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How I (try to) stop procrastinating

7 min read

I've been procrastinating on my studies recently, thanks to the coronavirus situation. Uncertainties about medical school and exams made my personal productivity go down. I wake up with plans on my to-do-lists, but I end up in bed, watching Netflix.

I wasn't doing anything, but I was more tired than ever. Procrastination has put such a huge toll on my mental energy. I'm more tired procrastinating than taking action. By not taking action, I lack the dopamine hits from taking action, and I had a poor mood most of the time.

I decided to do some research on procrastination. I'll talk about why we procrastinate, why beating procrastination is important when learning, and ways to beat procrastination.

Why do we procrastinate?

Humans have been experiencing procrastination for a while now. Greek philosophers have a coined a term for it; akrasia. Akrasia is the phenomenon when you do something even when you know it's bad for you.

These days, we call akrasia procrastination and lack of self-control. Akrasia is why you fail to take action on your goals, or in my case, get some studying done.

It's easy to blame ourselves and say we procrastinate because we're lazy. We procrastinate because of how our brains were wired. Akrasia finds its root in a phenomenon called time inconsistency. Time inconsistency refers to your brain preferring immediate rewards compared to future rewards.

You have two selves: the Present Self and the Future Self. When you set New Year Resolutions like doing well for your exams or losing weight, you are making plans for your future self. It is easy for you to reason for planning actions with long-term benefits since your Future Self loves long-term rewards.

Your present self controls your day to day decisions. Your present self is selfish and does not care about your Future Self. According to researchers, the present self prefers instant gratification to long-term rewards. This is why you feel motivated every year to make some change in your life, but find yourself falling into your old habits after a few weeks. Why work out (long-term reward) when you can play games (instant reward) instead?

This is why people who are able to delay gratification are more likely to succeed in life.

By knowing how to defeat instant gratification, you can bring yourself closer to your goals.

Why Avoiding Procrastination is Important for Learning

Avoiding procrastination when learning is important. Building solid chunks in long-term memory takes time. If you procrastinate, you end up cramming. Cramming doesn't build solid connections. Spacing out your learning does. By being consistent throughout your studies, you'll learn better.

Some of your peers might say; "I'm fine with procrastinating, I perform better under pressure. I cram so I perform better." Yet, research has shown feeling like you perform better is an illusion.

This study tracked the performance, stress, and health of college students throughout the semester. What they found was while procrastinators showed lower levels of stress at the start of the semester, they were more stressed at the end of the semester. They also got lower grades. When it comes to studying, more often than not, you'll choke when you are under pressure, not thrive.

How to take action now and beat procrastination

1. Use commitment devices to automate your future actions.

A commitment device is a decision you make at the present moment to control your actions in the future. Using commitment devices can ensure you stick to good habits and prevent you from falling into bad ones. You need to design your commitment devices so action is automatic.

Some examples:  

  • If you want to stop browsing the Internet when you should be working, you can use website blockers such as Freedom and ColdTurkey.
  • If you want to reduce your time spent on your phone, delete social media apps and games.
  • If you want to go to the gym more often, lay out your clothes every night

2. Reduce the friction to starting.

Doing work is hard and painful. But, the guilt of procrastination causes more pain than doing the work.

If procrastinating is more painful than taking action, why do we procrastinate? It's because starting work is hard. The resistance to taking action is mostly the pain of starting.

According to Newton's First Law of Motion, an object at rest stays at rest, while an object in motion stays in motion. Whenever we're at rest, we find it difficult to get in "motion". This is what I call action inertia.

When we are in motion, we tend to stay in motion. Once we've gotten over the pain of starting the work, we don't feel resistant to doing the work. While work, we might even get in flow and find pleasure in your work.

To make starting painless, we need to reduce the size of the action. Make the action so small you can't say no.

We can reduce the size of action by using the 3-minute rule, the Starter Step technique, and by downsizing the action.

  • The 3-minute rule is simple: If you want to do something, do it for 3 minutes, then tell yourself you will stop after 3 minutes. For example, when I wake up, I tell myself I'll only study for 3 minutes. I can stop after 3 minutes, but more often than not, I will continue studying.
  • If you want to do something, do the first step. This is called the Starter Step technique. If you want to go to the gym, put on your workout shoes. If you want to study, open your notes.
  • You can also make the action small. If you plan to read a chapter, tell yourself you'll read one sentence. The action must be small enough so you don't need motivation to do it.

