09 Jul 2020 By: Dan Kenitz

Read the comment section in any post about procrastination behaviors and you’ll see some version of the same joke:

I’ll deal with it later.

Funny and all. But procrastination is serious business, and you should deal with it. As in right now.

According to one psychologist (Michael Neenan), procrastination isn’t just a little bit harmful. It’s not just a habit that means you have to cram overnight.

It’s a life-ruiner.

According to Neenan, it can lead to:

  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Low grades
  • Anxiety
  • Neuroticism
  • Irrational thinking
  • Cheating
  • Low self-esteem

“As a result,” Neenan says, “procrastination probably accounts for much of why many never realize their full potential and so it can be an extremely disabling psychological condition.”

Scared yet?

But the good news is that if you study the procrastination behavior patterns that guarantee these failures in your life, you’ll have a much better psychological basis for improving your relationship with procrastination.

And in this case, improving means eliminating.

Procrastination Behavior #1: Creating a Boring Approach to Get Started

Why you should do the opposite: One of the top psychological triggers for procrastination is the perception that the work itself will be boring. (Harvard Business Review).

NFL Hall of Famer had a unique approach to exercise. He wouldn’t do push-ups as a matter of routine, going for ten, then ten, then ten, etc.

Instead, he would take out a deck of cards. Then he would deal the top card. If it was a six of clubs, that meant six pushups. That’s all—just six. If it was a two of hearts, two pushups.

It became a game to him. And sometimes, the amount of pushups was laughably small.

But you know what?

He would complete the deck.

If you can find ways to “gamify” your own procrastination habits, you’ll stand a much better chance if you view your work as too boring to get started.

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Procrastination Behavior #2: Taking On Too Much at the Outset

Why you should do the opposite: How do you build a pyramid? One brick at a time. But here’s the thing about that old cliché: one brick at a time is a laughably small way to get started. If you have tried “breaking up your habits into chunks” and still don’t have success, go even smaller. Ridiculously small. Laughably small.

Believe it or not, research says that we remember unfinished things better than finished things. If we listen to part of a song, that song is liable to get stuck in our head.

What’s going on here?

For starters, we usually trigger procrastination when we think of a task as large and monolithic.

Let’s be real. Would you rather write a 20-page paper right now, or watch TV?

A 20-page paper is far too much work to be anything near as rewarding as the simplicity of turning on the TV.

That’s why it’s important to get started with “laughably small” milestones.

To get started on that paper due at the end of the month, start with something very small: open the file, name it “20 page paper,” and that’s your task for the day.

Then tomorrow, title it.

The next day, a little bit more.

This lessens the overall fear and discomfort that a new task has for you. After all, it only takes a few seconds of your time to do something that laughably small.

But even better? You get momentum going.

Once you’ve done your laughably-small milestone, you have momentum working in your favor. You’ll have thought about that 20-page paper a little bit.

The gears in your head start working.

Before you know it, you’ve got more momentum. Like a song stuck in your head, it’s almost rewarding to keep going with your work.

And if not? You’ve just made the overall project that much less intimidating.

Procrastination Behavior #3: Emphasizing the Hardship of Work Rather than the Downsides of Procrastination

Why you should do the opposite: Your perception of the task at hand is what triggers procrastination. And if you associate work with feelings of pain, it’s no wonder you put it off. But what if you also emphasized the pain that happens when you don’t take at least some action now?

The way we experience pain and pleasure shapes everything we do.

Conflict avoidance? Seeking pleasure, avoiding pain.

Eating junk food? Seeking pleasure, avoiding pain.

Avoiding work? Seeking pleasure, avoiding pain.

Simple enough to understand. But how do people reverse this habit? How do you change the way you perceive a block of work that you don’t want to tackle?

