Are you predictably irrational? How many times do you think you’ve told yourself, “I need to stop procrastinating” this year? Personally, I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve said that to myself this month, let alone all year! It’s easy to put things off until the last minute; deadlines can seem so far away, other matters more pressing, and life always seems to get in the way. Before we know it, the deadline is tomorrow and we haven’t even started whatever we needed to do. Or worse, there is no deadline, and the project never gets done at all.
Being unable to overcome procrastination can feel like a personal failure. Everyone else seems to have their lives together while you’re chest-deep in unfinished projects wondering where you went wrong in life. You may have wondered how other people do it, or what you’re doing wrong.
If this sounds like you, I have good news: It’s not just you. Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational covers many sides of human behavior, procrastination among them, but he draws the same conclusions for all of them; that people are not as rational as they think they are, but they act irrationally with alarming consistency. Even when it’s in our best interest to finish things early, we almost never do.
Why do we procrastinate?
We are weak to temptation.
In the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a behavioral experiment on children now known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Children were given a choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait fifteen minutes and receive two marshmallows as a reward. While very few children ate the first marshmallow as soon as they could, only a third successfully waited out the fifteen minutes in the original study.
This experiment was, among other things, a lesson in the power of instant versus delayed gratification. Even as adults, we never outgrow the allure of instant rewards. A donut right now is always going to seem better than the possibility of a smaller waistline years down the road.
So, instead of doing things that are good for us eventually, like finishing assignments early, we put them off in favor of more immediately satisfying things, like checking our email, which tends to feel more productive than it actually is.
False productivity keeps us distracted.
In fact, our obsessive checking of emails or social media notifications is another layer to our procrastination habit. The possibility of getting a positive or useful message or alert fuels us to sift through hundreds of spam or nonsense items for what can quickly add up to hours a day.
According to behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, when people receive rewards for actions randomly rather than at fixed intervals, they’re more likely to perform the action for longer periods of time. Gambling is an excellent example of this; no matter how astronomical the odds, the hope of winning will suck people in every time.
How do we stop procrastinating?
Admit that you do it.
Like anything else, the first step to solving your procrastination problem is admitting you have one. Simply knowing that you tend to procrastinate gives you leverage above people who don’t know they procrastinate (or don’t care).
Have rigid deadlines and accountability.
While teaching at MIT, Ariely once performed an experiment on his students by assigning them three papers with different deadlines. In one class, the papers had no deadline and were simply turned in at the end of the semester. In another, he assigned strict deadlines that spaced the papers out evenly across the twelve weeks. Finally, in his third class, he let students choose their own due dates in the first week, but they couldn’t change them after and submitting papers late resulted in penalties.
At the end of the semester, he found that the students who had no due dates for their papers did the worst of the three classes, and the class with the rigid deadlines did the best, while the third class were somewhere in the middle.
The success of the class with assigned deadlines comes in two parts: The deadline itself and the authority that assigned it. It’s easy to break a promise to ourselves, but we’ll do anything to avoid disappointing other people, especially our superiors.
While recovering from Hepatitis C, Ariely suffered side effects from his medication that made him nauseous and sick. To ensure he took his medicine regularly, even though it was unpleasant, he would watch a movie once he took it to give him something to look forward to. Linking the negative side-effects of his medication with an activity he loved helped lessen the dread of having to do what he knew would make him miserable.
The same principle is applicable anywhere; forming an association between something you dread and something you love can make the part you dread seem less awful, which will make you more likely to stick with it.