have an amazing mindset, this will feel like a failure to you and cause negative feelings, triggering the first step towards learned helplessness.

People who want to lose weight or build muscle make this kind of mistake very often. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar yourself: You want to get in shape as quickly as possible and you promise yourself to completely change your eating and exercise habits. Many diet and fitness books also feed on this hope by promising super-fast results. So you dive in head-first, go running, eat only lettuce and lift tons of weight on your very first day. Maybe you can even keep it up for a few days, but sooner or later, staying in bed wins over going for a run, chocolate wins over lettuce and you feel like you’ve let yourself down. Looking in the mirror, you haven’t slimmed down completely and neither are you ripped like Batman, so it’s all in vain anyway, right? Might as well give up.

Repeat this pattern a few times, and you’ll soon find it impossible to even get started with a better diet or an exercise regimen.
Taking small steps and committing to them for the long run will often get you to your goals more quickly than trying to take massive action just to crash and burn soon thereafter.

You might recognize this to be one of the main principles of experiencing flow.

Goal Setting

Another factor that has been proven to help overcome procrastination is goal setting. Here are three factors that make all the difference between procrastination-preventing goals and procrastination-inducing ones:

  1. Be Specific
    The more specific and tangible the goals you set are, the more likely you are to actually get up and do them. Formulate your goals in a way that allows you to see a clear picture of the outcome.
  2. Choose the Difficulty Well
    Here we are right back on the subject of flow: If the goals you set are too difficult, you will not feel like even getting started, but if they are too easy, completing them won’t feel rewarding and they won’t seem like important tasks to you. Always set goals that are slightly challenging, but not overwhelming.
  3. Short-Term
    Of course, setting long-term goals has it’s merits, but for the purpose of beating procrastination, short-term goals are essential. Make sure that you set goals that can be completed within a few hours or even minutes. That way, you are more likely to complete a task in order to experience the positive feeling of accomplishment. If the task is too long-term, this feeling of accomplishment is too far out of reach and you’ll give it a pass in favour of the instant positive feeling of some chocolate in your mouth (for example).

Reduce Choice

One final factor that has been linked directly to procrastination in several scientific studies is choice. The more different options you have to choose from, the more likely you are to not make any choice at all and seek some distraction instead. For further information on this, I recommend watching Barry Schwartz’s talk on the Paradox of Choice.

What’s the most practical and least intrusive way to reduce choice? Take the goals you set and put them in a schedule. That way, instead of having to choose which task to take on next, you simply do the one you scheduled to do next.

This can be as simple as deciding to work through your task-list from top to bottom. Even more effective is to set specific time-frames for each task and sticking to those, as this also brings a bit of Parkinson’s Law into play.

Summary and Valuable Resources

Let’s recap all of the information above. Here’s what to do to effectively reduce procrastination:

  • Take small, manageable steps
  • Set specific, tangible, short-term goals
  • Schedule your tasks or work though your task-list from top to bottom in order to reduce choice

And here are some valuable resources, if you’d like to learn more about procrastination and it’s prevention:

Procrastinus – Many articles on the subject of putting things off, links to scientific studies and surveys.
Article – Article about the causes of procrastination on Physorg.
Scheduling – Glen’s post about how he is using scheduling to be more productive.

This post is part of the procrastination-series:
Part 1: Procrastinate Much? Maybe you should read this later…
Part 2: One Simple Method Every Procrastinator Should Try
Part 3: Beat It! (With Science) (currently viewing)

P.S.: All you have to do is actually taking action and implementing one or more of these methods into your everyday life. Just reading about it will not get you anywhere. So make a to-do list with some tangible, manageable, scheduled tasks right now! You’ll be amazed at how much this helps in overcoming procrastination.

  • What can I do do if I’m procrastinating on working at my procrastination-problem? ^^
    Your blog is the best ever !!!