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Overcome Procrastination by Understanding Why We Do It

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We’re all familiar with procrastination. For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been postponing the tasks we know we should do.

No matter how you experience it, procrastination affects everyone equally. It’s a force that prevents us from creating the life we want.

This article will break down how procrastination reigns over us so you can easily understand and apply the strategies to overcome it.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

The strangeness of procrastination is that we desperately try to avoid a task we’ve picked as the best way to spend our time. Why is it we know what’s ideal but would much rather do anything else? 

There are two answers to that question: Time Inconsistency and The DUST Model.

Time Inconsistency

Time Inconsistency is our brain’s tendency to value immediate rewards higher than future ones.

The easiest way to understand this concept is to imagine you’re made up of two people: your present self and your future self. When you set a goal—like starting a business—that’s your future self. It recognizes that taking action on things with long-term benefits is important.

While your future self can set goals, only your present self can take action. The problem is that your present self only cares about instant gratification. So if your task doesn’t bring an immediate benefit, you’re not going to have any motivation to do it.

This creates a gap between what you want to do and what you actually do. Your future self wants to work on a side business, but your present self wants to watch Netflix. This disagreement is the primary driver of procrastination.

The DUST Model

Despite procrastination being rooted in time inconsistency, our emotions also exacerbate the issue.

DUST is a simple method to identify the emotions triggering procrastination:

Difficult – Challenging tasks lead to procrastination. This usually happens when you lack confidence or skill.

Unclear – Unclear tasks make it harder to start work. This is because you haven’t given yourself a precise outcome to work for.

Scary – Fear is a massive contributor to procrastination. Our brains are designed to keep us safe, so they will use procrastination to keep us in our comfort zone. 

Tedious – Some tasks we procrastinate on because they are boring necessities. They don’t bring any joy or pleasure, but they have to get done—like filling out a spreadsheet at work.

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.” – George H. Lorimer

How to Overcome Procrastination

Since our present self isn’t motivated by long-term benefits, we need to move future rewards and punishments to the present.  

That’s exactly what happens when you put off a project until the last minute. You feel a little anxiety leading up to the deadline, but not enough to do anything about it. Then, suddenly, the day before the deadline, the future consequences become a present concern. So you write the report right before it’s due.

In that scenario, the report was no longer a goal of the future self. It became a duty of the present self. 

So to stop procrastinating, we have to make it easy for the present self to feel motivated and get started. These are two methods that do just that:

Measure Something

It’s easy to feel uninspired when you don’t know if you’re making progress. That’s why you need to make your success measurable in some way. Starting is easy when you know exactly how much closer your current actions will bring you to your goal. A great way to make tasks measurable is by using visual cues—like the Paper Clip Strategy.

Let’s say you have to make 100 sales calls in a day. To use the Paper Clip Strategy, you start with two jars; an empty one, and one with 100 paper clips. You transfer one paperclip to the empty jar for each call you make until you’re done. 

Visual cues work because of the Endowed Progress Effect—people become motivated when they see their progress towards a goal. Seeing your progress triggers your next productive action and gives you a short-term target.

Chunking

The most frustrating tasks are the ones that take many days to finish—like writing a report. You can spend all day working and have nothing but an unfinished project to show for it. It’s the exact type of work that induces procrastination.

An excellent technique for overcoming that hopeless feeling is Chunking. It’s when you split your large task into multiple smaller chunks. 

An example of chunking is the 15-minute routine author Anthony Trollope used. Rather than tracking his progress by the completion of chapters or books, he measured it in 15-minute increments. Every 15-minutes, he would write 250 words. His strategy gave him short-term achievements while contributing to the large task of writing a book.

Creating tiny milestones makes it less daunting to start tasks and gives you more momentum while working. It motivates your present self and contributes to your future self’s goal.

Address the DUST Model

To lessen our emotions’ impact on procrastination, we can use the following solutions to address the DUST Model. These aren’t groundbreaking ideas, but they serve as a healthy reminder to take action when you’re facing these emotions (rather than suffer through them).

Difficult – If your task is challenging, giving yourself lots of time to finish is one of the most helpful things you can do. Use this extra time to learn the necessary skills and create a proper plan of action. Doing so will also give you an increase in confidence.

Unclear – When your to-do list is so unclear it gives you analysis paralysis, you need to define a clear starting point and end goal. It’s essential to make sure the task itself is actionable and can be finished. For example, instead of saying “Prepare for presentation”, say “Record myself presenting so I can get feedback on Tuesday”. This small change gives you a physical action you can complete.

Scary – When your fears prevent you from moving forward with a task, Removing the Ambiguity is one of the best techniques to follow

Author Tim Ferriss explains this technique in The 4-Hour Work Week. He takes what he’s afraid of and describes every possible outcome (positives and negatives). Then he measures each potential outcome on a scale of one to ten. One being no impact, ten being permanently life-changing. 

By doing this, he realized most of what he feared were temporary three’s and four’s, and all the positive outcomes were eights and nines. Meaning he’d be giving up a life-changing opportunity, because of potential discomfort.

Tedious – When a task’s nature is boring and tedious, the best solution is to create an enjoyable environment or give yourself an incentive. The key here is adding as much joy as possible.

For example, if you have to fill out a spreadsheet at work, can you listen to music or a podcast? Or make a deal with yourself that every 30-minutes, you’ll take a break to walk or scroll through social media.

Procrastination forces most people to endure life. They sit, suffer, and pass through it—surrendering their opportunity to live it. I hope this guide helps you overcome procrastination so you can create the life you want.

Treat Thompson pursues personal growth and shares what he learns in his writing. On his personal blog you can read his array of pieces on the art of living. If you're someone who wants consistent self-improvement in life, you may enjoy his newsletter—The Steady Fella Newsletter. Readers build towards the life they want with the timeless insights on productivity, philosophy, happiness, and life twice a month.

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