If you are human, you procrastinate.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the urge to put off a task or project until later, is part of our DNA, it’s in our nature. A quick check on Amazon reveals over 2000 books on the subject of procrastination. The proposed methods of overcoming it are varied and extensive, but there are certain aspects that crop up time after time.
Why do we procrastinate?
In behavioural economics, ‘time inconsistency,’ or ‘present bias’ in behavioural science – is how our brain assigns higher value to immediate gratification, than future rewards. This is what prevents us from following through on doing what we know we should to be doing, but not doing. When we make plans for our future, our brain makes the connection of the value that taking action now will deliver for the future, we can envisage it. But that euphoria quickly disappears when we need to make the decision to ‘start.’ The brain considers the ‘present-self’ – the one that has to do the work – and goes for the easier option of ‘instant gratification’ and delay doing the work. The long-term benefits suddenly fade as we struggle to overcome inertia, stalling doing the work that matters.
Author James Clear (Atomic Habits) reveals that Greek philosophers Aristotle and Socrates had encountered this phenomena and gave it a name: Akrasia. Akrasia is the state of acting against our better judgment. It is when we do one thing even though we know we should do something else. You could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control. Akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.
In his book The Marshmallow Test by renowned psychologist Walter Mischel, the outcomes of a study he has been conducting since the early 60s at Stanford University, are revealed. A child is given a marshmallow with a choice: Eat this one now, or wait and enjoy two later. The experiment measured a child’s ability to delay instant gratification. The study continued following the progress of the children throughout their life. Interestingly, children who held out for the second marshmallow achieved higher SAT Scores. (see Marshmallow Test 2-minute video clip)
How can we beat procrastination?
1. Acknowledging you Procrastinate – Overcoming procrastination takes a conscious decision to actively fight its powerful urge. This starts by acknowledging that we procrastinate, daily. When we delay doing the important work we know we should be doing, we end up feeling guilty and disappointed in ourselves. By using this strong feeling of inadequacy, you can kick-start yourself into action.
2. Cost Benefit Analysis – This involves seeing the benefits of the task at hand as being greater than the cost of doing the work. When we make plans for the future, we envisage the results and the joy of completing the task. The positive thought of completing the task, outweighs the cost of doing the work.
3. Announce your Commitment – Research shows that we care deeply whether we’re respected by others, even by strangers. Most people don’t want to appear to be lazy. Telling people that you will do a task and when you will have it done by, makes you accountable.
4. Start – This sits at the heart of overcoming procrastination. You have to start. Too often we put off doing the important work because we don’t start. Inertia prevents us from getting started. If we get into the habit of ‘shipping’ our work daily, more tasks will be completed and we can move onto the next, and the next. Get into the habit of making a conscious decision to start. Decision is the antonym of procrastination. As my favourite mantra urges you: Leap first.
5. Mindfulness – Being mindful allows us to organise our thoughts, and to prioritise what is important. Procrastination is a form of self-sabotage that only gets worse if left unchecked. Being mindful can help bring the feeling of anxiety and frustration under control. Whether you meditate or find a pace to be quiet for a while, mindfulness is a great mechanism for gaining control over your thoughts.
Aristotle came up with the word: Enkrateia, as the opposite of Akrasia. The meaning of Enkrateia is, “In power over oneself.” The antidote to procrastination is therefore, to take back power over yourself. So, take back your self-control today, and procrastinate tomorrow.