I have a confession to make.
I promised a friend I’d write about procrastination on MLU… and promptly procrastinated on writing this article for over a month.
When we’re faced with a difficult task, it can be tempting to just go do something else. Putting off hard things can be pleasant in the meantime, and that’s a key component of what makes procrastination.
In A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley explains that procrastination is like an addiction cycle. When we have a hard task to get done, things can be mentally tiring. For example, turning away from the task to go browse Reddit is relaxing–that mental strain is no longer there. Before long, it can become habitual to turn away from hard tasks and find something to distract us from the moment. The momentary pleasure we get from doing something easier suckers us into thinking that procrastination is a good idea, time and time again.
But that doesn’t appear to tell the whole story. Procrastination appears to be part of a general class of self-control problems.
For example, Alice would like to stay on her vegan diet. She wants to stay on her diet as she enters the steakhouse with her sister. In the moment, Alice gives in and has a steak, deciding she wants one just this once. Walking out of the restaurant, she resolves to stay on her diet, telling herself that she will stay on her diet next time.
This happens each time she enters a steakhouse.
What keeps us (and her) from saying, “Aha! I’ve fallen for you once, mental demons, and I won’t do so again.” ? The answer lies in the understanding of something called “hyperbolic discounting”.
This is the reason why we may prefer $100 today, rather than $110 one year from now, but may be fine with waiting ten years for $110, than nine years for $100.
In short, hyperbolic discounting is a model of human decision-making that says people are generally more willing to receive less of a reward now, compared to more of a reward, but only in the short-term. For longer time-scales, this preference is reversed, and we tend to prefer the larger reward, even if it takes longer.
This means that it can be easy to give into temptation in the moment, even when we wouldn’t want to, in other situations. Psychologists refer to this behavior as “time-inconsistency”. The immediate gratification of a close reward weighs far more heavily on our minds than long-term benefits.
So dealing with procrastination is not just about a sticky habit, but also about our preferences, which can work against us in certain settings.
TEMPORAL MOTIVATION THEORY
Piers Steel is an eminent psychologist who has done a huge amount of research into procrastination. One of his most famous works is the Procrastination Equation, an ingenious way of relating different variables to increase motivation.
I myself haven’t any experience working with this, but Luke Muehlhauser has a wonderful post here, where he gives some great examples and explanations of all the component parts. (And Piers Steel comments too, under the name Procrastinus!)
I want to check this out myself, and I would recommend you do the same, if you want an in-depth look at procrastination.
I think, when we start thinking about how to tackle procrastination, there are two ways to look at it:
- There’s the psychological part I outlined above, where you need to work with a mind that is susceptible to self-delusion and distractions.
- There’s also a more general part where when you’re procrastinating, you’re not doing a task. So general task management skills also seem helpful.
I’ll start out by giving a general framework for getting things done, which has some strong support for its effectiveness. Though this general framework is good for tackling aversive tasks in isolation, I think it’s less effective when you’re doing a chain of activities, because the temptation to do something else has more opportunities to crop up.
To tackle the trickier part of procrastination– the problems posed by hyperbolic discounting and preference reversal, I’ll be appealing to some more experimental ideas, which means your mileage might vary.
In short, the general framework for doing things you’re procrastinating on looks like this:
- Identify what you want to get done (i.e., what you’ve been putting off).
- Set aside time to do it.
- Actually do it.
This might seem deceptively simple, but I’ll be going into more details on each step. Hopefully that will help.
When it comes to doing things, remembering that you have things you want to do is the obvious first step. Having a static place to put down all of your to-do’s makes it a lot easier to remember what you want to get done.
Whether you’re writing things down, using a simple system like Remember the Milk, or utilizing a full-blown task management machine like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, it pays to have some list of tasks you can easily check.
For me, the biggest problem is not having a set time to do things. If I don’t specifically plan for something, I won’t do it. Making a schedule comes in very handy. I myself make judicious use of both Google Calendar (for reminders in the future) and a paper schedule (for day-to-day activities).
Piers Steel has also agreed that time management plays a key role in tackling procrastination.
Lastly, the actual doing part can bring some new difficulties with it. Though it’s relieving to know you don’t have any other obligations (as you set time aside), if the task you want to get done is hard or aversive, it can still be hard to actually do.
In such a case, it may be helpful to affect the scope and duration of such a task.
POMOS AND BREAKDOWNS
The Pomodoro Technique is a time-based system for getting things done. In short, it breaks up your work sessions into 25 minute chunks, with 5 minute breaks after each chunk. There’s also a larger break after every 4 chunks. These “pomo” sessions work really well for some people, and they do seem to make it easier to get started on hard tasks.
Secondly, it may help to break your aversive task into smaller bite-sized portions. I’ve found Workflowy to be a really cool software that allows me to reduce my tasks into subtasks, and so on. It’s good for planning out large, complex actions, I think.
Combining short work sessions with smaller to-dos should be effective, in theory, but I know from experience that even these “easier” tasks can be difficult to do. At some level, it seems like you need an extra “push” to get started.
While Optimizing Your Mindstate (and the related concept of The Next Action) is definitely a strong way to bridge this “intention-action” gap, there are also some more unique strategies that are specifically designed for procrastination, which I’ll explore below.
Precommitment is a strategy time-inconsistent agents (like us humans!) can use to combat preference reversal.
When you “commit” to something at a specific time t, you are pledging to get something done from time t onwards. However, we’ve seen that regular commitment doesn’t work very well in the moment, because hyperbolic discounting can lead us to rationalize not actually following through with our decisions when we actually face them at time t.
To counter this, you can precommit, by making the choice before time t, which is more effective because before time t because:
- You’re not currently under time-inconsistent preferences
- You have more options available to you (as a result of 1).
