Life Advice
Life Advice: 
Human Behavior
The Big Philosophical Questions

How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?

I have this terrible habit of procrastinating things which I don't enjoy or which involve even a little bit of stress. I usually tend to look the other way and live in the moment. I'm in my early 20s and have joined my first job recently. I thought this would be over as I graduated, but apparently old habits die hard.

I've noticed that this often hurts my productivity. I really want to make this time of my life count.

I'd appreciate any suggestions, and personal anecdotes or experiences about how you handled a similar situation?

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Anuj Jaiswal
Oliver Emberton, read and lived over 200 self-improvem... (more)

I'll answer your question, but first I need to explain all of human civilisation in 2 minutes with the aid of a cartoon snake.

Humans like to think we're a clever lot. Yet those magnificent, mighty brains that allow us to split the atom and touch the moon are the same stupid brains that can't start an assignment until the day before it's due.

We evolved from primitive creatures, but we never quite shed ourselves of their legacy. You know the clever, rational part of your brain you think of as your human consciousness? Let's call him Albert. He lives in your brain alongside an impulsive baby reptile called Rex:

(Rex is your basal ganglia, but that's not very catchy so I'm sticking with Rex).

Rex evolved millions of years ago - unsurprisingly enough, in the brains of reptiles - and his instincts guide and motivate you to this day. Hunger. Fear. Love. Lust. Rex's thoughts are primitive and without language.

Here's the bit you're not going to like. Rex makes the final call on all your decisions. Every. Single. One.

We like to think of Albert as "our true self" - the conscious part of your brain. He's the talking, reasoning part. When we decide to go to the gym or write that term paper, Albert made that decision.

Rex does listen to Albert. Like a child, he will do a lot of what he's told, as long as he wants to. But if Rex prefers to crash on the sofa to watch Survivor and eat Cheetos, that's what you're going to do.

The incredible ascension of mankind that surrounds us is largely possible because we've developed systems to nurture our reptilian brains, to subdue, soothe and subvert them.

Much of this system we call "civilisation". Widely available food and shelter take care of a lot. So does a system of law, and justice. Mandatory education. Entertainment. Monogamy. All of it calms Rex down for long enough for Albert to do something useful - like discover penicillin, or invent Cheetos.

Now let's look at your procrastination.

You're making a decision with your conscious mind and wondering why you're not carrying it out. The truth is the real decision maker - Rex - is not nearly so mature.

Imagine you had to constantly convince a young child to do what you wanted.  For simple actions, asserting your authority might be enough. "It's time for dinner". But if that child doesn't want to do something, it won't listen. You need to cajole it:

  • Forget logic. Once you've decided to do something, logic and rationale won't help you. Your inner reptile can be placated, scared and excited. But it doesn't speak with language and cannot be reasoned with.
  • Comfort matters. If you're hungry, tired or depressed your baby reptile will rebel. Fail to take care of yourself, and he'll wail and scream and refuse to do a damn thing you say. That's what he's for. Eat, sleep and make time for fun.
  • Nurture discipline. Build a routine of positive and negative reinforcement. If you want a child to eat their vegetables, don't give them dessert first. Reward yourself for successes, and set up assured punishments for your failure. Classic examples include committing to a public goal, or working in a team - social pressure can influence Rex. 
  • Incite emotion. Your reptile brain responds to emotion. That is its language. So get yourself pumped, or terrified. Motivational talks, movies and articles can work, for a while. I use dramatic music (one of my favourite playlists is called Music to conquer worlds by). Picture the bliss associated with getting something done, or the horrors of failing. Make your imagination vivid enough that it shakes you. We use similar tricks on children for a reason: "brush your teeth or they'll fall out".
  • Force a start. The most important thing you can do is start. Much of Rex's instincts are to avoid change, and once you begin something those instincts start to tip into your favour. With enough time, you can even convince Rex to love doing the things he hated. There's a reason we force kids to go to school or to try piano lessons.
  • Bias your environment. Rex is short sighted and not terribly bright. If he sees a Facebook icon, he'll want it. It's like showing a child the start of a cool TV program immediately before bedtime. Design your environment to be free from such distractions: sign out of instant messenger, turn off notifications, turn off email. Have separate places for work and fun, and ideally separate computers (or at least accounts).

Once you know what to look for, you'll start to recognise the patterns and control them.

There's an impulsive baby reptile in your brain, and unfortunately he has the steering wheel. If you can be a good parent to him he'll mostly do what you say, and serve you well. Just remember who's in charge.

