Two steps to eliminate uncertainty and stop procrastinating

Procrastination is a neurosis caused by our natural aversion to uncertainty. When a task, or even the outcome of a task is uncertain, we tend to try avoid it by any means necessary. It is my view that we cannot train ourselves out of this natural tendency, but we can employ some techniques to circumvent the problem.

Step #1 — Breaking down goals into actions

A goal such as “Learn Japanese” can be daunting because of how vague it is. If you saw that written on your To-do list for the day, it would probably cause quite a bit of anxiety, as you have no idea where to begin. In order to rectify this, it is important that we make a plan, broken down into clear actionable steps. Now, you might check your To-do list to see “Learn the first 30 words from [source]”, which is a lot more appealing.

Step#2 — Making the outcomes of these actions certain

At this point, another type of uncertainty creeps in; that of outcome. If you found a startup, it could either make you $1 million dollars or 0$, which is a difficult thing to wrap your head around. To eliminate uncertainty of this kind, we can turn to basic mathematics. There is a simple principle in Mathematics called “Expected value” which is the probability-weighted average of all possible values. A simple example would be if you are given a 60% chance of winning $1, that chance is worth 60c. If we apply this to the startup example above (let us assume it has a 50% chance of succeeding for simplicity), we can tell ourselves that rather than the startup either being worth $1 million or 0$, it is worth $500,000. As humans, we can’t deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether what we are doing is worth a lot, or nothing at all, so it makes things much easier to give a task an exact value. Furthermore, this line of thinking helps deal with failure, since you know that over the long term, your results will average out to the expected value you calculated in the beginning.