Procrastination: Why We Don’t Follow Through and What To Do About It

As he has down to write, he stared blankly out the window.

Then, he looked at the shackles chaining him to his heavy wooden desk.

There would be no walking around. No distraction. No procrastination. All there was left to do was ruminate and write. This hostage in his own room was Herman Melville, famed author of Moby Dick.

Procrastination was Melville’s Achilles heel, and he knew it. Brute force was his preferred method of powering through his aversion to writing. He’s rumored to have resorted to requiring his wife to chain him to his desk during his writing of Moby Deck. His battle with procrastination was won through a war of attrition.

Melville was not alone.

Victor Hugo suffered from the same plight during his struggle to complete The Hunchback of Notre Dame (he hit the deadline in the nick of time). Da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even The Dalai Lama were not immune to procrastination’s kryptonite-like effect, the insidious trait of draining all motivation from highly capable and driven human beings.

The origin of procrastination

Procrastination serves a purpose in our human evolution.

It comes from our desire to favor immediate gratification over long-term rewards. This way of being would have all sorts of benefits to hunter-gathering species, like our ancestors. If there were near-term actions that would make us safe and well-fed, we would follow such courses of action every time. If there were riskier and longer-term actions, their value would be massively discounted. This all makes complete sense.

However, in a modern society that values long-term and strategic thinking, and the ability to show restraint (don’t eat the marshmallow), our built-in neuro-wiring isn’t helping us.

When an important presentation is due in a week, but the immediate payoff of a fancy dinner and drinks with friends this evening is looming large, which task wins? Let’s just say that you probably won’t be working on the presentation tonight!

However, the long-term impact of working on (and nailing) the presentation can be profound. Doing well in front of your audience can lead to all sorts of opportunities for career advancement, promotion, and other rewards.

The problem with this scenario is that we discount the value of future rewards, and magnify the value of near-term payoffs.

Not only that, the more difficult and complicated the long-term goal or task, the less probability and value we assign to it. The less confident or competent we find ourselves in achieving the long-term goal, the further still we diminish the value of accomplishment. Our brains don’t like long-term and uncertain outcomes. We like to do things we are good that have a high probability of yielding a favorable outcome.

Want six-pack abs? Good luck…

For example…

Want to get six-pack abs? Do you have limited knowledge about health and fitness? Have you tried and failed in the past to achieve the goal? If you answer YES to these three questions, your chances of overcoming procrastination are slim to none. You might spend a lot of time thinking about your goal of having a six pack….while sitting on the couch eating a second slice of chocolate cake.

The good news is that not all hope is lost.

We can study procrastination like a wiggling organism in a petri dish, and use the knowledge of how we work and think to OUTSMART procrastination and get massive leverage.

Motivation is the secret

I’m a geek and like to think of lifestyle problems like formulas that we can solve, given enough time and attention.

When it comes to procrastination, a structure that helps in understanding it is outlined by Dr. Piers Steel, Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics Area at the University of Calgary.

He shows us that the secret to kicking procrastination is in understanding it’s polar opposite, motivation:

title

According to Dr. Steel:

“Motivation indicates the drive or preference for a course of action, what economists call utility. Naturally, the higher the utility, the greater the preference. On the top of the equation, the numerator, we have two variables: Expectancy and Value. Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is. Naturally, we would like to choose pursuits that give us a good chance of having a pleasing outcome. On the bottom of the equation, the denominator, we also have two variables. Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification. Finally, Delay indicates how long, on average, you must wait to receive the payout, that is the expected reward. Since delay is in the bottom of the equation, the longer the delay, the less motivated we feel about taking action.”

Dr. Steel is essentially saying that motivation is the key to overcoming procrastination. Further, we can increase motivation by having a payoff that we value coming our way in the near-term.

This is important, so let’s repeat it again. We will be more motivated when we have high confidence in achieving something that will provide a direct and immediate benefit.

How to outsmart procrastination

The problem with our BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) is that they are long-term goals that require a ton or work for a payoff far out into the future (often, a year or more).

This requires a Herculean effort to overcome the resistance of getting started. It’s not impossible, and by aligning other parts of your life (and working with a coach), you can stack the cards in your favor.

However, we can use what we know about how our minds work to kindle an internal firestorm of motivation.

Below are three simple steps you can take to outsmart procrastination and kindle that bonfire.

1. Break down your goal into a near-term chunks

If you want to get six-pack abs, but are currently sitting at 30% body fat, your goal is admirable but daunting. Break down your goal into chunks that seems entirely achievable and realistic. Yes, you still want to retain your big audacious goal, but you also want to trick your brain into thinking it is no problem!

Therefore, you might set your first step as going to the gym and hiring a trainer for 10 personal training sessions. That’s all for the first step. You don’t need to workout at all, just hire the trainer!

The next step will be showing up for the first training session.

The next nine steps are showing up for the remaining training sessions.

…the step after that will be going to the gym on your own for three sessions of 45 minutes each. Notice how this step is larger than the previous ones.

…the next step will be getting body fat down to 28% and holding it there for at least a week.

…the next step will be getting body fat down to 26% and holding it there for at least a week.

..etc!

2. Frequent and small rewards are key

Pavlov demonstrated the power of small rewards to motivate behavior and behavior change. Use this knowledge to your own advantage. After each small step forward in achieving your goal, as outlined above, what reward could you give yourself?

For example, after each session with a personal trainer, you might give yourself a “free pass” to binge watch your favorite show on Netflix.

Alternatively, you might treat yourself to a fancy favorite espresso drink (low-calorie!) or smoothie after your workout.

Come up with a simple reward, and make sure you give it to yourself! This is part of training your brain to link up your effort with a positive outcome.

3. Celebrate success, in a major way

Small rewards are great, but there is nothing like celebrating after achieving a big audacious goal.

When you finally get your body fat down to the level you were hoping for, how will you celebrate?

As Tony Robbins famously says, “achievement without fulfillment is failure”…

We want to set a tone for achievement in our life, that comes about along with a high-level of fulfillment and happiness. Don’t skimp on your celebration. Make it memorable!

Conclusion

The secret to overcoming procrastination is to kindle it’s polar opposite, motivation.

Motivation comes from clear outcomes that we have confidence in achieving with near-term benefits that we directly recognize.

Using this knowledge, whenever we see procrastination rear its ugly head, we can stop and break down our work into more manageable chunks. We can then give ourselves a steady stream of rewards based on small steps of progress we make. Finally, once we accomplish our goal, we can celebrate like crazy!

…also, it helps to enlist a professional in support of your biggest goals.