For more like this follow my blog or stalk me on Twitter or Facebook.
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188+ Comments (608)EmbedThank12 Jan
Oliver Emberton
I am a procrastinator. I've always been a procrastinator. Whenever I'm faced with a non-optional task of some complexity, typically writing, I become a nervous wreck who logs into Facebook, refreshes his brokerage account, plays Minesweeper, and straightens up the house, constantly and compulsively. I took at least three incompletes in undergrad and when I earned my teaching license. All of them were for term papers. All told I have been pretty successful in school and work, which surprises me sometimes. I suppose I must be pretty talented otherwise; my ability to manage myself and my time is so heinously bad that it is hard to understand how I've ever managed to compete with well-adjusted, steady workers.

I have learned that people who don't procrastinate don't understand. Words and rational thought don't help. Incentives don't help. Taking care of yourself - diet, exercise, sleep - doesn't help either. Self-discipline is a foreign concept. My willpower is too weak to break procrastination head-on. Procrastination is utterly, terrifyingly, paralyzing.

It finally took confronting the mother of all procrastination triggers - Ph.D. research, mine in physical science - to find a way to cope other than pulling an all-nighter the day before something is due, using extreme deadline pressure to push me over the horrendous activation barrier separating me from productivity. Running on deadline pressure simply became impossible when the work products that matter are completed in hundreds or thousands, not tens, of hours, and deadlines became virtually nonexistent. When I finally had to quit a research group under pressure because I'd had a manuscript "in preparation" for too long, I realized I could not succeed anymore without doing better.

Ultimately what resonated with me was an emailed invitation to a seminar on procrastination at my university. I did not attend the seminar, but its invitation mentioned procrastination as rooted in anxiety. You mentioned stress in your post. I do believe that, while other aspects may vary, the positive feedback loop between delay and anxiety is very common if not universal. For me, the anxiety is rooted in perfectionism for the appearance, function, or logical structure of a product. So it is not hard to imagine how a 2,000-word - or 10,000-word - document trips me up. For me, the resolution of this anxiety is to be immersed in process, having an intuition for where I am in a task as it is linearly, effortlessly completed. For others, the source of anxiety and its release may be different. But for every procrastinator I've gotten to know well, I've seen that their syndrome is, deep down, all about anxiety.

For me, to reconcile these two required a way to get into the process using willpower. And to give one's will a chance against a wall of anxiety, the process had better be easy. The trick I use is to break a job not into small pieces but TINY pieces. And I put a definite time limit on completing that tiny piece.

So I find myself saying things like, "I'm going to go to the office, and within five minutes of turning on my computer, I'm going to write one sentence." On its face, this is ridiculous - the task is to send a manuscript to Physical Review Letters by the end of the month, not write a sentence. But that trick of coming up with a job so small and definite that willpower can break the logjam is, to me, crucial.

Sometimes I fail to complete even the tiny piece. Sometimes I complete it and immediately slip back into unproductivity. But other times, certainly often enough that it matters, my brain starts working, I fall into a groove, and a lot of work gets done.

I'm still a procrastinator. I probably always will be one. Tomorrow I have group meeting and there's one last figure to finish for the paper I'm working on (let's not talk about the text!), and look what I did with my evening instead. But using the technique of doing tiny tasks with a time limit has helped me be productive far more consistently. I still have bad days where I check my email 150 times. But I've made it to the fifth year of my Ph.D. program, I have three publications to my name, and I usually keep my (new) boss happy. After my doctorate I will not attempt a career in scientific research - the projects are simply too long, and the writing tasks too ubiquitous, for a procrastinator. But I will find something else to do, something with more structure and less writing, and I will probably be okay.

It is hard, but I hope you'll be okay too. Good luck.
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13+ Comments (9)EmbedThank7 Feb
Raman Shah
There are some great answers here. But I don't see anyone who has shared what I do. I've struggled with procrastination all my life. Here is what works for me.

First I break the task into extremely bite-sized DOABLE chunks. It can be a ridiculously simple small chunk. Then I put an egg timer on my desk and set it for a reasonable amount of focused work time (usually 50 minutes). I shut off all distractions. Log off Facebook. Turn off my cell phone. I also refrain from any self criticism on the bite-size task until AFTER I've completed it. Then I do the bite size task as quickly as possible.

I keep repeating this until the whole project is completed. By focusing on extremely small bite size chunks and breaking things up WITHOUT criticism, the work gets done.
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8+ Comments (2)EmbedThank15 Jan
Douglas E Stewart
Speaking from personal experience, you won't be able to beat procrastination until you realize three things about it.

Keep in mind that my answer is not scientific and probably would be seen as highly questionable by any professional psychologist. I'm sharing it only because I suffered from a very bad case of procrastination for years--and don't any longer. As a preface, I also want to emphasize that no amount of books, motivational videos and advice--including mine--would help you unless you truly make winning this fight your top priority. The motivation necessary to get over procrastination once and for all, can only come from within.