Stop procrastinating by making showing up a habit.

3. Use implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions is a technique where you state your intention to implement a particular behavior at a specific time and place in the future.

The format of implementations intentions is simple:

“I will write for 30 minutes [ACTION] on 1 December 2020 [DATE] in the library [PLACE] at 9.00pm [TIME].

Implementation intentions can increase the chances of following through with your plans.

A flu shot study was done, where researchers observed a group of 3272 employees. The employees who wrote down the specific date and time they planned to get their flu shot were more likely to go for the shot.

Implementation intentions can make you 2 to 3 times more likely to act in the future.

A research done in 2001 studied how to make people stick with exercising. Subjects were divided into three groups.

  • The first group was the control group, where they were asked to track how often they exercised.
  • The second group was the 'motivation' group. They were asked to track their workouts and to read up on the benefits of exercise to motivate them.
  • The third group received had to read the motivating materials as well but were asked to create a plan for when and where they would exercise. They were asked to complete this sentence "During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE]."

The results were surprising.

Only 35 to 38 per cent of people in the first and second group exercised at least once per week. Motivation does not impact their behavior. What's surprising is 91 per cent of the third group exercised at least once per week, which is more than double the normal rate.

By writing down how they intend to exercise, they were more likely to do the behavior. Being clear on how they intend to do something pushed them to action, but motivation did not. Motivation can't bridge the gap between thought to action, but knowing how to implement your actions can.

Whenever we set out to do something, we never get clear on how to do it. We tell ourselves "I'm going to study more" or "I'm going to eat healthier", but we never ask what actions we will take, where we do it and when we will do it. We hope we'll stick to it by being motivated throughout the year. Motivation is a feeling, it is unreliable and fleeting. Using implementation intentions, we get clear about how we will do something and turns it into a concrete, achievable plan of action.

4. Make procrastination painful.

We don't feel pain if we don't act on our long-term goals, as the pain is too far into the future. For example, if you skip your workout tomorrow, you won't feel like your health has gotten worse. Your bad decisions haunt you when magnified by time. Skip one workout, and nothing happens. Skip workouts for 10 years, and you might be looking at obesity and heart disease.

Since the consequences are far away, you don't feel compelled to act. To circumvent this, make the consequences of not taking action more immediate. Some personal examples of making consequences more immediate

  • Workout with a gym partner. If you don't show up, you'll let the other person down.
  • You can use a 'gym partner' when it comes to studying too. Services such as FocusMate allows you to book virtual co-working sessions with other people. If you don't show up, you'll make your 'work partner' unproductive
  • Put money on the line. I would tell someone I want to write every day for 30 minutes, and if I don't they get to claim 500 dollars from me. The pain of not taking action will become more immediate.
  • You can also do something similar with a service like Beeminder or Stickk. If you don't do what you set out to do, they'll charge your credit card.

5. Make taking action rewarding.

You can avoid procrastination by making the rewards from long-term goals more immediate. In other words, you are making taking action fun. You can do this with a technique called temptation bundling.

Temptation bundling is when you stack a behavior with long-term rewards with behavior with immediate rewards. The technique is simple:

Only do [Thing You Love] while doing [Thing You Procrastinate On].

For example, I like to drink coffee, so I make it a rule to only drink coffee when I sit down and get some studying done.

Other personal examples:

  • Only listen to podcasts when going for a run
  • Only listen to anime music when writing articles

Beat Procrastination One Step at a Time

It's important to beat procrastination if we want to learn better. By not procrastinating on our studies, we won't feel the last-minute frenzy of your final exams. In my case, avoiding procrastination allows me to become a better doctor, as my learning is well consolidated. We should strive to beat procrastination to live happier and more productive lives.

While akrasia is acting against our better judgment, enkrateia means is being in power over your actions. Living a life of enkrateia is being able to control our actions instead of being helpless and procrastinating. You can like a life of enkrateia instead of akrasia by using commitment devices, reducing the friction to start, using implementation intentions, making the consequences more immediate, and making the action rewarding.

ProductivityEffective Learning


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