Why You Procrastinate and What to Do About It

ProcrastinationLet’s face it – we all procrastinate at times, some of us more often than others.

I’ve been a procrastinator ever since I was able to pronounce the word. More than once, this habit has landed me in hot water, usually resulting in unnecessary stress.

Like the time I had to write a term paper in high school and put it off until the night before it was due.

This was back in the days before computers made typewriters obsolete and I still remember my poor mother grumbling as she typed out my rough draft (while I was still writing it) and then the panic when we ran out of ribbon at somewhere close to midnight.

We ended up going to her office in the dead of night to finish it. My punishment was having to go to school on less than two hours’ sleep. Yes, it was quite some time before I was able to make amends with her over that episode.

So why do we procrastinate when the results are usually unpleasant or stressful?

Well, there’s some science behind this behavior that uses a lot of big words like “temporal discounting”, “present bias”, and “hyperbolic discounting”, but it a nutshell, this is why:

People tend to estimate the size of a reward based on its temporal proximity, meaning the closer in time a reward is, the more we value it and vice versa.

In addition, human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be, so the further away the reward is, the less motivated we are to complete the task.

This explains why I’m writing this post instead of untangling the plot of my work-in-progress novel.

It also explains why browsing the internet, playing Candy Crush, or hanging out on Facebook catching up with friends seems to be much more fun, or at least more tempting, than things that have a bigger gap between the work and the reward (like writing another chapter in your book, or working on a big project at work).

Is there a way to outsmart our inner procrastinator?

The good news is yes, there is. It just takes a little thinking, manipulation, and discipline. Here are a few ideas you can try:pomodoro

  • Give yourself a deadline (and create some consequences if you don’t meet it). I wrote about a few tools for writers that do this, particularly  Write or Die, but I’m sure you can come up something clever for non-writing tasks.
  • At the beginning of the task, list out the reasons why you want to do it and keep that list somewhere visible. When you’re tempted to put things aside, revisit the list.
  • Break the task down into smaller components and reward yourself at intervals between components. This is part of what makes video games so addictive – small, frequent rewards.
  • Try the Pomodoro Technique, using a simple kitchen timer, the timer on your smartphone, or a variety of apps or web-based timers.

And finally, what I consider the fail-safe technique (at least for me):

  • Remove obstacles to productivity and temptations to procrastinate.

Awhile ago, I bought myself a small netbook computer that I used for one thing only: creative writing. I purposefully only installed Word, Scrivener, and a web browser on it (no Outlook, games, or other programs) and only allowed myself to use the web browser for research. I changed my passwords on social media and other distracting sites to be long and hard to remember so that I couldn’t log in from the netbook even if I wanted to.

I took it to coffee shops and other places to write where I wouldn’t be able to throw in a load of laundry, defrost something for dinner, wash up the dishes, or any of the other things that called me away from the task at hand.

Being in a public place also seemed to help me get down to business – after all, who comes to a coffee shop with their computer just to futz around? I also knew that I only had a certain amount of time to write since I had to be at work at a specific time, so I got straight to the task at hand. Over time, booting up that netbook became a signal to my brain that this was writing time.

What techniques work for you to reduce procrastination?

I’d love to hear from you and hope you’ll leave a comment below.

You can also check out this three-minute video for more info:


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