So here is my story of beating procrastination.When I say I used to suffer from it I don't mean occasional late term papers, missed deadlines and late fees. I mean running my life into the ground--and not being able to do anything about it. To put things into perspective, I have decent abilities and have accomplished some decent results in life. But my procrastination was killing me. I procrastinated for days over tasks that would've taken me an hour to accomplish. I procrastinated over things I hated doing, things I didn't mind doing and even things I thought I liked doing. I was getting nowhere in my life, even though on the surface it looked normal, balanced and satisfying. But internally it was hell, full of guilt, anger and endless resolutions.

Books and articles didn't help. I wouldn't say I read them all, but I read quite a few. They spoke about fear of failure and fear of success, about making small steps and getting out of the comfort zone, about to-do lists and human predisposition for postponing unpleasant things. They were all as useful as getting life advice from a penguin. I was watching my life taking some ugly shape right in front of my eyes--and feeling powerless to avoid that self-destruction.

Then a few things happened that made me brush aside everything I thought I knew about procrastination and more importantly, about myself. As result, I started approaching my procrastination differently. In retrospect, here're the key realizations that helped me, those three things I mentioned in the beginning. Without them I'd be still making resolutions.

1. Realize the true nature of YOUR procrastination. I know it sounds unscientific. After all, procrastination is such a common problem that its roots can't be unique for everyone who suffers from it, right? However, my experience leads me to believe any generalization about root causes of procrastination is dangerous and useless. When you see three people limping they may be limping for three totally different reasons, even if they walk the same. Whether your own cause is indeed a fear of failure or is as exotic and downright spooky as The Demon of Procrastination you need to find it before you can go after it.

To get there you have to observe and analyse your own behavior. Pretty soon you will see a pattern and that pattern may surprise you. In my case, I found that what for years I considered procrastination was essentially a form of internal sabotage. I realized that I was procrastinating over anything that was taking me away from going after my true goals. And that sabotage wasn't work of Rex from Oliver Emberton's great answer. To use his analogy, it was more of Albert who for years felt he was being taken away from his real passion.

2. Realize what you miss by letting procrastination get in the way.
Late term papers and missed deadlines are small potatoes. If you're a chronic procrastinator you have a bigger thing to worry about--not living your life.You know, these finite minutes allocated for your existence? When you procrastinate you're not living them. At least, that's how I feel. You're kind of going though them on autopilot, but it's not the same as living. You can't successfully fight procrastination unless you realize what's at stake.

3. Realize that your procrastination is an addiction and treat it as such.
Again, hardly a scientific claim. People look at procrastination as a personality flaw, a form of laziness, a mind's way to avoid unpleasant tasks. But if you're a chronic procrastinator, this definition of addiction ( likely would sound very familiar: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. If you didn't consider your procrastination harmful and persistent you wouldn't be asking this question in the first place. As far as I'm concerned, not only procrastination is an addiction, it is probably the most widespread and the least understood addiction in history. So don't treat it lightly and know that the more you succumb to it the worse it becomes.

Once you realize these three things, the rest is easy. I know, it sounds like such a cliche. But it really is. It all comes down to beating a well-understood addiction that prevents you from living a fulfilling life. To overcome it you can choose any method you like. You can you use to-do lists. You can set goals and track your progress. You can create a system of incentives and punishments. You can do what I did (which was a single "overnight quit" resolution, which did work for me).

Whatever it is, the key is not how you do it. The key is why. Until you truly want to stop procrastinating, no amount of patented methods would work. You may get occasional improvements, but they won't stick. Trust me. I've been there. It will be just an illusion. But once you truly know what's at stake, pretty much anything would work. And nothing in the whole procrastinating world would be able to stop you.
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16+ Comments (27)EmbedThank14 Jan
Stephanie Kaye Turner, Teacher, Translator
22 votes by Rod Howard, Laura Breton, RJ Yates, (more)
Start NOW. Seriously.

When I worked at a company that creates standardized tests, I hated a certain question type. I would put the assignment in a folder, set that folder on the furthest corner of my desk, and avoid it until I absolutely had to do it or be late. In my mind, an unpleasant assignment had taken on monstrous qualities: I'd turned a molehill into a mountain. Once I picked up that folder, opened it, and started working on it, the monstrous mountain shrank back down to a molehill.

What I'm saying is, the longer you put things off, the more difficult they seem.

So whatever task you are putting off, grab it by the horns, and break it down into several small steps. Or just take one step: send one email asking for advice. Look up information on how one other person accomplished something similar.

Good luck.
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4 CommentsEmbedThank1 Feb
Stephanie Kaye Turner
Chris Ismael, Developer and Evangelist @ Mashape
Whenever I find myself procrastinating on a particular thing, I drop it and start with a small and totally unrelated item in my to-do list e.g. take out the trash. Then the momentum starts to build up until I'm prepped for the procrastination culprit. That's what works for me at least
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1+ Comments (1)EmbedThank9 Feb
Chris Ismael