Tips from a top procrastinator
I’m a procrastinator and odds are you’re one as well.
I say this because most of us procrastinate, even if at different levels.
My level is pretty high by the way, so this is a problem for which I like to look for ways to solve it, or at least to minimize it.
I’ve been dealing with this for years, and the only conclusion I’ve come to is that this is a chronic illness.
Actually, there are studies that connect the tendency to procrastinate with the size of our amygdala (our “lizard brain”). Apparently, the bigger the amygdala, the less pronounced is the connection with the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (pretty obvious, right??).
Basically, people with higher amygdala volume tend to be more anxious about the result of certain actions, so they avoid doing it.
I don’t consider myself an anxious person at all, and I have no clue about the size of my amygdala, but my point is that my procrastination may be a chronic condition (oh, tell me more about your first-world problems…).
But this doesn’t mean that there is no hope.
There are way too many tips, hacks, systems, processes, and routines to help us escape this putting-off-until-tomorrow spiral, the difficulty is choosing what fits you better.
How to Adopt Good Habits and Stop the Bad Ones
Nowadays, with the endless amount of information at our disposal a click away, we all know the dos and don’ts to achieve our goals.
We know what to or not to eat.
We know how to create a business.
We know what exercises to do to achieve certain goals.
We basically know everything we want to know.
And yet, in the wise words of Derek Sivers:
“If information was all we needed, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs”
Information is only half of the equation and of little use if it is not put into practice.
And we put it into practice by creating habits.
Habits lead us to do things we probably wouldn’t do if we had to consciously decide each step to take.
The creation of habits is not always easy and fast, but there are techniques that can help with the process.
I’ve read quite a few books on this topic, and these are the main ideas that most aroused my attention:
The 7 Forces in Habit Formation
Sean D. Young explains in his book Stick With It that anyone can form a new habit successfully by applying the use of 7 “forces.”
- STEPLADDERS — Define small steps, easily executable, to achieve small successes in a progressive way.
- Finding a COMMUNITY — Being part of a community offers social support as well as fostering a sense of competition.
- Make it IMPORTANT — The change (creation of a habit) must really be important for your well-being, must be truly desired.
- Make it EASY — If something is easier to do than not to do it, then you are more likely to acquire the habit.
- Apply NEUROHACKS— It’s usual to hear things like “if you visualize something, then it will happen”, but in fact, it’s the other way around: if we change our actions, our mind will follow. As we change our behavior our brain will realize that change is possible.
- CAPTIVATION — Making the process of forming a habit into something interesting and challenging will keep alive the will to change.
- ENGRAINED — Planting change in the brain through repetition and consistency will be rewarded with fixing the desired habit.
James Clear on his book Atomic Habits give us a more concise idea:
To implement a new habit you should:
- Make it OBVIOUS
- Make it ATTRACTIVE
- Make it EASY
- Make it SATISFYING
And apply The Habit Loop (click the image for more info):
From these two books, I picked the ideas that better resonate with me and used it to improve my resilience to procrastination.
Of the 7 forces from Stick With It, the ones that most aroused my attention were STEPLADDERS and EASY.
STEPLADDERS — Setting intermediate goals along the desired path is relatively consensual advice, but with Stick With It, I understood the science behind it.
The pleasure we feel when we reach a goal is triggered by the release of dopamine by the brain, this I already knew.
What I didn’t know, is that our brain releases the same amount of dopamine either if we hit a micro-goal or our ultimate goal.
Goal: Write a book
Goal Completion: 12 to 24 months
Dopamine release for achieving the goal: In 12 to 24 months
It is obvious that a book is not written overnight (at least I don’t have that capability).
It is extremely likely that throughout the writing process I get tired of doing it and start to lose interest and turn it into another project in my desk (i.e., a .doc file inside the Projects folder on my desktop).
Goal: Write 1 page per day
Goal Completion: 2 to 6 hours
Release of dopamine for achieving the (micro-) goal: In 2 to 6 hours
If I set a goal to write 1 page per day, a much easier goal, then the release of dopamine will occur much more frequently, and its sum over time will be vastly greater than that released only upon completion of the book.
This will mean that the likelihood of keeping my writing pace throughout the project remains high.
Using Method #2, after 1 year, I should have my book written and the process was much more enjoyable, at least from the point of view of completing my goals.
Of course, writing a book takes a lot of time, effort, and months of hard work, but those good daily doses of dopamine help a lot!
EASY — This force refers to the question of facilitating the execution of a certain habit that we want to implement.
Goal: To run every morning
Facilitate habit: Prepare equipment the night before; set alarm clock for 45 minutes earlier than usual.
In this way, we facilitate the steps to run, while eliminating the blockers that usually serve as an excuse.
I used this technique to improve my reading habits.
A few weeks ago I also decided to improve my writing habits, and I’ve been using these forces to help the process:
EASY — I started writing on Medium, which allows me to write wherever there is a wi-fi connection and I always carry notebooks with me, so I can write at any time.
STEPLADDERS— I set a minimum of 200 words a day, so accessible that it doesn’t “scares” me when I start writing.
COMMUNITY — Writing on Medium provided me with an audience, which conveys a sense of responsibility.
James Clear also refers to this as an important concept:
It is more effective to design an environment where you don’t need willpower than to rely on willpower to conquer your environment.
This reinforced the theory that “EASY” is indeed a very important step in habit formation.
Big procrastinators look for any excuse to avoid doing the work, so setting up everything previously eliminates a big part of those excuses.
Fighting procrastination is a never-ending battle.
It’s a bit like fighting an addiction, we’re never cured, we just work every day to keep on track and use all the tools we can find to help the journey.
I know that addictions have really bad consequences and fighting them has psychologic and physical pain, but procrastination can get pretty serious too and cause you lots of problems and missed opportunities, so face this issue with the same level of respect and fight for living your life on your full potential.
*Mentioned books are affiliated links.