The Harvard Business Review recommends that you sit down and list the costs of procrastination. Let’s take a look at how that might look:

  • Sit down and list the costs of procrastination. Write down anything that comes into your head. Start at the top of the piece of paper and ask: “What happens if I don’t do some of this work right now?” You should start filling up with ideas.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the future “you.” How will you feel if you arrive to work on the Friday that a major project is due, and you crammed for it the night before? Will you be confident as you give the presentation on it, or will you be struggling? How nervous will you feel if you don’t put long-term effort into that project?
  • Think about opportunity costs. Let’s say that you have the ambition to grow your business by working on the business (outside of your usual billable work) for an hour a day. Think about what your business will look like if you don’t do that. What will your website look like? What services will you never have explored? What limitations will you still have when you haven’t tackled your business in any way, other than to work in the business rather than work on the business?
  • Refer to our introduction. Recall that psychologists point out that procrastination isn’t just an ordinary “bad” behavior, but something that can lead to anxiety, depression, and all sorts of other issues that seem to have nothing to do with procrastination. You will realize that the costs of putting off a little bit of work are more substantial than you thought.

As you go, you’ll start to realize that the consequences of procrastination. You don’t have to take action on every task for every waking moment. But you should put aside some time each day to begin work on projects that feel overwhelming, even if it’s just a small amount.

Procrastination Behavior #4: Relying on Self-Control and Willpower

Why you should do the opposite: Self-control and willpower are like muscles—they require development. But they can’t lift every burden for you. After a hard day of work, who has the self-control to do some cleaning? Rather than rely on temporary willpower, which is fleeting, to get your work done, you should take a more realistic approach to your own procrastination psychology.

Terry Crews is a celebrity known for his comedic chops and his buff physique. When he went on Reddit to answer questions from users, people asked him how he was able to get over his procrastination habits and work out in the gym as much as he does.

Terry Crews’ response isn’t quite what you might think.

He didn’t use willpower. He didn’t use discipline.

Instead, he realized that he had to work on his internal wiring and the way he perceived the gym.

Said Crews:

It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot – go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day. Go to the gym, don’t even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out. Because it doesn’t matter what you do. You can have fun — but as long as you’re having fun, you continue to do it.

This is no illusory effect. It has a real impact on the way we perceive what it is we do every day.

By treating the gym as a “spa,” Terry Crews was able to associate it with feelings of health and wellness. Not dread.

Two hours a day of working out is too much for anyone to try out at the beginning. Even if you succeed, you may begin to associate it with feelings of soreness and hard work.

But if you can make the process much more pleasurable—much more rewarding—you’ll eliminate procrastination from the equation entirely. Who procrastinates on something they enjoy doing?

Think about all of the hobbies you enjoy doing, even if it’s something as simple as watching some television. Do you find it hard to get the willpower to turn on the TV?

Of course not. You associate it with feelings of reward. As a result, you find it easy.

The same is true with how you approach procrastination. Learn to associate your intended behaviors with feelings of reward, and procrastination won’t be an issue anymore.

Want to know how to curb these procrastination behaviors permanently? Here are our tips:

  • “Gamify” your work. If you can turn your work into a game, you avoid the “boredom” trigger that makes it so hard to get started. Who wouldn’t rather play a game than be bored with work they have to do? If you can find a way to make your work less boring, you’ll remove this trigger and make work a much more pleasant prospect.
  • Use “laughably small” milestones. Especially at the beginning. Since so many people use procrastination because they’re viewing their work as a huge, unaccomplishable chunk, you’ll want to change that perception. If you have enough time between now and a deadline, start with small, even microscopic milestones. Sooner or later, psychology teaches us, you’ll build momentum.
  • Write down the consequences of procrastinating. When you only perceive work as a pain and play as a reward, of course you’ll choose the latter. But what if you were to sit down and write the consequences of procrastinating? Psychology teaches us that these consequences are serious. The more you associate delaying work with its painful consequences, you’ll have a clearer picture of what’s really going on.
  • Associate work with reward. Too many of us view work as a punishment. As a result, work becomes a difficult prospect. What are the ways you can associate work with reward? Terry Crews notes that he treats the gym like a spa, associating being in a gym with pleasure. After that, going for an exhilarating workout is much more natural.
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