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How to Beat Procrastination

30 July 2016

From The Harvard Business Review:

Procrastination comes in many disguises. We might resolve to tackle a task, but find endless reasons to defer it. We might prioritize things we can readily tick off our to-do list—answering emails, say—while leaving the big, complex stuff untouched for another day. We can look and feel busy, while artfully avoiding the tasks that really matter. And when we look at those rolling, long-untouched items at the bottom of our to-do list, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed in ourselves.

The problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate. In general, we all tend to struggle with tasks that promise future upside in return for efforts we take now. That’s because it’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things, and the immediate hassle is very tangible compared with those unknowable, uncertain future benefits. So the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds—an example of something that behavioral scientists call present bias.

. . . .

Visualize how great it will be to get it done. Researchers have discovered that people are more likely to save for their future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves. Why? Because it makes their future self feel more real—making the future benefits of saving also feel more weighty. When we apply a lo-fi version of this technique to any task we’ve been avoiding, by taking a moment to paint ourselves a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done, it can sometimes be just enough to get us unstuck. So if there’s a call you’re avoiding or an email you’re putting off, give your brain a helping hand by imagining the virtuous sense of satisfaction you’ll have once it’s done—and perhaps also the look of relief on someone’s face as they get from you what they needed.

. . . .

Identify the first step. Sometimes we’re just daunted by the task we’re avoiding. We might have “learn French” on our to-do list, but who can slot that into the average afternoon? The trick here is to break down big, amorphous tasks into baby steps that don’t feel as effortful. Even better: identify the verysmallest first step, something that’s so easy that even your present-biased brain can see that the benefits outweigh the costs of effort. So instead of “learn French” you might decide to “email Nicole to ask advice on learning French.” Achieve that small goal, and you’ll feel more motivated to take the next small step than if you’d continued to beat yourself up about your lack of language skills.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

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7 Comments to “How to Beat Procrastination”

  1. “Identify the first step.”

    Step 1: Do not read The Passive Voice.

    • I got a good laugh from that one. It’s true, but I don’t see myself giving up TPV regardless. The full article also says you can try rewarding yourself for taking first steps. Perhaps reading TPV could be a well-deserved reward for getting something done. That’s something I could live with!

  2. For me step one is disconnecting the internet so I can’t check my mail (or TPV) until I’m ‘done for now’.

  3. I’m going to read this article tomorrow.

    Dan

  4. I beat anorexia. Now I have to beat procrastination too?!

  5. As someone who regularly reads articles about procrastination as a way to procrastinate, I’d just like to say I really wish someone had something new to say on this topic!

  6. “Attention: The Procrastinators Anonymous meeting has been postponed until the secretary can get around to finding a location for the meeting.” (sign seen in the graduate Student workroom at [Redacted] State University)

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