Stop Procrastinating by Implementing a Cue-Action-Reward Sequence

We had to create a coaching curriculum for our business, so we applied habit science and finally completed this massive project.

Matt Russell
Oct 16 · 6 min read
Image of a screen with a take action button.
Image of a screen with a take action button.
Photo Credit: Adobe Photostock

You could say my wife and I are busy people. We have three young kids, we homeschool, we work full-time, and within the margins of what we have left, we are founding our Enneagram coaching business.

Needless to say, we don’t have a lot of downtime. It feels like every minute of every day is full, yet, the ironic part is we still have time to procrastinate.

I have found that whether you are an incredibly busy or incredibly not, you can still struggle with procrastination.

This is because procrastination is not a matter of being lazy (as some would assume). It’s a matter of priorities.

Procrastination is the act of putting off something that matters to you in the long run for the sake of doing something else now. It is a decision to spend your limited time and energy on things that are inconsistent with your goals and priorities.

This may be spending time doing something mindless (such as watching Netflix or browsing social media), or it may be doing something more substantive (such as staying late at work or immersing yourself in a project). In either case, the activity does not move you closer to what matters to you.

How to Make a Change

After reading Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” I became intrigued by the psychology of habit formation. The author presents a body of medical research that demonstrates how all habits form.

They begin with a ‘cue’ and end with a ‘reward.’

A graphic which shows a three step process: 1.) Cue, 2.) Action, 3.) Response.
A graphic which shows a three step process: 1.) Cue, 2.) Action, 3.) Response.
Graphic by the author Matt Russell.

Although this sounds simple, it is an extremely practical approach that can help you stop procrastinating in specific areas of your life. I say specific areas because in my experience it only works if you apply it to one thing at a time.

Even with my busy schedule, I was able to use this technique to reprioritize areas where I spend my time and energy. This enabled me to stop procrastinating and finally take action on the things that matter to me. Here is how it worked.

What This Looks Like in Practice

My wife and I had been procrastinating on one item that literally our whole business hinged on. If we did this one thing well, then we would have a business; likewise, if we didn’t do this well, we would be out of business.

This item was the development of our coaching curriculum.

As you can imagine, we had been putting this off because we never felt we had enough time or energy left at the end of the day to give our best to it. We knew creating a curriculum from the ground up was a very comprehensive task that required significant attention.

This was a problem because if there was no curriculum, there was no business. Our procrastination on this one thing was stalling the progress of our entire business. Something needed to change.

Instead of using the “brute force” method of sheer human will to fight procrastination (which wasn’t working), we decided to put what I had learned to work and create the cue-action-reward process for ourselves.

The Cue

We printed out all of our synthesized research and taped it to the wall of our bedroom. This was perfectly placed so that we had to walk by it every morning and every night.

Printed out pages taped to wall
Printed out pages taped to wall
Image by the author Matt Russell

We didn’t start working on our curriculum immediately (the task still felt daunting), but this one simple act turned out to be a game-changer.

Every time we walked by the pages taped to our wall it sparked conversation. My wife and I would talk about our dreams for the business and how the finished curriculum was going to be transformational for so many people.

It kept it fresh in our minds and was actually very motivating to look at. In a few weeks, we reached a pivotal moment. We realized we were never going to be able to accomplish this task within the margins of our day (we simply didn’t have enough mental energy). We needed to find a different way.

The Action

That is when we decided to use our vacation time to build the curriculum. It was a hard trade. Instead of soaking up sun on the beach or enjoying a cabin in the woods, we spent over a week working morning to night solely on the curriculum.

It was quite an undertaking, but the end result was nothing short of amazing. Just look at how great it turned out.

Close-up of print-out about enneagram taped to wall
Close-up of print-out about enneagram taped to wall
Image by the author Matt Russell

The Reward

We gave each other high fives and had mini-celebrations as we taped each new document to the wall. It was like a never-ending pep rally. We saw each new page as a step closer to our goals.

My wife and I dreamed together about the future of the business and the lives that would be transformed by it. It was an exhilarating feeling knowing our goals were becoming more and more of a reality. We had a lot of fun!

Three Steps to Stop Procrastinating

Create a visual cue that you interact with daily. This reminds you of the action you want to take. This can be something as simple as writing a note on an index card and taping it in your mirror so you see it every day. Or, it could be something as clever as hiding your car keys the night before so you have to ride your bicycle to work (losing some extra pounds and saving the environment in the process).

Take action in response to your visual cue. You will most likely not be able to take action every time you see your cue, but the more times you see it the more likely you are to take action.

Don’t think of this as a “pass/fail” situation; it is not a zero-sum game. Rather, think of this more like a “bank account of priorities” and every time you take action you are making an investment in the things that matter to you.

Every time you take action give yourself a reward. This is really important. When you give yourself a reward you are reinforcing to your brain that your actions helped satisfy a want or need. Try to keep these rewards both simple and meaningful so they can be repeated often. This is using your psychology to your advantage. It is creating a habit loop that leads to lasting change instead of just a temporary change.

Conclusion

I am convinced that, had we not given ourselves a ‘cue,’ we would still be trying to find time within our day to build the curriculum. We would be kicking the can down the road — never feeling like we had enough time or energy to begin — and who knows, maybe we would have eventually given up.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Rather, through the simple technique of introducing a ‘cue,’ we were able to overcome procrastination and move closer to our goals. I hope this approach can help you overcome procrastination in your life too as you move you closer to your goals and priorities.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Matt Russell

Written by

Life Coach | M.A. Johns Hopkins | Enneagram | Personality Typing | 16+ years studying/practicing personal growth | Co-Fdr. PWM Coaching → https://bit.ly/37cqyIH

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Matt Russell

Written by

Life Coach | M.A. Johns Hopkins | Enneagram | Personality Typing | 16+ years studying/practicing personal growth | Co-Fdr. PWM Coaching → https://bit.ly/37cqyIH

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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