We can illustrate this with a classic example of dieting: let’s imagine Alice is trying to lose weight, but she likes to eat cookies during the afternoon.
Alice could throw the cookies away during the afternoon (our time t ), but knowing hyperbolic discounting and preference reversal, she faces a near-impossible choice of avoiding temptation while it looks her in the face.
In contrast, Alice could throw away the cookies in the morning (before time t ), when she’s not feeling snackish. This seems much more likely to work, because she doesn’t actually want cookies in the morning, and it prevents her from eating cookies during the afternoon. Alice has successfully precommitted not eating the cookies.
In short, a big part of precommitment involves making decisions before they get hard to make. (Precommitment also shows up in game theory, but here we’re focusing on how it’s used in psychology.)
A key idea of precommitment is making decisions that are final and binding. For example, if you give your loyal friend your wallet and tell him to burn it if you don’t finish a task, you’ve now set something irreversible into action. What’s usually perceived as a weakness–the inability to change decisions, actually plays to your advantage when you precommit.
To help with this, there are two online tools I know of that raise the stakes when you take on your goals.
Beeminder is an application that works well for measurable goals. You put real money on the line to make sure you stick to your plan.
Similarly, stickK allows people to define their goals and uses a third-party Referee to verify if you’ve completed it. If not, you pay up as well.
REFRAME THE PROBLEM
Below, I’ll be addressing some of the more conceptual ways of combating preference reversal and hyperbolic discounting. These ideas have less support from the psychological literature and represent some hypothesizing and synthesizing of different ideas, most of which are not my own.
Schelling fences are imaginary boundaries we can draw when trying to precommit, to make sure we don’t pass a certain point. This is especially useful when we face situations where we tell ourselves “just 1 more time”, after every movie/game/page/block/etc (Scott calls these “slippery slopes”).
Likewise, Nate explains that when we try to stop in the middle of a slippery slope, it can be hard (thanks, hyperbolic discounting!). The difficulty we face when stopping in the middle, he explains, is something we should take into account.
Scott makes a similar assumption–if we know that it’ll be hard for us to stop once we start an action, it pays to draw a line beforehand that we can’t cross, even if the version of us that gets to the Schelling fence wants to keep going.
We can generalize from these points to look at our decisions in a slightly different way. Instead of looking at actions as a smooth line, where we can stop at any time, we should acknowledge that there are places where we can choose to start, and there are places where stopping is nearly impossible.
So instead of looking at temptations as “no game vs 1 game”, with our understanding of hyperbolic discounting, we know that the real decision actually looks like “no game vs play all night”. Psychologists refer to this as “categorical framing”.
Thus, if we want to stop an action, it’s important to focus on the entry point–when the first decision to take that action was made, not in the middle of it, because it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to stop in the middle of such activities.
CHANGE THE PAYOFFS
Even though we now have a good, logical reason for why we should avoid these “slippery” activities, it’s not always enough. The closer you are to distractions, the easier it becomes to rationalize indulging, as the payoffs become disproportionately larger.
One idea that seems promising is to directly attack what makes hyperbolic discounting so dangerous–the disproportionate weighing of short-term pleasure.
If we could associate the distracting activity with a strong negative feeling, like the feeling of regret after a binge, we might be able to counteract the skewed mental weighing.
It’s important to note that hyperbolic discounting seems to happen on the gut level, so we’ll need some way of knowing, not just rationally, but also emotionally, that such an action isn’t what we really want.
One way I know how to do this is through Propagating Urges, a technique developed by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), a Berkeley-based nonprofit that creates scientifically-based self-improvement techniques.
I wouldn’t be comfortable trying to explain “Prop Urges” in just a few words, but the technique is basically about syncing up your reasons with your emotions, so you actually “want” to do the things you “should” be doing.
It’s really awesome to see it in action. I’d recommend checking it out!
Your brain, like other parts of your body, probably can’t go full-throttle all of the time. Your motivation will waver and differ from day to day.
Because of this, I think it’s unrealistic to expect spending our every waking hour as potential work time. Just like how we saw that it made more sense to reframe our decisions to match reality, despite the potential to stop at any time, I think it’s also valid to do the same for our available time.
Though it might be possible to spend 16 hours a day on work, it’s difficult to actually do so. We also probably can’t do cognitively difficult things consistently either. If something is hard for you to do, you may be better off doing it in smaller chunks with breaks in-between.
Try to keep your expectations within the bounds of, not just possibility, but also reality.
I smashed together a lot of information for this post. While you sort out what tools you think will work for you, or what techniques you might want to try next, I hope I can give you a basic framework for incorporating these habits:
- Set up a reminder system with alerts you’ll actually check (be it emailing yourself, a to-do list, or calendar reminders).
- Start incrementally and build up. (Mark Bao has a great post on habit-formation here). Don’t overload yourself with things to take on.
- Celebrate small victories. The goal is to want to do your aversive tasks, so focusing on a feeling of success when you do them associates positive feelings with the task. (see here and here).
KEEPING IT REAL
I think a lot of us have this implicit assumption where only “special” events like meeting Bill Gates are life-changing enough to warrant behavior change. Yet, is that necessary? Could you change right now, if you really wanted to?
You might be thinking, “Yeah, but I’m too lazy to actually change! That sounds like work, which I don’t like.”
But hopefully, at some level, you do care about upgrading your habits–that’s why you’re here. Then the question isn’t really “Do you want to change?”, but:
“Given that you are lazy and don’t want to do work, what would enable you to change anyway?”
I think this attitude embodies the spirit of self-improvement rather well. When you hit a roadblock on your way to your goal, you don’t have to give up. You find a way to go around or power through.
If you know you’re lazy, and you also know you want to beat procrastination, take that into account and get started all the same.